Don’t correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a single bandage dress on The Daily Show, and the show ran through the entirety of the 2000s. What other late-night show can say it never saw Herve Leger as a repeat guest in effigy? What is it about The Daily Show that prompts its celebrity guests to dress down when they’d otherwise sex it up a little?
At its heart, it’s a show about how the news does its business, but The Daily Show has played the celebrity-casting-couch-after-hours game, too, back when it was just finding its political footing in the early years of the Bush administration. As the show gained cred, rep, glitz, and other monosyllabic industry terms meaning “ratings,” it also got to have on with more frequency the people it wanted—political movers and media shakers—and not (as in the case of 2002) the entire available cast of an Austin Powers movie spread throughout the week’s programming. But back in those early, fumbling, scriptless interviews, there was a candor, a freshness, and a corresponding beauty aesthetic that guests—especially women—seemed to cannily and handily channel. They dressed with the kind of abandon you feel when you’re dancing like no one’s watching—maybe because no one was actually watching.
Consider Cameron Diaz promoting Gangs of New York. Her full face of makeup suggests she’s just come from the studio, but her hasty half-ponybun says she drove herself here, windows down, music loud. She’s wearing a nebulously cowl-necked black sweater and green army pants with a little stomach flashing on the walk to the couch (yes, back when that horrid quasi-purple couch was buttressed against Jon’s desk in a feng shui approximation of a tightly arranged dorm room). Sartorially, conversationally, stylistically, and grammatically, it’s clear that Jay Leno’s showroom this is not.
Consider even Kate Bosworth for Beyond the Sea. It’s a tense, terse interview and doesn’t flow as well the next day’s guest (that’s Kevin Spacey, also promoting Beyond the Sea—The Daily Show still in the thralls of ensemble guest casting), but she’s lovely, doll-faced, windswept, and wearing the boots of an equestrian-champion dominatrix and the pearl strands of her grandmother. Her hair is a flaxen mullet of fly-aways and wisps, and it doesn’t seem to matter. She looks great.
And then there’s Natalie Portman promoting V for Vendetta in 2003, where she went full-on Johnny Depp in a gorgeous short-swept back cut, flushed cheeks, velour blazer, decent-sized pendant, and a graphic t-shirt whose message would no doubt be vaguely political if only we could actually read it. It’s an effusively happy, androgynous moment (well, as andro as you can get when your features are as delicate as Portman’s), and it’s a significant departure from her style on other late-night talk shows. Promoting the same movie on The Late Show with David Letterman, she wears a tomato-red spaghetti-strap dress. The same goes for Cameron Diaz, who in the same year of her casual, girl-next-door Daily Show appearance, donned this little number for Leno’s show. Clearly, it’s not just individual style or trends of the time that prompt the more casual, come-as-you-are approach to The Daily Show—it’s something else.
It’s possible that the stars want to play to a more irreverent, younger audience. It’s possible that the comparatively smaller viewing audience at home makes it seem less worth going through a fresh round of hair and makeup. No matter what else plays into it, credit has to be given to Jon Stewart himself. His interview style is playful but never ribald, never getting into the ogling territory of the bigger hosts. He speaks the same way to Angelina Jolie as he does to Sarah Vowell—never breaking the dramatic irony the audience teeters on. We know that one of these women is a staggeringly beautiful actress/activist and one is a brainy, witty author, but Jon never plays either of these epithets for a laugh, preferring to make jokes out of the material that arises from conversation and not from the guests themselves. Maybe because it’s a comedy show and everyone’s fair game, but no one’s treated as the more “serious” person. And when your beauty isn’t the thing on display, there’s no reason to get all dressed up. The message is: Whatever you’ve got will work. It’s a show that’s all about dismantling façade and pulling back political window-dressing. From that lead, the celebrity style followed with guests dressing down, speaking plainly, and looking relatable in a way we hadn’t seen elsewhere on television.
Which is hardly to mention the beauty of Jon himself. There’s the largely invariable fluffy haircut—like a nesting doll, a mini bowl cut at his forehead that gave way to growing waves of bowl cuts, each one cradling in a larger one behind it. It’s a thing of wondrous consistency. For all the times he’s had Jon Hamm on the show, Jon Stewart hasn’t seemed to reconsider his own coif—and it is a coif. (Most men have hair. Most women have ‘tresses.’ Almost no one has a mane. Trump has cotton candy. Jon has a coif.) It’s a thing of beauty, longer and grayer now than ever. His suiting’s gone through a gauntlet of its own—first the boxy Canali days, then the svelte Ferragamos before finally settling cozily into Giorgio Armani. And does anyone else remember that dreamy, narrow green tie circa 2008? I get a tingle down my spine thinking about those green-tied days. God, I’m going to miss him.
And yes, The Daily Show will go on, and I’m sure it will still continue to be conversationally both diplomatic and challenging. That’s thanks to Stewart—he’s made The Daily Show a refuge for the beautiful and famous who are tired of talking about how beautiful and famous they are. A place to wear something that won’t be analyzed the next day by E! or reproduced as a triptych on Instagram. A place to plug your charity or movie without sounding like a puppet or an ass. In a show about the absurdity of what makes news newsworthy, Jon’s cut his famous guests the slack to dress and act unfamous for a few minutes—and that’s great TV.
Photos courtesy of Comedy Central.