Jon Stewart, Faking It and Making It
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Next week, Jon Stewart ends his 16-year run as host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. A lot of "Daily Show" viewers share the sentiment expressed by President Obama when he made his seventh and final appearance on the show last week.
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BARACK OBAMA: You know...
JON STEWART: You're on your way out.
OBAMA: ...I can't believe that you're leaving before me.
OBAMA: In fact, I'm issuing a new executive order...
OBAMA: ...That Jon Stewart cannot leave the show.
OBAMA: It's being challenged in the courts.
DAVIES: Stewart took over "The Daily Show" anchor desk in 1999. His quick wit and biting satire took the once obscure fake news show and made it an influential voice in American humor and politics. The program won Peabody Awards in 2000 and 2004 for its election coverage and has won numerous Emmys. Stewart shortened his name from Jon Stuart Leibowitz because he said it sounded too Hollywood. Stewart started doing standup in the mid-'80s, got a show on MTV and an HBO special and had parts in several movies before taking over "The Daily Show." In 2014, he directed his first film, "Rosewater." I spoke to Stewart in 2004, when he and "The Daily Show" published a book called "America: A Citizen's Guide To Democracy Inaction."
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DAVIES: Do you have as much fun doing that show as it looks like you're having?
STEWART: Let me explain something. Our entire day is focused on taking the un-fun we have, making it and turning in to fun when its gets on the air. Because it's - we function, actually, very similarly, probably, to a news show in that we have sort of an editorial meeting in the morning. It's a really structured day. We actually do have a very good time doing it, but it's sort of relentless and it's a lot of - the structure of our day is a lot more rigid, I think, than people would imagine.
DAVIES: You start by reading The New York Times, The Economist, everything, watching a million news clips?
STEWART: Well, no. We get most of our news from tickers on the top of cabs.
STEWART: So it starts from that. Our day usually starts with sports scores.
DAVIES: Building it from the ground up, right.
STEWART: Exactly. Yeah, no, we normally - you know, the papers are not - it's not like we come in at 8:30 and start reading the paper and go, ooh, this story's interesting. I mean, we're working. The beautiful thing about faking a news show is the topicality is delayed. And the truth is, it helps us more to have saturation of a news story because then everybody's very familiar with the parameters of it. So we generally are working a day or two ahead.
DAVIES: How much of it do you write? How much of it do your writers come up with?
STEWART: I write the entire program. What I like to do is come in, write the entire program and treat my staff to hot stone massages.
DAVIES: That's (inaudible).
STEWART: It's just how I like to work.
STEWART: I'll come in around 7, have half a grapefruit, do some jazzercise and then just get to writing.
DAVIES: God, you are as decent a man as we thought (laughter).
STEWART: Oh, it's absolutely unbelievable. No, we have an unbelievable staff of writers - Ben Karlin, the executive producer, DJ Javerbaum, who's the head writer, and then all the writers, the correspondents. I mean, for me, I can literally show up at 5 pretty drunk, and as long as the show is spelled out phonetically on the prompter...
STEWART: ...You know, I'll do OK. I just have to face the right direction. I sort of function, in some respects, in the same way you'd imagine the anchor functions as a managing editor type.
DAVIES: There was recently - the Columbia Journalism Review, one of the most respected journalism publications in the country, had a website in which they asked their readers to poll those who were doing the best at covering the presidential campaign. You came in fourth, well above...
DAVIES: ...Well above people in The New York Times and other better-known publications.
STEWART: Yes. Now that is either a terrible statement about the state of news in our country or the state of comedy on our program. I'm not sure which - probably both.
DAVIES: All right, well I want to play a clip that might give us a little insight into why someone might mistake you for a journalist. And this is you interviewing former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla. And I believe this was during the time of the Democratic National Convention, and he was a part of the Republicans' rapid response team.
DAVIES: So let's listen to Jon Stewart interviewing the former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla.
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STEWART: So I turn on the TV, and they say he's the first-most liberal senator. John Kerry - John Edwards is the fourth-most liberal senator. So the only think - because I watch that at home, and I'm stupid. How do they figure that?
HENRY BONILLA: They have - we have votes and bills that we sponsor, and they track...
STEWART: I'm not retarded.
STEWART: I mean, how do they compile - like, who...
BONILLA: They list them. You take a list...
STEWART: But who's they?
BONILLA: These groups that I told you about, the conservatives.
STEWART: But which one is the one that said they're the first and the fourth?
BONILLA: Well, you take the trial lawyers or the people that follow the union votes and the people that follow the small business votes or the corporate votes. And they all go, you're either with us 100 percent of the time or none - 0 percent of the time. And they kind of average them all together.
BONILLA: These groups do.
STEWART: But which one? When you say first-most liberal and fourth-most liberal, what is the group, and how is it - because I'm not...
BONILLA: No, I hope I'm explaining it clearly.
STEWART: I don't think so.
DAVIES: That's very funny stuff, but this was a real interrogation. I mean, you were doing what journalists do there.
STEWART: No, I think I actually was doing what journalists don't do.
STEWART: I think that's why (unintelligible). Isn't that the issue, that journalists don't do that? That basically when you're - and I'm not talking about print. But isn't the issue that, on television, those sorts of operatives for both political parties go on the air and say John Kerry's the first-most liberal or the new jobs created are $9,000 less. And nobody ever says, I'm sorry, I don't mean to stop you, but what? What was that? Where do you come up with these numbers?
DAVIES: Right. But, I mean, do you feel yourself getting pulled into doing a job that journalists ought to be doing? I mean...
DAVIES: No, no?
STEWART: I don't because I feel myself being pulled into areas that strike me as of interest to me. And that strikes me as an area of interest that so many of these, you know - these political parties - it's very interesting, but they've - you know, they are basically dedicated to figuring out how to game the system. And they have found, I think, the real vulnerability in our media, and they are exploiting that loophole. And the vulnerability is twofold. One is the pace at which the 24-hour networks have, so it's sort of their deadlines pressure. And the other is that the anchors are not versed in an expertise of news. They are TV people. And so those two together form sort of a conspiracy of a nonaggression pact, if you will. And it allows these talking-point robots, operatives from different political parties, to go on the shows and basically lay it out there without question. And it's done to influence people through repetition.
DAVIES: So deceptive content never gets challenged. Nobody ever gets to bottom of it, right?
STEWART: I wouldn't say never, but the prevailing sense is that if it is challenged, it's in print. And a week later, when the information is available - and if I know it, it's clearly available because I'm not exactly - you know, I'm not, like, one of the old guys with a metal detector on the beach searching for, like - it's there on my computer pretty much when I boot it up.
DAVIES: But I guess what a producer of a talk show or "Crossfire" might say is, but, you know, in the great market place of ideas, we - our solution is to provide competition. The other side is always there, and if one side has phony talking points, the other side's right there. Doesn't that work?
STEWART: It doesn't seem to be. I mean, but that's not - in the market place of ideas, from what I understand, there aren't only two products available. That's like saying, you know, fair competition is soda machines with only Coke and Pepsi in them. And the other side of it is, what is the expertise of the anchor? What is your role, then? That's like saying the referee for a football game is just there to make sure no one dies. You know, there are - should be truths - actual truths - and someone should be there to help arbitrate that. And it seems to be that media should be the forum for that. For instance, on "Crossfire," I'm not sure what those guys are doing there other than egging their own side on. And if anything, I think that puts out misinformation or disinformation because it vouches for deception. By allowing it on television, you are vouching for it. You're saying these people - we've done a background check. They're OK. It's like the Swift Boat Veteran guys. They go right on TV.
DAVIES: Right. They're granted the credibility of wide access, right.
STEWART: Absolutely. They're granted the credibility of - and it's not enough to bring someone on from the Democratic side which - and say, well, actually, this isn't true. Someone has to earn some credibility here, don't they? Isn't that the role of the anchor, or is the anchor just a tool?
DAVIES: Well, you know, somebody I know, after seeing you eviscerate the Swift Boat Veterans in one of the pieces that you did on "The Daily Show," yelled at the television, the Kerry campaign ought to buy this stuff. They ought to put on - that's what they ought to be using. Are you selling?
DAVIES: I said, are you selling? I mean, would you give it? I mean, how would you feel about your material being used for a partisan purpose? I mean...
STEWART: Good luck to you. If you feel like comedy program bits are your best effort as far as selling your candidate, good luck to you. You know, I think that the difficulty here is they're doing the same thing. Our role is to make it as funny and smart as we can possibly make it, but base it upon something that is frustrating for us to watch. And it's frustrating for me. You know, I watch these 24-hour news networks all day long, you know? It's because I night manage a Bennigan's, and I just happen to have it on.
DAVIES: (Laughter). Oh God, what a life you live.
STEWART: Oh, it's really quite incredible. But in general, you know, I think it's - they have abdicated their role. You know, politicians are doing - of course they're doing what they do. They're trying to get away with as much as they can get away. But what I'm saying is political parties are working seven days a week, 24 hours a day to find the loopholes and vulnerabilities in the media system. And the media has to be better. The problem is the media isn't monolithic. We sort of keep talking about the media, and, unfortunately, it's a series of these fiefdoms. And they have figured out how to play these fiefdoms off against each other. It's that competition. If you question us on our talking points - here's an example. I was watching - during the Republican convention, Dick Cheney's daughter - and not the one that they hide, the other one - was on - I think it was Anderson Cooper's show. And she was doing the Republican talking points about John Kerry. And the thing - and Anderson Cooper, to his credit, stopped her and said, well, you know, to be fair, you're sort of taking that out of context. And literally he interrupted twice, and she said, very angrily, what are you, a surrogate? And I thought, wow, is that where we've gotten? We've gotten to the point where if an anchor interrupts a talking point, you accuse them of being an operative, which, by the way, is also a strategy to discredit the person that disagrees with you. The other example was - Zell Miller went on "Hardball" after his relatively insane rant that if you listen to without the picture reminded you very much of Strom Thurman's famous 1948 speech, but not in content so much as delivery. But - so Chris Matthews questioned him on - you really think John Kerry would defend this country with spitballs? And Zell Miller was so upset at being questioned he challenged Chris Matthews to a duel, which is basically - you know, the idea is, if the news media questions my talking points, I will threaten to kill you.
STEWART: I mean, that's - you know, these - these politicians are so unaccustomed to interrupted spin that they literally lash out.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart recorded in 2004. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to my 2004 interview with Jon Stewart. He ends his 16-year run as host of "The Daily Show" next week.
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DAVIES: You grew up in, I guess, Lawrenceville, N.J.
STEWART: That is correct.
DAVIES: Were you a class clown? Did you have the sort of persona that made fun of everybody in a kind of playful and endearing way?
STEWART: (Laughter). Yes, I was very playful and endearing.
DAVIES: That was you.
STEWART: Yeah. People always say, you know, when did you realize you were funny? And I think it's not that you realize you were funny. It's that you're brain works in a certain way. And I don't think that that's - I think in some respects it's uncontrollable, and you can either accept it and deal with it and hone it or you can try to fight it. And I was too weak to fight it. And so I just sort of went with it. And the big thing to learn was how to turn obnoxiousness into wit. And that was the hardest probably lesson. Obnoxiousness is what gets your butt kicked and wit is what makes people go oh, that's endearing. And it's trying not to get your butt kicked while still having your brain work in the way that you're comfortable with.
DAVIES: What do you mean by your brain works in a different way?
STEWART: It for some reason defaults to a joke. I don't know why it does that. It certainly isn't helpful. It didn't help me keep any other job other than this one. But for some reason, it always looks to mischief. For instance, you know, I was in a - I didn't do any theater or anything like that when I was younger, but we did do one - senior year of high school, we were in a play called "The Pajama Game." And our first night performing at the high school in front of a full crowd - and everybody took it very seriously and rightfully so - my friends and I were in the chorus. We did "Steam Heat" - you know, a very powerful version, I might add. But there's one scene at a picnic, where the two lovers finally come together at the front of the stage, and they're alone on stage and it's in front of a backdrop of trees. And as they were out there just about to begin this beautiful duet, I just - I wandered out and put to the audience and pretended I was relieving myself under the trees.
STEWART: Now, as you can imagine, the crowd found this somewhat amusing, the two actors onstage - not so much. The director of the play - again, sided with the actors, not so much. Me, I thought oh my God, I'm killing. This is awesome.
STEWART: This play is going great. And this is what I'm suggesting to you is that - it's learning when to use, how to use it - but by God, there's nothing else you can do. It's just some reason in any situation, it occurs to you that wouldn't it be funny if - and that's that.
DAVIES: Right. (Laughter) You went to college, William & Mary. And I read that you were 23 when you had a job with the state of New Jersey and, you know...
DAVIES: ...Looking forward to a reasonably happy life with a car and, you know, making it in the world.
DAVIES: And you decided to go to New York and do standup...
STEWART: That's right.
DAVIES: ...And at first just got brutalized, as people do. And I'm wondering - you know, there are lots of people who are funny, that make their friends laugh, make their families laugh. And then when they get...
DAVIES: ...On stage and try to make an audience laugh...
DAVIES: ...It just doesn't work. What...
STEWART: Yeah, that was me.
DAVIES: What is it...
DAVIES: I mean, you were so funny, you had that brain working that way. What was it you didn't know?
STEWART: What was I didn't know about which?
DAVIES: About why didn't it work? Why is being funny with your friends not the same thing as...
STEWART: Well, because it's a craft, you know? It isn't - there's a big difference between having an analytical mind and being a good scientist. There is a craft to learn. And that was the biggest lesson is that it takes - again, it's that idea of turning obnoxiousness into wit or comedy. You know, creating something from nothing is different from just being reactive at a bar. And you have to create the atmospheric conditions for comedy. Comedy is oddly enough very fragile and can be thrown off by, you know, a glass breaking or somebody talking or - you, know, there's a lot of different elements to it that - and construction of a joke - you know, you have to create - one of the things about being funny life is the premise is already there.
STEWART: Typically, when you're with your friends, premises are coming up left and right. But when you're on stage, you must create the premise. So you have to create the premise, paint the picture and then deliver the punch line. You have to take them from their, you know, sitting - you know, their lack of movement - you take them from zero to laughter, whereas in life, all that inertia is already presented and you're just deflecting it. You're - being funny in life is a lot more like, you know, judo. It's using the energy...
STEWART: ...That's coming at you to your advantage.
STEWART: Doing stand-up comedy is in the middle of a traffic jam getting everybody moving again. You know, it's a totally different skill and environment and one that is learned.
DAVIES: Right. Well, Jon Stewart, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
STEWART: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart, recorded in 2004. His last show will be next Thursday August 6. To commemorate the end of his 16-year run, we'll listen back to Stewart's many appearances on FRESH AIR, including his 2010 interview with Terry on stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. By the way, Stewart has confirmed the last three guests for his final week - Amy Schumer, Dennis Leary and Louis CK.
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DAVIES: On Monday, writer Buzz Bissinger joins us. His best-selling book "Friday Night Lights" about a Texas town's obsession with high school football became a movie and a TV series. For a new 25th anniversary edition, he checks in on the players he wrote about, now middle-aged men. And he'll tell us about his obsession with leather, his shopping addiction to tight-fitting designer clothes and going into rehab for treatment. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.