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An End To Irony?

A Daily Show principal believes that last week's horrors will change the nature of comedy.



Stewart Bailey, the 35-year-old supervising editor of the Comedy Central 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," Bailey said, "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 convention and established authority and mockery of news events and the way they were covered in the media would now have no appropriate targets, said Bailey, who happens to bemy nephew and who, with his Daily Show crew, played host to me for a memorable day of shadowing (and ruthlessly spoofing) the presidential candidates during last year's New Hampshire primary.

"We know we can't say anything critical about the president or anybody in government," Bailey said. "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 report early 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 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 -- 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 Letterman, Bailey says. "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 anymore."

One of Bailey's duties was 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 Tuesday, the fateful day itself, 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 anymore," 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 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 first hand, and many people did. But he couldn't. "I've always had trouble dealing with that kind of pain," he said. "I don't have the ability to deal with real tragedy."

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."

Ultimately, Bailey was able to galvanize himself and sought an opportunity to give blood. He volunteered at St. Vincent's Hospital, near the disaster site, and after 10 hours of waiting, found himself shuttled to the New York Blood Center, near Lincoln Center, where he became a blood donor and wasaccepted as a Red Cross auxiliary, spending the next few days fetching juice and food supplies for rescue workers.

Because he had once provided some backup help for his mother, a psychiatric head nurse back home in Topeka, Kansas, Bailey is also slated to be a Red Cross adjunct for emergency mental-health services.

In such a way have the talents of a professional American funnyman been adapted to meet the demands of a new time -- one that could last a while.

Update: The foregoing was written last week, as the first shockwaves from the disasters of September 11th were being felt by New Yorkers and the rest of the nation.

Though much of that shock has now been absorbed, it is clear that the facts of life -- and the predominant attitudes toward them -- will never be the same.Separate statements by both Bailey and Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox indicated as much.

Said Fox: "When you're talking about a show that is a news parody and the news is consumed with this tragedy, what's funny about what's unfolding here? Nothing. As someone at the show said succinctly, irony is dead for the moment."

Bailey, who, on the strength of what he said last week might have been that somebody, this week after a meeting of The Daily Show principals on Monday said, "We're going to bring the show back next week, but it's going to be a different show." Minus the irony and totally restructured. "We're going to be holding meetings all week to see what we can come up with."

Daily Show host Jon Stewart meanwhile will spend much of his time this week attending funerals or rites of commemoration for people of his acquaintance who are dead or missing as a result of last Tuesday's events.

Though Stewart was known both privately and publicly as a severe critic of the Bush administration, Bailey said "that partisanship is all gone now and will stay gone."

Other comics returning to the airwaves this week did so with the same solemn mien. David Letterman resumed his late-night show Monday with CBS newsman Dan Rather as a principal guest. Rather cried as he discussed the tragedy.

Another funnyman, TV personality Regis Philbin, engaged in mild badinage with Letterman but the joke level was purposely kept very minimal.

That was even more the case with former Daily Show host Craig Kilborn, whose late-night show followed Letterman's and who told his viewers that it would take "weeks" before the show could "ease back" into comedy.

The ABC show Politically Incorrect resumed Monday with an empty chair in honor of frequent guest Barbara Olson, one of those killed in the hijacked jet which rammed the Pentagon.

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