After a week's hiatus, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart reopened last night in new digs, a few blocks west of its former location in midtown Manhattan. To judge by Stephen Colbert's tour of the old Daily Show headquarters, which appears as an extra on the new Indecision 2004 DVD, the backstage staff was clearly in need of some spruced-up quarters in which to write and produce the show. But was I the only viewer disturbed by the more-than-cosmetic changes to the look of the studio itself? What is The Daily Show trying to say with its new set?
We'll start with the desk. On the old set, Jon Stewart's desk, a massive curved affair with a thick blue plate-glass surface, sat to the right of his guests' long gray sofa, in the time-honored feng shui of the late-night talk show. Like Carson, Letterman, Leno, and Craig Ferguson (who, in answer to a few reader queries, I am definitely going to give another chance soon), Stewart sent a clear message by arranging his onstage furniture in this odd but by now familiar mixture of office and living room. The host's desk telegraphs a sense of security and professionalism: I am at my job, it says, acting in my official capacity. You can trust me. The guests' couch, on the other hand, is all about informality and coziness: Make yourself at home, it says, never mind the audience and those silly cameras. When the interview portion of the show began, Stewart used to stand up and walk over to the edge of the couch to greet his guest with a handshake (always a fun chance to compare the guest's stature with that of the wee Stewart), then usher him or her back to the sofa for a chat.
The advantages of the couch format are multifold. Guests can not only be seen from head to foot, giving us a sense of their physical presence, their posture, and even their choice of shoes; they can also use the space however they want. They're free to hump the couch, as Al Green did in a Daily Show interview earlier this year, or jump up on it and make asses of themselves, like Tom Cruise on Oprah last May.
On the new Daily Show set, both desk and couch have been replaced by a large bean-shaped conference table in a drab grayish white, behind which both Stewart and his guest sit upright in rolling chairs. This setup gives the interview segment of the show a far more formal feel than before, like a Sunday morning public-affairs show or, worse yet, PBS's Charlie Rose, which I've always found to be the most visually (and often verbally) boring talk show on TV. As Stewart and the guest converse, we see them both only from the waist up, hands folded demurely on the table with their mugs and books between them. Last night's guest, the author of a new book on religion and the First Amendment, was strait-laced enough that this stiffer format didn't seem to cramp her style, but it's easy to foresee the dampening effect the conference table might have on some of Stewart's more antic guests, like Will Ferrell (who cracked Stewart up a few weeks ago in a kind of meta-interview in which he unzipped his fly before pretending to nap on the sofa). The new conference table makes the Daily Show set a more serious place, closer to the world of news than entertainment; granted, the balance between the two is difficult to strike in a satire, but if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Then there's the issue of the background screen. In the era before the move, Stewart sat in front of a large graphic of a world map. At the top of the show, large capital letters reading "The Daily Show" would scroll by behind his head, but they were transparent, superimposed on an aerial view of Manhattan's skyline that gave a feeling of openness to the space behind his desk. Now, the only graphic visible behind Stewart for the full half-hour is a continuous scroll-by of the words "The Daily Show" in solid cobalt blue. As if this constant movement of letters weren't distracting enough, the words "The Daily Show" also continuously radiate forward from the back of the screen in smaller white caps, originating from directly behind Stewart's head. I don't have the graphic-design vocabulary to describe this accurately, but let's just say that you can no longer watch The Daily Show without struggling to block out two constant, and competing, written reminders that you are, indeed, watching The Daily Show. On its own, the continuous blue scroll might have been forgivable, though it does give the studio a more claustrophobic feel than before. But those radiating white caps are just maddening. It's as if Stewart's head is actually producing the letters, like promotional dandruff. Call me obsessive (though I like to think of it as detail-oriented), but the Daily Show is the only unmissable staple in my daily television diet, and looking at those letters every night may seriously compromise my quality of life.
According to New York real estate gossip, Stewart is on the brink of a big move in his personal life as well; he's ditching his place in the West Village for a vast loft in Tribeca (or maybe keeping both, since after purchasing the new pad, he pulled his Village apartment, listed at $3.995 million, off the market.) Whichever of these two no-doubt-lovely abodes he chooses to dwell in, Stewart ought to consider finding a new interior decorator. It's hard to make breakfast conversation with your wife at a large gray conference table, especially when there are white letters radiating out of your head.