By JOHN T. WARD
Long on sarcasm, feigned eye-rolling and Jersey love, the hosts of the nation’s top-rated television shows in their respective categories traded zingers in a conversation about the media, politics and growing up in the Garden State before a packed Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank Sunday night.
In a sparring mood that might have been a continuation of their pre-show dinner at the nearby Broadway Diner, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams traded insights into their jobs and flashing wit for two hours and 20 minutes, including a Q&A session with the audience.
“Thank you for dropping the F bomb 41 seconds into this,” Williams said to Stewart, who sniped that Williams’ job entailed his being removed from a “vegetable crisper” just in time for each night’s news broadcast.
The event, a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, joined Williams, who grew up in Middletown and owns a home in Ocean County, and Stewart, who owns two homes in Red Bank, for a loose Q&A led by New York Times media writer Bill Carter.
Stewart, his left arm in a sling following shoulder surgery for a bone spur, said the idea for the show was “trying to get the hurricane relief maybe a little more localized,” calling out for particular notice the Red Bank-based RebuildRecover effort.
Throughout the evening, Williams and his “fake news” counterpart compared their Jersey bona fides.
With his familiar orotund delivery, Williams told of being robbed at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees at West Front Street and Riverside Avenue in Red Bank when he was a student at Mater Dei High School in the 1970s, and spending hours at the Tradewinds nightclub in Sea Bright hoping for an appearance by Bruce Springsteen. He confessed to slipping into the Stone Pony on a fake ID for a Springsteen show in 1975. “There’s your lead story tomorrow,” he said.
Stewart, who grew up in Mercer County, recalled the near-exactitude of the Springsteen tribute outfit the B Street Band, and said he’d once used a gun carved from a bar of soap to rob “this petrified kid” who was selling Christmas trees.
Guided by Carter, the conversation returned several times to whether Williams and Stewart could do each other’s job, and whether Stewart’s show, which is heavy on criticism of both the Republican party and the media, is a journalist. Stewart insisted that, true to his roots as a stand-up, he is a comedian.
“We make topical comedy. It’s the showbiz equivalent of egg salad,” Stewart said. “Four days later, it smells like four-day-old egg salad.”
The media stars fielded questions from both Carter and audience members on the humor potential in the Obama presidency, why the media was paying so little attention to the incarceration of Private Bradley Manning and the conflict in Mali, and the likelihood of a Cory Booker-Chris Christie gubernatorial race.
In what he prefaced as a comment “absent of any politics,” Williams praised Christie. As a New Jersey homeowner, “I want a guy going to Washington who also feels that sense that something has been robbed from him along 130 miles of shoreline,” he said. “I want a guy mourning the death of the Fun Town Pier and Union Beach.”
The jestfest ended with Williams announcing that he and Stewart would match the proceeds of the event, for which tickets started at $75.