This Thursday marks the final broadcast for Jon Stewart as host and executive producer of The Daily Show, the program he helped make into a national icon. One of the Great Thinkers of our time and a personal hero of mine, I always placed him in the company of people I’d like to have a dinner conversation with. I finally got my chance when he invited me for the final interview before he took the Daily Show stage for the last time.
(*Note: Not really.)
We find ourselves a quiet corner in the audience section of the stage as the bustle of pre-show preparations continue to whirlwind around us.
Jon, I really appreciate you sitting down with me, it’s a big, busy night for you and it means a lot that you’d give me the final interview before you tape your last Daily Show.
Well there is the old Jewish expression that says you should always speak to someone you’ve never met right before the biggest moments of your life. Then you can blame them if it all goes south.
Well hey, I’ll take it however it comes. You’re one of my biggest personal heroes, I watched you from the beginning and I’ve enjoyed watching both you and The Daily Show grow with your audience. The show has become smarter, more pointed, and simultaneously more extroverted and crass during your tenure. You’ve also always seemed willing to try things without fear of failure, be they silly, serious and just plain odd. What do you think it is that makes you such a singular voice among the television landscape? Why is the space that you and The Daily Show have carved out so unique?
I guess that’s a little like asking, “What’s your secret to success?” to which I usually answer, “people watching us”. But I think a fair amount of television tends to lower the bar for its audience which just creates a downward spiral of lowered expectations with Honey Boo Boo smiling at the bottom. It’s always been part of our mantra that audiences actually do want to think, do want to invest emotionally and mentally, and so while we do our share of dick and fart jokes they’re usually used as garnish and not the main entrée.
To me, the show has always employed intelligent analysis in equal parts with the silly, absurd, and profane because it has a keen sense of its own place, that no one source has the entire answer. Its absurdity isn’t used to balance out or dull the show’s serious political nature but rather is part of its truthfulness.
It’s the truth in the comedy, that concept that if you’re aware you don’t have all the answers then taking yourself completely seriously is disingenuous.
The 2000 Election happened a year after you took over as host. Do you think the show benefited from the political climate created during the Bush years? Or is that too convenient a way of putting it?
I’d say we certainly got plenty of material from that group, kind of hard to top them. Would the show have worked as well if we had started during Bush Sr.’s presidency? Maybe not, but that’s not how art, how entertainment works. A lot of it has to do with the way the country was feeling, that political satire might have a place on Comedy Central for example.
See I think TDS became a perfect reaction to that climate because it was necessary, because the people were eager for a voice that pointed out the obscene and spoke truth to stupid, but not because it was easy and convenient. Where did the notion to push in a more political direction, rather than the celebrity-news magazine format, come from? Was that your doing?
No, not entirely, it was really part of the vision Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead had initially, even before they brought in Kilborn. Even though it was satire they wanted it to reflect reality.
How did you get the job?
I had worked with Madeleine on the MTV show [The Jon Stewart Show] and we stayed friends after it was over. She and Lizz were living together I think and already working for Comedy Central at the time that they created The Daily Show. Two of the smartest, funniest, hard-working women I’ve ever known. One afternoon Madeleine called me to ask my advice on CBS offering her the producer job of The Late Late Show to go along with Kilborn as host. We talked for about an hour I think, about what they’d built here so far, about the staff and how happy she was here. I just remember at the end feeling like she had made her decision and I had found where I wanted to be next.
If you were able to travel back 16 ½ years ago, any advice you’d give that Jon, just starting out?
Stop Skynet. No, I mean… I don’t have any real regrets, especially not as far as the show goes but I might tell myself that, for the most part, in this job pants are largely unnecessary. Is that what you mean?
As part of your send-off the show has done a series of retrospectives over the last few weeks of some of your finest moments… as well as those of Joe Stewart, Jeff Stubin, Jorn Smegma, et al.
Yes, quite the highlight reel, mostly showing that a monkey in a sportscoat could have been sitting in this chair for the last decade and a half.
And though it can be hard to pick favorite moments, there are certainly some that have got to stick out in your mind. Some moments, even, that didn’t take place on your show…
You’re talking about Crossfire?
And Larry King and The O’Reilly Factor…
Let’s start here: I didn’t get Crossfire cancelled, they definitely did not need my help for that. I think it was just easy to lump my criticisms in with what was already in the works [i.e. the show’s cancellation]. But I’ll reiterate what I said then as a statement on those cumulative appearances: I’m a firm believer in the power of substantive debate and that the role of news media in fostering such dialogue. Too much pandering to demographics and talking points leaves us all with a big charade, it’s a 24-hour performance and that kind of schedule is impossible to maintain, even for Megyn Kelly, who I’ve heard sleeps no more than 2 hours a night. I think the actual amount of time that we generally spend talking – really talking and not wrapping ourselves in bullshit blankets – is so small that those opportunities can’t afford to be squandered.
Though I am somewhat certain he didn’t want me to, I followed Jon back to the green room as the smartest man in comedy prepared for his final show. As a makeup artist worked his signature coif, once a thick dark mane now gracefully grayed, I felt I caught a glint of nervousness in the old newscaster’s eyes. I seemed to startle him out of a thought as I continued my questions, or perhaps he simply hadn’t realized the interview wasn’t over.
I and others have called you the “smartest man in comedy” but that’s not exactly accurate.
I think it’s pretty far from accurate.
No, I mean.. there may others smarter than you, I’d be hard-pressed to name them-
Dennis Miller, but sometimes he can confuse even himself in that great big mash of brains and hair.
But with your brand of comedy it’s the social awareness piece, the intelligence in that realm and the eagerness for change, it seems. Some artists, though we spend a lot of time observing the human condition, injustice and such, and describing it in vivid, colorful detail, aren’t imbued with the same sense of activism. It seems like injustice eats at you from the inside and the further down this road you get the more comfortable and/or don’t-give-a-fuck you become in expressing that frustration. Would you say that’s accurate?
I would, with the one caveat that I’m feeling less inclined to f-bomb the fuck out of an issue and that’s part of the ‘restless host’ thing. I love what we’ve built here, that balance that you were talking about before of absurdity and intelligence, it really has been some good gravy cooking over the last decade or so, and I’d hate for any of that, for any of those laughs to become cheap. Sometimes, too, it’s like pissing in the wind a little bit. When you find yourself as a topic in the Fox News media cycle it feels a bit like you’ve accidentally written yourself into your own trashy novel.
The correspondents and the remote reporting sketches have remained a core part of the show since the Kilborn days, another parody of a newscasting trope. Let me ask you this, who’s your favorite correspondent? And it’s ok, this article won’t go very far, your secret is safe.
The remotes are a great example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or at least don’t over-complicate it. And it’s been one of my biggest pleasures here, watching the talented comedians that have come up through the ranks who then leave us behind for greener pastures. Except for that Colbert fellow [which he pronounces Col-berrt], I never much cared for him, found him crude.
And that reverence goes for the talent off-screen as well. Many of our writers and producers have left us for other enterprises or to raise families and whenever someone does there’s never a bitter taste. It’s always, “Our little Jim is headed off to college. I hope he uses his skills for good and doesn’t get syphilis.”
Do you ever think about what your career would have been like if you’d not gotten this job? One writer said the other day, “If he’d stayed on [that] track, he would probably have become a B-list Richard Gere instead of an A-list political commentator.”
Not really. I always say, “You can’t get where you’re going without being where you’ve been”. I don’t tend to wonder how things could have been, especially because, like you said, it probably could have gone worse. I do occasionally catch myself blindly staring at walls and wondering about the future, but I imagine that’s mostly the early Alzheimer’s. I said this a couple nights ago- when you’re leaving something that you’re better at doing than you ever will be at anything else, you have to make your peace with it. And I have.
Could there ever be a right-wing or conservative version of The Daily Show? Who’s the conservative answer for Jon Stewart?
I don’t know… maybe O’Reilly but he doesn’t really know when he’s telling jokes. It was actually the subject of my secret meeting with Richard Ailes, he was trying to extract some kind of secret political comedy formula from me. Fox has definitely tried a few times with shows like Red Eye, The Flipside, and [Dennis] Miller’s show… When you start asking that question it inevitably leads to a discussion of ‘is humor, and specifically satire, inherently liberal?’ Alison Dagnes wrote about it in her book, the title of which escapes me at the moment [A Conservative Walks Into a Bar], saying something like ‘Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg’. So partly it’s the nature of the art-form.
Is the corollary on talk radio perhaps? Is Limbaugh the conservative Jon Stewart?
Let me just say this: if that guy and I are somehow in the same business it was time for me to get out long ago.
There’s certainly a rare recipe when it comes to you and the show that is your creative legacy. And that can be seen and felt in the words of admiration from not just writers but your fellow artists and performers as well. As Kurt Vonnegut told you in his final appearance on the show, “You’re enormously popular among the right sorts of people”.
In his defense Mr. Vonnegut was rather old by the time he made that statement. I’m pretty sure he thought he was talking to Carson.
I just want to read a couple more things that people have said about you. JJ Abrams was on your show earlier in the week and said “the narrative you help give us to navigate the madness that is this world cannot be overstated”. Do you remember what you said in response?
I really was just trying not to get fired.
“He’s the Jersey Boy and ardent Mets fan as Mr. Common Sense, pointing to the disconnect between reality and what politicians and the news media describe as reality, channeling the audience’s id and articulating its bewilderment and indignation.” Know where that’s from?
I’d say it’s either that 2008 New York Times piece or from my personal diary, which I really am concerned for how you got your hands on it. The bewilderment I’ve got down pretty well, it’s the channeling and articulating that can present an obstacle.
I think your fans, plenty that are smarter, more accomplished, and more respected that myself, would disagree. Many will be saddened when the show closes on your final broadcast, feeling like we’ve lost a companion and a leader in the fight for change and for justice; there really can never be another Jon Stewart. And while we will be eagerly waiting to see what you do when you return, we also all know that after giving us, your fans, so much over the last 16 years, you certainly have earned your time out of the spotlight. We thank you a thousand times over and wish you well wherever your road may lead. Now here it is, your moment of Zen.