Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In - The New York Times
Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In
By David Marchese
For all the value Jon Stewart delivered as a political satirist and voice of reason during his 16-year-run as the host of ''The Daily Show,'' it's quite plausible to suggest that the political and media Bizarro World in which we live — where skepticism is the default, news is often indistinguishable from entertainment and entertainers have usurped public authority from the country's political leaders — is one that he and his show helped to usher in. ''Look, we certainly were part of that ecosystem, but I don't think that news became entertainment because they thought our show was a success,'' Stewart says. ''Twenty-four-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that's 9/11. There are very few events that would justify being covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So in the absence of urgency, they have to create it. You create urgency through conflict.'' That pervasive sense of political and social conflict has only grown since Stewart left the air in 2015. It has also made Stewart's post-''Daily Show'' silence — apart from a few guest spots on his old friend and colleague Stephen Colbert's show, he has been mostly out of the spotlight — more intriguing. What has he been thinking about this country while he has been gone? Now he has returned with some answers.
Stewart, who is 57, has written and directed ''Irresistible,'' a political satire about a small Wisconsin town that becomes engulfed in a political spectacle when a Democratic strategist and his Republican counterpart become fixated on the larger symbolic value and bellwether potential of the local mayoral race. The film, which will make its theatrical and video-on-demand premiere on June 26, is evidence that being away from the grind of a daily TV show has expanded rather than shrunk Stewart's satirical powers. He's well aware, though, that in this exceedingly polarized time, making a comedy that takes shots at both political parties, as ''Irresistible'' does, is an invitation to criticism. ''You're going to have people on the left who go, In the time of Trump, all you should be doing is a 'Fahrenheit 11/9'; there is no purpose other than to destroy the mother ship,'' Stewart says. And the other side's possible reaction to his return? ''There are people on the right predisposed to say, '[expletive] that guy.' '' Some things never change.
How strange is it, after having been basically out of the public eye for five years, to be coming back with something now? ''The world is on fire, here's my new movie'' seems like an awkward spot to be in. It's like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar. There's tragedy everywhere, and you're like, ''Uh, does anybody want chocolate?'' It feels ridiculous. But what doesn't feel ridiculous is to continue to fight for nuance and precision and solutions.
You know, I've been trying to think of some precise, encapsulating question to ask you about what we've been witnessing over the last few weeks, and everything I was coming up with felt forced or phony. Maybe it's better, because you've been eloquent during times of crisis in the past, just to ask what you've been thinking about and seeing in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing? I'd like to say I'm surprised by what happened to him, but I'm not. This is a cycle, and I feel that in some ways, the issue is that we're addressing the wrong problem. We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn't as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They're not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They're enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don't have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don't address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ''I'm tired of everything being about race.'' Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.
I get that you're saying that the police and policing are a mirror of societal power structures, but it doesn't quite address police brutality. We can't absolve that. Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that's going to create its own issues, and there's no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we've created that contains this schism, and we don't deal with it, because we've outsourced our accountability to the police.
Does the scale and intensity of the protests suggest some positive strides toward accountability? Maybe. Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that's over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There's always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it's white people's lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There's a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ''No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don't even want to exchange places with me, and I'm rich.'' It's true. There's not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don't address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing. You know, we're in a bizarre time of quarantine. White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building with rifles, shouting: ''Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I'm not going to wear a mask, because that's tyranny!'' That's six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people. The policing is an issue, but it's the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don't have to deal with them.
Given all that has happened over the last four years — let alone the last month — is there any part of you that wishes you were more regularly a part of the conversation? No. I think there are different ways to be in the conversation. I consider a career to be a conversation. Action is conversation, and I've taken more action in the last four or five years than I ever have in my life. Sometimes that action can speak more profoundly than a daily monologue. So I don't view myself as being out of the conversation: I view myself as not having a show. And if you're asking, Do you wish you had a show? Sometimes I do. But not the one that I had. The one that I had is in wonderful hands and continues to elevate in a way that I couldn't have. My efficacy for that kind of conversation has passed.
What has stood out to you over the last few months about the political conversation or response around the pandemic? That the Trump administration has not changed its practices. You would have thought that somebody would have mentioned to Trump the idea of rising to greatness. Instead it's: ''Why don't I tweet out that Joe Scarborough killed people? Would that be good in a pandemic?'' I guess his behavior is understandable, because what's he going to run on, his record? He's just going to pick at scabs.
How about on the other side? What do you make of the campaign that Joe Biden is trying to run in the middle of this? I feel like it hasn't begun. I can tell you that without the pandemic, it would have been three months of ''Will Bernie supporters ever forgive Biden?'' And the questions to Biden would have been: ''Do you think the Bernie Bros are out of control? What do you make of this statement that one of them posted on Twitter about a woman?'' That would have been the majority of the coverage. The pandemic canceled that story line.
But is Biden making a strong-enough case for why people should vote for him, as opposed to just not voting for President Trump? It almost feels as if he's content to do that thing you see in sports in which teams play not to lose rather than to win, and it almost always ends badly. But there's no oxygen for the campaign other than the oxygen that Trump's Twitter feed puts into things. And no matter what, Trump has defined the terms of the fight. It's going to be: What is America's greatness? You have to fight on those terms, and that's an opportunity to define what you believe is our greatness. Now, that's not to say the political consultants won't say to Biden, ''You need to define your own lane.'' But he doesn't. The road is built.
Was the speech Biden gave in Philadelphia a possible inflection point for him? I thought there were things in it that absolutely needed to be said, but I'm old enough to have heard a lot of speeches and old enough to be dubious about our ability to overcome our defensiveness about racism. That doesn't mean that we can't be the generation to dismantle structural racism for good, but it takes effort. Imagine the anguish of living in a country that profited off the forced labor of your ancestors, and is still having this conversation: ''Hey, do you think we should fly the flag of the people that fought to enslave your ancestors? What do you guys think of that? Good idea or bad idea?'' And then you hear, ''It's history.'' It's not history! It's hagiography. If you go down there and read the plaques on the Confederate monuments, they aren't, ''This [expletive] thought he could enslave people based on the color of their skin.'' That's not what the plaque says. The plaque honors them! Enraging doesn't begin to describe it.
Even aside from the pandemic or George Floyd's murder, the political climate has changed so much in the five years since you left ''The Daily Show.'' It's nastier and more extreme and more combative. Have those changes affected the nature or efficacy of political satire? ''Satire'' and ''efficacy'' are probably words that should not be in the same sentence. But in a way, Donald Trump's presidency has been a positive, because it shows that American democratic exceptionalism is not a birthright. He's like a white-hat hacker. You go: ''I think we've done a great job of building a safeguarded system. Could you test the vulnerabilities?'' The hacker goes — boop, boop, boop — ''I'm in through the back door, and I stole all your information.'' With Donald Trump it's like: ''We have a very fair and impartial judiciary. What do you think, Donald?" He goes — boop, boop, boop — ''Actually, if I move some people around, I can turn it into a corrupt partisan affair.'' And I used to talk about how ''The Daily Show'' was a refinery. We would take unrefined material in the morning and try to create something relatively palatable by the end of the day. Some days we created a beautiful blended whiskey. Other days we created rotgut. We had a system to try and address that challenge. And that's just a dopey show! Within the government, they've instead created a system to insulate themselves and propagate their own interests. And I think the root of that is the for-profit incentivization of the industrial-political complex.
Which is the main target of your movie. Where did the idea to take that on come from? It arose from a couple things. One was the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia; the incredibly outsize importance placed on this one little race that became emblematic of the future for red and blue. The national parties spent $50 million dollars in one district in Georgia on this weird off-year congressional race. The second was that a friend of mine had run for Congress in West Virginia. A little Jewish dude who had been in Afghanistan and Iraq. He held a campaign event in a townhouse in the Village in New York, and I was sitting there the whole time thinking, This is the problem. This guy had to come up here to try and scrounge a few dollars from this group of people who had absolutely no connection to West Virginia but somehow believed that West Virginia was connected to their larger political goals. The third trigger was Bob Shrum and these guys who are viewed as the consiglieres of their parties. These older white guys who have failed almost at every turn and are still brought in as the old wise man. ''Tell me, when you were with Dukakis . . . ''
Stewart on the ''Irresistible'' set with Steve Carell and Rose Byrne.Daniel McFadden/Focus Features
''How'd you come up with that brilliant tank photo idea?'' Those guys are always wrong! But that whole system has its own mass and momentum and has very little to do with its reputed purpose, which is to serve the public good. So the idea was to satirize that, to get people to step back and go, ''Participation in this corrupt system is inherently a corrupting process.'' Because until we view it from that perspective, we will find ourselves stuck in it. That was the thought process behind the movie. Whether or not it works, I don't know.
Attacking corruption seems fairly nonpartisan. Are you at all optimistic that audiences on the right who might be inclined to give you a thumbs-down will be open to the movie and its ideas? You don't make things based on that. My perspective is, I'm trying to talk about what I believe is wrong systemically that gives us corrupted outcomes because the system is incentivized to do that. It is incentivized for conflict as well as for corruption in a more classic sense, which is money from larger sources pouring into a place not to help but to gain control. Those are your SparkNotes. Hopefully it's a funny movie. Maybe at the end you go: ''You know what? We've got a [expletive]-up permanent campaign system with too much money in it.''
Don't people know that already? The politicians don't even know how [expletive] up their system is. Nancy Pelosi was on ''The Daily Show,'' and we were talking about how money has a corrupting influence in politics. I said, ''You raised $30 million. How does that money corrupt you?'' She said it doesn't. So money corrupts, but not you? That's someone within the system. And when I went down to Washington for the 9/11 victim-compensation bill,I learned something that shocked me. We had a program that was working. Bureaucratically, it wasn't broken. What is broken about Washington isn't the bureaucracy. It's legislators' ability to address the issues inherent in any society — and the reason they can't address them is that when you have a duopoly, there is no incentive to work together to create something better. Plus, you have one party whose premise is that government is bad and whose goal is to prove that, which makes them, in essence, a double agent. All these things coalesce to make problem-solving the antithesis of what we've created. We're incentivized for more extreme candidates, for more extreme partisanship, for more conflict and permanent campaigning, for corporate interests to have more influence on the process, not less. The tax code isn't complicated because poor people have demanded that it be that way.
But my question was more about — You say, ''Don't people already think that?'' I don't think they think about the system as much as its outcomes. It's like, I was in that congressional hearing for that 9/11 stuff, and there weren't many people there. I was told: ''Oh, no. It's a lot of people. Twelve out of the 14 subcommittee members showed up.'' But you're credited for being present if you're there for one minute! Jim Jordan and Louie Gohmert walked in, put their name plates up, and a minute later took them down and left.
They weren't there for any testimony! The head of the subcommittee said, ''You have to understand that our members are busy.'' I'm there sitting next to a guy, Lou Alvarez, who's barely able to function because his liver is in shutdown and who died two weeks later, and you're telling me with a straight face that congressional time is too valuable for everybody to be present just to hear about these issues? Who makes the rules of your time? You do!
It's clear you've got things you wanted to talk about. Are you sure you haven't missed having a platform? Is that part of what compelled your movie? I think everybody would like it to be as neat as, ''I've been thinking about this subject, and here is the manner in which I present it to you — my masterpiece.'' But this is all part of a conversation that I started having with audiences years ago. The enemy is noise. The goal is clarity. It's not that I have one particular goal, and I sit and design things. It's not Fox News, which does have one particular goal, which is purely ideological and partisan and has been remarkably successful.
Stewart, right, with Bill O'Reilly on ''The Daily Show'' in 2004.Conrad Mulcahy/Comedy Central, via Everett Collection
Fox, and Bill O'Reilly in particular, used to be your great foils. Now the emblematic Fox personalities are Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. What does their ascendance represent for the network? I think they're just the next level. As things progress, to get the same dopamine hit, you have to push it further. Although O'Reilly pushed it pretty far. The question was always, Why would you talk to him? Why do you have him on the show if you can't destroy him? If you want to talk about the worst legacy of ''The Daily Show,'' it was probably that.
That everyone you spoke to who you disagreed with had to be Jim Cramer'd ? That's right. That's the part of it that I probably most regret. Those moments when you had a tendency, even subconsciously, to feel like, ''We have to live up to the evisceration expectation.'' We tried not to give something more spice than it deserved, but you were aware of, say, what went viral. Resisting that gravitational force is really hard.
We used to have news and we had entertainment. Now those categories are totally intertwined — to the extent that it's not far-fetched to say that we just have varieties of entertainment. And similarly, people are looking at entertainers, rather than politicians, as political authorities. I don't think it's too far off base to suggest that, unintentionally or not, ''The Daily Show'' played a part in that transformation. What do you think about those changes and what they've wrought? I think you have to look at what incentivized the system. The news didn't become ''The Daily Show,'' because at its core, ''The Daily Show'' was a critique of the news and a critique of those systems. If they'd taken in what we were saying, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing now: creating urgency through conflict. Conflict has become the catalyst for the economic model. The entire system functions that way now. We are two sides — in a country of 350 million people.
That reminds me of the old George Carlin joke about how in America you have 23 kinds of bagels to choose from but only two political parties. Politically in this country, you have Coke or Pepsi. Every now and again, Dr Pepper comes along and everybody is like, ''You ruined this for everyone else.'' Dr Pepper is Ralph Nader, let's say. But getting back to your question — it plays into that scenario of looking for the scapegoat. ''Well, it's 'The Daily Show.' They popularized news-as-entertainment.'' It's the New York Times trend-piece thing of somebody getting hold of an idea and amplifying it even though it really has no breadth or depth to it.
What do you think of the news media's handle on this political moment more generally? I don't think it has ever had a good handle on a political moment. It's not designed for that. It's designed for engagement. It's like YouTube and Facebook: an information-laundering perpetual-radicalization machine. It's like porn. I don't mean that to be flip. When you were pubescent, the mere hint of a bra strap could send you into ecstasy. I'm 57 now. If it's not two nuns and a mule, I can't even watch it. Do you understand my point? The algorithm is not designed for thoughtful engagement and clarity. It's designed to make you look at it longer.
Have there been any positive changes, though? Let me give you an example of what might be one: When you were doing ''The Daily Show,'' part of what made you unique was your last-sane-man-in-Crazytown quality. You would actually say that someone in power was telling a lie when the nightly newscasters wouldn't. Now they will say that. Is that a step in the right direction? The media's job is to deconstruct the manipulation, not to just call it a lie. It's about informing on how something works so that you understand the lie's purpose. What are the structural issues underneath the lie? The media shouldn't take the political system personally, or allow its own narcissism to rise to the narcissism of the politicians, or become offended that the politicians are lying — their job is to manipulate.
Are the controversial things that President Trump says structurally motivated? Do you believe he's thinking on that level? I think he understands very well — and the right understands very well — that undermining the credibility of the institutions that people look to for help defining and making sense of reality is the key to bending reality to your will. It's a wonderful rhetorical trick. He had a great one on Memorial Day weekend: ''We're getting great reviews on our pandemic response. But of course, not getting credit for it.'' The twisted logic of that: If you're getting great reviews, I'm pretty sure that's considered credit. It's like saying, ''I'm being praised, but of course I won't be praised for it.'' Language is utterly meaningless. Everything is placed into its category in the tribal war and who its real victims are: Donald Trump and his minions. Poor little billionaire president who can't catch a break. It's incredible. Are we all just extras in this guy's movie? But I do feel as if his approach has worked for him his whole life.
He did become president. Right. He's a man who has suffered no consequences. His is a recklessness born of experience. He's like a malevolent Mr. Magoo. He always knows the I-beam is going to swing down and the building is going to collapse — but who cares, because he'll walk out unscathed. That's what he has learned.
How much might his administration's response to Covid-19 hurt him in November? That's the question the media asks. What they should be focused on is, here's what happens when you hollow out the pandemic-response team. You have to go after the case of competence and anticorruption. The media wants to prosecute the case of offensiveness. That doesn't matter. But there were decisions about P.P.E. and the states that were made without any federal response, and that does matter. It's really about, what is government? Are we the Articles of Confederation? Are we the Constitution? Are we the United States? What are we? If we're just 50 states, and if New York can push Delaware out of the way and get masks, and now Delaware has got to pay 10 times what it was going to pay — are we being led or not? It's the wildest thing. I've never seen anybody who can say in the same breath, as the president does, ''I am in charge, only I can fix this, and I take no responsibility.'' You cannot process that. So what you have to process is the actual process: How do masks help? Do they help? You have to really explain it to people, but we allow the mask-wearing to be reduced to its symbolic meaning. Things like masks can't just become another avatar of political representation. That's where we go wrong.
Part of what you're talking about is trust, which makes me think of this fundamental question that pundits used to have about how seriously people should take you. Sometimes you'd avoid that question by saying you were ''just'' a comedian. Which almost seems quaint now, doesn't it? Because obviously you were being serious, with jokes added in. Why were people hungry for you to take an explicit stand about your politics when the truth was pretty clear all along? What was that about? I mean, I was a contrarian pain in the ass, so when people would ask those questions, I would argue with them. They said, ''You're falling back on being a comedian.'' I'm not falling back on it. I have to stand by everything I say. But if I make a joke that you say is inappropriate, you're then asking me, ''Where do you stand in our system?'' They were asking me to use their language, when the language of satire is different. I'm not Jonathan Swift, but it'd be like saying to him, ''So you're saying we should eat them?'' ''No. But my point — that we need to look at how we treat the have-nots — is valid.'' Though I think I am guilty of not necessarily being very clear with my intention sometimes, like with the rally.
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010, which Stewart co-hosted with Stephen Colbert.Kimihiro Hoshino/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images
Or is it more that your intentions with the rally were misguided? At the time, you talked about it as an attempt to encourage some semblance of balance and civility in the way we talked about one another — that the left shouldn't conflate Tea Partyers and racists, for example. But didn't that downplay the larger problem of the lunatic fringe on the right being a lot closer to the party's center than perhaps you wanted to admit? The rally wasn't about being civil. It was about being precise. The intention was not to suggest that negative things don't exist or that you shouldn't fight them, but to be as precise as you can. It's like the Levittown thing with Bill O'Reilly. He talks all about Levittown: ''That's where I learned my values. Bootstrapping it. I grew up in Levittown, and we learned that work does it.'' Well, guess what? The deed to the properties said you were not allowed to sell them to a black person. Racism is built into this system. But not all the people in it are malevolent and active racists. There is an inert racism that exists, and it's pernicious, but I don't believe everybody who's part of it is evil. So it's more a question of trying to remove a right-left axis from the conversation and instead create a conversation around conditions. Poverty is poverty. The right will talk about poverty a certain way, and the left will talk about poverty a different way, but poor people are still poor people. They're still without political power.
What you're talking about is looking for common ground. But does that come at the expense of addressing real divisions about race or religion? It would be nice if God would come down and go: ''All right, I didn't want to say anything, but the Lutherans are right. It has always been the Lutherans. They're my guys.'' That's not how it's going to go. Our system right now is set up so that minor disagreements become arguments. Arguments become conflagrations. Conflagrations become feuds. Feuds become wars. It never ends, and it sucks. If you say, ''I know people whom I love who voted for Trump,'' people will be like, ''[Expletive] you.'' I go, ''I don't think they're racist.'' ''They are racist, and if they're not racist, they're passively participating in a racist system.'' So am I. So are you. We all are. Have your lines in the sand, but understand: Do you have a phone? There are probably things in the way that your phone is made that are not the greatest in terms of workers' rights. We all have [expletive] on us. Approaching it in that manner is not both-siderism, and it's not asking for civility. You're always going to demonize those who disagree with you and amnesty those who agree with you. But there has to be some measure of understanding that that's what you're doing.
But by now is it still ''demonizing'' a Trump supporter to say that continuing to support him is to participate in perpetuating racism? And shouldn't we demonize anything that perpetuates racism? This idea that we all have [expletive] on us — it seems beside the point . The moral high ground is absolutely there, but we can all achieve something higher. It's too easy to point at the low-hanging moral fruit without doing the work that those who are supposedly on the side of the angels need to do. There's all this talk of being on the right side of history, but what does that mean? ''The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'' Who's bending it? What are we doing to further that? If you just get rid of Trump, that doesn't end this. It's too easy to say: ''I support this other guy. Therefore, I'm part of the solution.'' Or: ''You support that guy. Therefore, you're the problem.'' Now, that is in no way exculpatory to the supporters of those policies or that regime. My point was: What does that judgment get you? What is the accountability that we have for those who really do believe this is unjust but still accept the tacit societal arrangements?
This might be a little Civics 101, but I hope you'll indulge me: A lot of your work has fundamentally been about interrogating certain truths or ideas about America and the American experiment. Things like: What does this country mean? What are its ideals and values? What's its character? Over the last few years those questions have only become harder to contemplate in any coherent way, let alone answer. Do those questions still hold for you? Every society lies to itself to some extent. Every person does. And sometimes you have to face the truth. The truth of the American experiment is that government is messy. It's hard to manage. We are melding cultures and religions in a way that most countries don't. But we have an exceptionalism that we have taken for granted, and we get lost in the symbolism of who we are rather than the reality. The reality of who we are is still remarkable. You can't take the anecdotal and pretend it's universal. You can't take a picture of the Lake of the Ozarks and people on top of each other drinking and say, ''That's how America responded to the pandemic.'' Because it's not. The boots-on-the-ground response has been phenomenally resilient and responsible and courageous. The sense that this could all turn into ''Mad Max'' tomorrow always hangs over everything — but it hasn't. There are issues, but again, we point a spotlight on the anecdotal and pretend that it's universal. What that does is feed the narrative for people who want to use it for their own purposes. That's what drives me bananas. We're basically having giant public fights about symbolism, while the reality of our situation goes unexamined. You're talking to me; I made a stupid movie about this, but underpinning that movie is a real thing, and the real thing is the corruption and the incompetence that we don't even think about.