Jon Stewart capped a side-splitting, teasingly testy interview with NBC anchor Brian Williams Tuesday night with a zinger: "You've got to lie. I've just got to tell the truth."
Before we slap a merit badge on Stewart, keep in mind that his wildly entertaining program "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" relies on many of the same tricks and self-created hoopla that goes into sitcoms -- a strategy that was easy to see when it taped the first of four shows it's producing this week in the Twin Cities, and taping each evening at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
A few hours before Tuesday's first show, correspondent Samantha Bee was conducting an interview with Stacey Fenton, a visitor from a Seattle suburb who was sporting a T-shirt with blinking lights. During one question, Bee pretended to be under the hypnotic spell of the blinkers, went into a daze and then wandered smack dab into one of the cameras operated by a member of her six-person crew.
Then she did it again. And again. As the "spontaneous" act went into Take 3, Fenton started to get irritated.
"I told them that they owed me a pack of cigarettes," she said afterward. "I just wanted it to be over so I could go outside for a smoke."
Approaching Bee for a comment was a major no-no. While the program prides itself on ambush interviews and insistent interrogators, its talent was instructed not to talk to the press this week.
At the actual taping, the time dedicated to revving up the audience seemed as long as the Jerry Lewis telethon.
Warm-up comic Paul Mecurio got in some great jokes, but his main responsibility was leading a kind of seminar that could have been titled "Clapping and Laughing for Dummies," instructing the audience of around 300 how to chant the name "Jon" and say "ha" with the proper enthusiasm.
The actual program featured some great bits, including one that compared the celebrity-starved Xcel Center on Monday to the Superdome in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The only problem: The correspondents have limited access to the convention center, so they're relying almost solely on footage from the Roy Wilkins Auditorium -- press central -- and chatter on the sidewalk.
For those who don't care that a fake-news program uses a few fake moves of its own, the show had to be seen as a hit with the primarily liberal, primarily young crowd eating up digs at Karl Rove, Cindy McCain's "neck levee suit" and last week's on-air spat between Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.
There wasn't a lot of localized humor. These are, after all, visitors who just came in from a week in Denver. Before the taping, an audience member asked Stewart if he had tasted a Juicy Lucy.
"I can't imagine being that slutty," Stewart said.
When it was explained to him that the local burger stands out by putting the cheese inside the meat patty, Stewart asked: "Is it like Freshen Up gum?"
One local line did stand out -- and it didn't come from anyone with the show. Before taping, Mercurio asked an audience member what he did for a living.
"I'm a bus driver for the Metro Transit."
The place erupted in applause.
Nothing better than good, clean, honest work.
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