Must the Daily Show --and comedy in general Ð say farewell to irony?

Stewart Bailey, the 35-year-old supervising editor of the Comedy Central channel sendup The Daily Show, knew that his world had changed as soon as he learned that the first plane had slammed into the first World Trade Center tower -- only blocks from the Greenwich Village apartment he shares with his wife Jen, a Vogue editor. Even before he got the word from the star of the cutting-edge show, Jon Stewart, that all production would cease for the time being -- until, at least, the next week -- Bailey knew that he had likely heard the death knell of an ironically distanced view of the world which had held sway in his end of the media since the advent of David Letterman. “We’ll meet on Monday and take stock, but Jon made it clear that we’ll have to seriously evaluate what it is that we can do -- and ought to do -- going forward.” A show whose bread and butter was tongue-in-cheek scorn of all convention and established authority and mockery of ongoing news events and the way they were covered in the media would now have no appropriate targets. “We know we can’t say anything critical about the president or anybody in government. We never talked about Columbine or JFK Jr., and this beats all of them by an incomparable margin. We’ve always made fun of the pomposity or pretentiousness of the news business, but how can you criticize anybody for covering this? Or the way they’re covering this? We might have a show on Tuesday, but we just don’t know what kind of a show we can do.” Noting that CNN had broadcast an erroneous early report Tuesday that American bombs were falling in Afghanistan in retaliation for the New York and Pentagon disasters, Bailey said, “The bombs-on- Afghanistan thing, normally we could play with something like that, but I think we’d be thrown off the air if we tried something that was in such bad taste. And we should be. We’re owned, ultimately, by Time-Warner, but we’ve always had virtual self-governance. No limits. I think if we went too far, we might find out we aren’t as autonomous as we think we are. "Reality has always been the subject of satire for us. Now the nature of reality has changed. Even Howard Stern is doing straight news!” As Bailey noted, “A lot of our jokes and other people’s jokes were based on the fact that people don’t really care about politics -Ñ that nobody really cared about Bush or Gore, for example. Now people have to care." The pervading “sense of irony” that may have overnight achieved its obsolescence derived from cutup Letterman, Bailey said. “What he was saying was that ‘all of this is phony, all of this is fake.' Things were pretend-important, self-important, not really important. They didn’t really matter. Now things do matter. "Early in the last century we had two world wars and a depression. Then we had a long period in which things didn’t seem as important. Already, that’s gone. Things are significant again, things are important. We’re going into a long, deadly serious period. To pretend that things don’t matter any more or to laugh at people who are serious won’t fly any more ... .” One of Bailey’s duties is to supervise the preparation of The Daily Show‘s performance tapes that were entered in competition for the prestigious Peabody Award, won by the show this year. The show was up for further honors at the Emmy Awards, which were scheduled for Sunday and have now been postponed indefinitely. "Comedy will have to adapt to all that has happened. It won’t be the same again,” Bailey said. Even as Bailey was commenting on Thursday about what would or wouldn’t “fly any more,” F-14s had been soaring conspicuously over his head and over the whole of Manhattan all day. "This used to be the most secure place in the world,” he said. “Now we have surveillance aircraft full-time.” Bailey observed one practical way in which the two twin towers of the World Trade Center will be missed: “When some of us would be out at night walking in the Village we might wander into some corner of a strange neighborhood and lose our way. We could always get our bearings by looking at the Empire State Building for due north and at the towers for due south. Now we can’t do that.” When Bailey first heard of the ongoing tragedy Tuesday, he knew he could climb to the roof of his building and see it firsthand, and many people did. But he couldn’t. “I’ve always had trouble dealing with that kind of pain. I don’t have the ability to deal with real tragedy,” he said. So he watched on TV and apprised himself of things via a weird form of stereophonic imagery. On screen terrible things were happening, while he heard the real, live moans and groans of people reacting outside his very window. “It was so hard to deal with. I was physically paralyzed. The same thing happened a month ago when I was in a theater and somebody collapsed. I knew I should go get help or try to provide it, but I couldn’t move.” Ultimately, Bailey was able to galvanize himself. “Instinctively, before I heard anything about it, I knew I wanted to give blood. I felt so helpless." Bailey spent the next several hours Tuesday being shuttled from one place to another and waiting, just waiting, to do something helpful. His itinerary started at St. Vincent’s hospital in the Village, where he joined the masses of victims and people like himself, New Yorkers of all stripes conscripted into the common human support service, people bearing signs with their blood types on them. Next stop was the New York Blood Center, up near Lincoln Center, where, some 10 hours after he had volunteered himself, he was ultimately able to get accepted as a Red Cross auxiliary, to give such aid as he was allowed to. He busied himself at first bringing food and juice to survivors and people waiting in line either for help or to give help. Because he had once provided some backup help for his mother, a psychiatric head nurse back home in Topeka, Kansas, Bailey is slated to be a Red Cross adjunct for mental-health services related to the anguish of the catastrophe and its aftermath. In such a way have the talents of a young professional in the American comedic industry been adapted. So it was, in one form or another, this week. (For the record, Stewart Bailey is my sister’s son and my oldest nephew. When I was in New Hampshire early in 2000 covering the presidential primary there, he and the Daily Show crew played host to me for a memorable day spent shadowing the candidates. --JB)


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