No News is Good News: Jon Stewart Talks
It's official. According to a 2007 Pew poll,Jon Stewart is one of the five most-respected broadcast journalists in America. It doesn't seem to matter that he began his career not as a sleeves-rolled-up, coffee-swilling print journalist but as a comedian whose resume includes residency at Manhattan's Comedy Cellar, a cameo in the film Half Baked and three short-lived MTV shows.
The Daily Show started out as news parody, but with Stewart at the helm since 1999 it has grown increasingly sharp and political. Stewart is not just a smart-ass; he's actually smart. And while he can be glib, he's arguably one of the most moral people on television news.
One of the few people who don't take Stewart seriously these days is Stewart himself. When accused of committing journalism by Bill Moyers last year, Stewart countered that he's only a comedian. Stewart dismissed his own work as that of "a tiny, neurotic man, standing in the back of the room throwing tomatoes at the chalk board."
Stewart is amazingly punctual -- he called exactly at the scheduled time -- and extraordinarily nice. As a former chain smoker who went cold turkey in 2000, he gave me useful advice about quitting cigarettes and talked freely about other subjects, but still wouldn't admit to being anything other than a working comedian who happens to have one of the most popular TV shows on the planet.
Advocate: Is your stand-up work mostly current events-driven or do you use it as a chance to get away from what you do on TV?
Stewart: It's a combination: It's events material, or it's a story about something horrible that might have happened to me on the drive up. And obviously, bits I've been working on over the years. I weave everything in and out, and hopefully present a nice little evening of comedy.
I might do a Q&A, or maybe just be a sing-a-long. It could take all kinds of shapes: charades, Pictionary.
So it's like a traveling, troubadour kind of show.
That's exactly right. It's like a minstrel show, except without any conceivable musical talent.
Right. It's the old-world style of minstrel show, not the modern racially driven version. I think it's a chance to make some larger observations -- if I have any larger observations to make. It's not as tied to current events as the show, and it's a different format. I'll be standing, for one thing. It'll give people an opportunity to see what stumpy legs look like.
I'm sure you're sick of this question...
I was going to ask if it's difficult to adjust to comedy in a post-Bush world.
Oh. As a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal -- in all of those areas, I am looking forward to the end of the Bush administration with every fiber of my being.
You're tired of the "subliminable" jokes?
Yeah, there are times when you play on the lack of erudite commentary from the President. But that's not the heart of what we do. I am sick of deconstructing their propaganda, because it's pretty much the same as it's always been. It's just repeating something over and over again until we believe it and we hope that you believe it.
[Comedian and Conan O'Brien writer] Robert Smigel said in a recent interview: "For Obama, it could be a John Kennedy situation where everybody is going to invest all this hope and optimism, idealism." He was saying that satire might be more difficult under an Obama administration. Do you think that's true?
I think that the satire of what that is would be tough. But certainly the interplay between that idealism and the established cynicism would work for satire. If someone was to introduce hope and idealism into our political system, I think the tension that would create in other areas would certainly be ripe. You would think that if you bring oxygen to the organism, the organism lives. But there may be other organisms in there that thrive in darkness and in a more anaerobic environment. Watching those creatures writhe will always be interesting.
Larry King asked you on his show if it would be terrible for you as a comedian if everything was good.
I was a little stunned by the question. It was a little crazy, the idea that I absolutely would cheer for the destruction of mankind if it would give me three to four minutes of jokes every night. But to be fair to Larry King, I don't think he was really paying attention. It was more like, "How long do we have left in this segment?"
That describes the last two decades of his career, doesn't it?
(Laughs). Don't mess with the King, baby. You mess with the bull, you get the suspenders.
Is it fair to call The Daily Show liberal?
I think the metric by which television is considered liberal is literally based on the metric of liberalism in each person's soul. Peoples' senses of humor tend to go about as far as their ideology. There are people who believe I say things they didn't agree with because it's too liberal, and there are people who people who don't agree with things I say that believe I'm a conservative shill. I don't get wrapped up in peoples' definitions of what we're doing here.
You've said you're not a warrior for anyone's cause. I imagine that you get criticism from both sides.
I reject the idea there are just two sides. I think that with the amount of ideas and thoughts there are, it's not even going to be consistent with the same person. People can hold liberal and conservative dogma points at the same time. They're not living their lives via platforms. They're living their lives. The whole thing is an awfully tired construct.
I'm sorry I asked.
(Laughs.) You didn't make it up. It exists. Unless, are you the guy that invented it? Then this is an entirely different interview.
When you're interview someone like [neoconservative former Department of Defense official] Douglas Feith or [National Review Online editor] Jonah Goldberg, and are basically challenging them, is it difficult to keep yourself under control enough to have a civil conversation?
In trying to have a discussion, there are moments where I probably lose my cool or train of thought. Or my ability to blink. And it's creepy. But I think it's hard to have any conversation that has purpose to it on a talk show in front of an audience with commercial breaks. I think there are probably much better ways to accomplish that. A six-minute interview isn't the best place to make or debunk a case. So what people get are bastardizations of arguments and perversions of discussions. That's what we specialize in.
So you're saying that you shouldn't be doing what you do every night?
The format of the show suits me. But I think that if you're looking for the kind of discussion that's worthwhile to have, this is not the best format for it. I think there are better formats and better people to do that than me (laughs).
Do you find conservative writers are hesitant to go on The Daily Show? Is there anyone that turned you down you wish could have been on?
Oh, I'm sure. You know, it all goes so fast. We have a woman here that's in charge of getting guests. We make requests all the time. And people are out of town, or they don't want to do it or they want you to have lunch with them first, and you end up being like, "fuck that."
But I don't think it's necessarily conservatives who are avoiding the show. We have a pretty good representation there as we do in anything. I just think it's not a comfortable format for a lot of people.
But people have got to sell books, right?
Yeah. I think that's the only reason people come on the show. People have gotta sell books, people gotta get votes. I don't think anybody comes on the show just because they think it looks like fun. Well, every now and then, we get someone deluded.
Has Stephen Colbert taken the heat off you? There was that Rahm Emanuel memo warning Democrats not to go on his show -- do you look easier by comparison?
I'm going to let you in on a little secret, here: Stephen's playing a character on his show. He might not admit this himself, but in real life, he's a very sweet, reasonable man. I don't want to blow anything out. I don't know if you want to put that in there. It might not be for public consumption.
Wow. I feel like Bob Woodward.
Exactly. I'm not going to say where you got this information. I'm just telling you. I'm an anonymous source. Take this to the bank.
But has having the Colbert Report on after the Daily Show changed the Daily Show?
We're definitely of the same genetic material. I think there's a nice complementary relationship. In some respects, it works in the way that the more staid news works with the cable-type news. They're parodies that are increasing the reach of the other parties. The shows paint in different colors, but use the same material.
When [Supreme Court Justice] Antonin Scalia calls your show "childish," did that smart at all?
I can say this: he's childish. And shut up. No, that doesn't bother me. It does bother me when Antonin Scalia says he doesn't want to discuss cases like Bush v. Gore anymore because, you know, we should just get over it. That upsets me more than comments that he makes about our show. You can make a better case that our show is childish than he doesn't have to discuss Supreme Court decisions he's made.
Do you see what you just did? You took on the appearance of childishness to make an astute, well-reasoned point. That's something you do on The Daily Show all the time, and that's why it bothers me, as a fan, that he referred to the show as childish.
Here's the difference: I'm thinking about him, but he's not thinking about me. What he said was reflective of nothing other than the glibness. And in some ways it reflects the seriousness with which he should take our show, which is not at all. What we wish he took more seriously are the decisions he made. But I don't think in any way, "How dare he say that, what does he think he's doing?" I get it.
You've been criticized for trying to have it both ways, acting as a media critic and then retreating by saying you're just telling jokes.
I think that stems from how my interviews don't live up to the standards I ask of news people. And what I'd say in response to that, is, "Why should I do their fucking jobs?" I have a job and my job is on Comedy Central. If I took a job at CNN, I think I'd to have a different perspective on what I do. But I don't do a news show.
It's not a news show, but it's pretty newsy.
I'm working with the tools that are the best for me. People would like to place a standard on our show that doesn't exist. We're not set up for reporting; we don't have an apparatus for that. We're discussing things that hopefully people might get something out of, but it's wildly inconsistent. Just because we hit on points that resonate, or people think are real complaints -- that doesn't make us journalists.
You're seen as one of the most trusted names in journalism, according to a recent poll. On The Daily Show, you guys talk about how perception dictates reality. Do you think this is one of those cases?
I think we are so far up our own asses about our own importance. I think that people are arguing about something that doesn't matter. The real issue is that TV news can either bring clarity or noise. And it tends to not seem to know the difference between them ... We do a show that doesn't try to bring noise. I think that we have a more consistent point of view than most news shows, I'll say that.
What's that point of view?
That theater doesn't make for authentic public discourse.