Skip to main content

Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News.

In an interview with Terry Gross, taped in front of a live audience in New York City, the Daily Show host deconstructs his upcoming "Rally to Restore Sanity" on the National Mall and explains how The Daily Show comes up with material.

51:04

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20101004
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We've got a special show for you today: an interview with Jon Stewart
that I recorded last Wednesday night onstage at the 92nd Street Y in
Manhattan before an audience of about 1,000 people.

The occasion for the interview was the publication of the new book by
Jon Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show" called "Earth: A
Visitor's Guide to the Human Race." It's a collection of satirical
descriptions of human history, including evolution, religion, democracy,
fascism, music and TV.

Stewart has been hosting "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central since 1999.
The show's two Peabodys and 11 Emmys are examples of the widely held
opinion, which I share, that Stewart is a brilliant satirist of politics
and the media.

He's been in the news lately because of the Rick Sanchez story, which
happened after our interview, and because he's organized a rally on the
National Mall for October 30th that he's called The Rally to Restore
Sanity, and Stephen Colbert, whose show "The Colbert Report" was co-
created by Stewart, is organizing a counter-rally whose theme is Keep
Fear Alive.

The 92nd Street Y, where I recorded the interview with Jon Stewart, is
famous for its lecture series, its lyrics and lyricists series, as well
as its programs about Jewish life.

I just want to say thank you before I ask you the first question.

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): You're welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you for – the last thing I see every night, in addition to
my husband and my cat, is your show. And I'm able to go to bed with a
sense that there is sanity someplace in the world.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, that's very kind of you.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: And...

Mr. STEWART: Now, this is going to sound weird, Terry, but the last
thing that I see before I go to bed is you, your husband and your cat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: For some reason, on my monitor in the studio, it shows up.
It's very surprising.

GROSS: Sanity with punch lines.

Mr. STEWART: Sanity with punch lines, absolutely.

GROSS: That's great. So let's start with your Rally to Restore Sanity.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: So it's the Million Moderate March to take it down a notch for
America. And everyone is trying to figure out, is this a new breed of
comedy festival, or is this, like, a political march to bring out the
vote, particularly, like the younger voters? Like, tell us what it
really is.

Mr. STEWART: Well, when we figure out what it is, Terry...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're going to call me?

Mr. STEWART: We're going to be delighted. First of all, let me just
thank - I want to thank everybody for coming out. It's an honor to be at
the 92nd Street Y, which I don't know if you know this, the third-
holiest site in the Jewish religion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It's very exciting for me to be here this the - I believe
it's The Wailing Wall, gay bars and the 92nd Street Y. So obviously for
me, this is an honor, and it's a real treat and to see such a big
turnout this close to the end of Sukkot is really, I know how tired
everybody is from the hammering and the lulov and the shaking of the
lemon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I've got to get these out because honestly, it's the only
place in the world this stuff works.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: There's nowhere I can work with the lulov, but the march.

GROSS: But what is the march?

Mr. STEWART: The march is, like everything that we do, the march is
merely a construct. It's just a format in the same way that the book is
a format. You know, a show is a format, a book is a format to translate
the type of expression that we do, whether it be a satire on the
political events. It's a format to be filled with the type of material
that Stephen and I do and the point of view.

So it's not – you know, people have said it's a rally to counter Glenn
Beck. It's not. What it is is we saw that and thought what a beautiful
outline. What a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express
in live form, festival form.

GROSS: How did you cook it up?

Mr. STEWART: Insomnia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: When I had heard about it and what was happening, and, you
know, he was, Glenn was going to do the Rally to Restore Honor, and I
thought man, that actually is, that's a great idea. And I thought it's a
perfect - he's a reaction to what he feels like is the news, and so are
we.

We actually share, I think, quite a bit in common in terms of not point
of view necessarily but reason for being. We're both in some ways an op-
ed. We consider ourselves sort of editorial cartoonists in some respect.
Not him, but the show. Op-ed cartoonists, or the Messiah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: We're both different. But I was - I very much wanted to
avoid the idea that it would be a reaction to him and because I don't
think that'd be fair to him, and it's not meant to ridicule activism or
the Tea Party Movement or religious people. It's meant as, again, a
great construct to express kind of the dynamic that we like to express
on the show.

So he was outraged, and he was going to do a counter-rally. So I
thought: What a great way to remove it from the premise of a reaction to
what they were doing and let Stephen and I embody the two things and
fight, you know, Harry Potter-Voldemort style, you know, together.

You know, so much of what "The Daily Show" is is just a deconstruction
of the way that news or the way that a political campaign is put
together. And so much of what Stephen does is a deconstruction and then
a reconstruction through his character's prism.

GROSS: Now, some people are worried. There's a big AFL-CIO liberal
march, there's the FFL, the NAACP, a whole bunch of groups. Some people
worry that your march is going to take away from their, like, serious
political march.

Mr. STEWART: Right, yeah, tough (BEEP).

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Why do you say that?

Mr. STEWART: I have a job. I don't have to do yours. I don't have to do
their job. Let them do their job. If their job is to motivate the voters
and to rally people to their cause, God bless. Do whatever you've got to
do. But that's not my job. My job is to, again, express our point of
view comedically about what we view as the political process.

You know, I don't – I have no obligation to the Democrats or
progressives or liberals or unions. Our feeling is corruption is
corruption. If a union is corrupt, you can't leave it alone because it's
a union, and they help so that eight-year-olds don't work in factories
anymore. You know, you have to go where you feel like the absurdity is.
So we're not anybody's – we're not warriors in their cause, and if
they're upset, they should have thought of that, you know, the past
couple of years, before they lost, you know, the momentum that they had
gained in 2008.

GROSS: Now, are you nervous that all that tens of thousands of people
are going to leave their homes and travel long-distance because you
asked them to? And any time there's this, like, huge rally in the
National Mall...

Mr. STEWART: You're saying: Am I a Jew?

GROSS: No, I mean, it's like...

Mr. STEWART: I'm nervous about everything.

GROSS: It's, like, worse than throwing a wedding or something. I mean,
it's like...

Mr. STEWART: No, I'm nervous about traffic. I'm nervous about
everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, I know, but it's, like...

Mr. STEWART: I'm nervous - I would like to see a bus that's just filled
with Purell go down there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I'm nervous for everybody. I don't want people to get sick.
I don't want them – we're, at the rally, we're going to be, we're going
to have – you know how rallies usually have things you can buy. We're
going to sell scarves. I mean, it's the end of October. It could get
chilly. You know, we don't want people to go home and go, we went to
this rally, we had a great time, it was really fun.

I mean, it is – everything is being done with that idea of reason in
mind. The charity that we're donating to is to restore the National
Mall. We feel like, you know, there are many very worthy charities, but
we feel like we're going to be using that space, we should in some ways,
the reasonable thing to do would be help restore it after we leave.

GROSS: Now, my impression is that if you weren't throwing the march, so
to speak, if it wasn't your party, rally, whatever, that you'd never go.
You strike me as the kind of person...

Mr. STEWART: I think that's an excellent point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I would never be at something...

GROSS: You strike me as the kind of person who would never be at a
demonstration, yeah.

Mr. STEWART: No, this is – it's a rally. It's one day where non-joiners
unite, you know.

GROSS: Yes, okay, very good.

Mr. STEWART: That type of – the dichotomy is – yeah, there's – listen,
there's a tremendous amount of contradictions in terms of what we
normally do, but we think we won't be contradicting ourselves content-
wise. And for us, that's always been the main thing is to keep things
consistent in the reason of it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart last
Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y in New York. We'll get back to the
interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart
onstage last Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The
occasion for the interview was the publication of the new book by
Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show" called "Earth: A Visitor's
Guide to the Human Race."

GROSS: Now we brought a couple clips.

Mr. STEWART: From "The Daily Show," or are we going to watch that new
show "The Event"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I've heard very good things.

GROSS: So although the rally isn't directly inspired by Glenn Beck, I
think there is a bit of an echo there. So I thought we'd play the Glenn
Beck clip first because you are so funny. You recently devoted a show,
the better part of a show, to your impression of Glenn Beck.

Mr. STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: And it was so funny and so good and so right on the money.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

GROSS: So I want to play a clip. I don't know if you saw it. I don't
know if you saw it or not when it was on, but you'll get to see it now,
and this clip actually starts with Glenn Beck himself, with a clip from
his show that you will then comment on. Here we go.

Mr. STEWART: You just blew my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of television program, "The Daily Show")

(Soundbite of television program, "The Glenn Beck Show")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "The Glenn Beck Show": Progressives think they
know better than you do. They want to control every aspect of your life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I didn't know that that's what I wanted, but I guess I want
to control every aspect of your life. As a progressive, I might say: I
think it's a good idea for an agency to monitor pollution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: But I guess what I really mean is it's in the state's
interest that we be allowed to put a chip in your head that tells you
when you can masturbate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Total control. And in my America, nobody tells people when
they can masturbate.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: That is a decision that should only be made between myself,
my doctor and that new Calvin Klein billboard outside my window's that's
lit 24 hours a day, no not that one, the new one. The new one. Ew, no,
the new one that's got the – yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: So I'd love it if you could kind of take us behind the scenes a
little bit and tell us, like, what goes on, like how did you try to
deconstruct Glenn Beck and figure out what is his logic that you're
going to apply in your version?

Mr. STEWART: The beautiful thing about what he does is it's very
difficult to argue with his facts. It's the conclusions. You know, you
can string together all type of fact. It's sort of like, you know, the
old thing where, like, he's got a thing about progressives. If you
somehow believe that the country should have some type of social safety
net for, you know, our least-fortunate people, then you believe that the
government should control the banks and also all of our institutions,
and, you know, it's that slippery slope, and he'll come up with, you
know, these little arguments that go along. And, but the conclusions he
draws. So what you do is you just grab together facts, and then you take
them, and you put them together and do a grab bag of conclusions.

You know, it's - everything is discovered as evidence of secret plots,
you know, secret things that could be occurring. You know, you take the
word conservative or libertarian, you know, and you break it apart. You
know, libertarian, L-I, lie, lie. Why would the word lie be in there?

And then bert. Bert was the gay communist half of Ernie and Bert. Why
would that be in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And if you – arian, Aryan. Do you see? Aryan is the last –
they are Nazis. You know, and you blow it all out as though it's a
conspiracy, and it's easy to perform because it's comedy.

So when I watch him, it's fun for me because as a comedian myself, it's
easy to do. You know, you do the whole...

(Soundbite of sigh)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: (Whispering) You know, I, I didn't want to be the one to
have to do this, but the country is dying.

You know, you just make it all seem like it's just popping into your
head right there, and you're just a concerned citizen, reading a
teleprompter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So when you did that bit, and it ended with there will be a
government chip in your head telling you when you can masturbate, little
did you know then that masturbation would become an issue in the
campaign through Christine O'Donnell.

Mr. STEWART: Poor Christine O'Donnell. Look, she said something on MTV
20 years ago. I am the last person to judge someone who said weird
things on MTV 20 years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You know, I feel like again, this woman, Christine
O'Donnell, she may be qualified. She may not. I'm not all that impressed
with what's in the Senate right now. But the last thing that I would
suggest is that her witchcraft or masturbation stance is what we should
be even thinking about or focusing on, and I think that's an enormous
mistake that the Democrats will make.

Because we like to sit around the office and try and think - we have a
little game called How Will the Democrats Blow It.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And that's the way they'll do it is they'll think somehow
that that will resonate with voters, that 20 years ago Christine
O'Donnell on MTV said masturbation, you know, is a sin. And, you know,
they'll play it, and they'll ridicule it, and the voters will be like,
yeah, I don't have a job. That's how they'll blow it.

GROSS: This stuff is a payday for comics, which leads me to something
very funny that you did on Carl Paladino's win in the Republican
gubernatorial primary in New York.

Mr. STEWART: I love that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I brought a clip of that. So let's watch that, and this was
right after he won the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, very nice.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. STEWART: So who were our winners last night? Well, meet new
Republican nominee for governor of New York, Carl Paladino.

(Soundbite of song, "Spanish Flea")

Mr. STEWART: He's a Syracuse Law graduate with Barry Goldwater's fiscal
credentials and Abe Vigoda's bedroom eyes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Oh, and there's also this:

Unidentified Man #1: Paladino's emails to friends and business
associates, they contain racist jokes, porn and bestiality.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, racist jokes, porn and bestiality. I was told this was
going to be a Tea Party. Oh, I didn't know they (BEEP) horses at Tea
Parties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: But Paladino had a good explanation for the raunchy emails.

Mr. CARL PALADINO (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): I
forwarded emails that were – I'm in the construction industry, okay. I
get a lot of this junk sent to me.

Mr. STEWART: And a lot of that junk just happens to be videos of broads
banging horses. So what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to not
forward it out? I mean, come on, what part of I'm in the construction
industry don't you understand? Huh? Huh? Huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Okay, when the real world is as funny as that was, what happens
at the morning meeting on "The Daily Show" to figure out what to do with
it?

Mr. STEWART: Honestly, you know, for the most part, this is – it's the
type of candy that we have to avoid. It's like when we come in in the
morning, and there's doughnuts, and you're like, I should probably have
- I should have some granola first or something.

So we try to limit our intake of sugar. But it is, you're right, it's
like crack cocaine for a comedian, and you try to – because if the whole
show is that, then it really does begin to spiral out of control, into
what appears to be a litany of masturbation and bestiality jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what the morning meeting is like.

Mr. STEWART: The morning meeting, or as we call it, our morning cup of
sadness, we get in around - you'd be incredibly surprised at how
regimented our day is and just how the infrastructure of the show is
very much mechanized.

It, you know, we come in, and it's not – people always think "The Daily
Show," you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We've
instituted - to be able to sort of wean through all this material and
synthesize it and try and come up with things to do, we have a very kind
of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows
us to process everything and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I'm a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom.
Freedom, I think you don't know what to do with yourself, but when you
have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident
enough to kind of come back to that.

So the morning meeting is at 9 o'clock, and what we've done is we have,
I guess you'd call them mole people that live in a little subterranean
area of our building, and they are charged with watching all of these
shows. And they are just tragic, tragic individuals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: They are – they live lives of true sadness. They are mole
people. Someday they will be free, and we will all celebrate their
freedom. George Bush will come in and free them.

The – so the morning meeting is, it's typically what are the top
stories, and how have they been covered. We have a 9 o'clock meeting and
a 3 o'clock meeting.

The 9 o'clock is to kind of rehash the sort of analysis that we were
going over the night before to see if the premises and hypotheses we had
come up with the night before have come to pass, and what's the video
evidence.

And then we take that, and we sort of – then we begin to knit it
together for writing assignments. And then those writing assignments are
usually coming back in at 11:30, at which point we begin to read them.

There's really, my day is very interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Then we read them and go over the notes of how we're going
to attack it. We don't have enough there, we'll push it back out to the
writers. They'll come back at 12:30.

And the day basically goes as sort of a little dance of collaboration
between writing and rewriting and including all of the other elements of
graphics and all those kinds of things to put together.

GROSS: Now, one of the things that "The Daily Show" is incredible for is
what I've come to think of as the hypocrisy videos, most recently, like,
the Boehner versus Boehner one, where you have John Boehner presenting
the new ideas of the Republican Party, and you juxtaposed him saying
exactly the same thing in I think it was 1993 to what he'd said just a
few days ago.

Mr. STEWART: That's right.

GROSS: And you did that, like, with Glenn Beck, for example. You had him
saying, you know, the government should never tell us what to do. And
then you had videos of Glenn Beck telling us what to do.

And you do that all the time with politicians, and the videos go back a
long way. How do the people on your staff find those old videos?

Mr. STEWART: Well, you can search on NexisLexis(ph) if you have an idea
of what you want. And, you know, if the idea is – when you see the
pledge, so your obvious first thought is, okay, the pledge is the same
as the Contract for America. So let's go back and look at the Contract
for America.

It's all about just making connections and then looking into it and
using search words. It's learning...

GROSS: It's journalism. It's called journalism.

Mr. STEWART: I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't know.

Mr. STEWART: I think it's called Googling. I think we Google. We tend to
Google.

GROSS: No, but I often feel like how come I had to find out about this
on your show, on a comedy show?

Mr. STEWART: That's funny because we often feel that way, as well. But
it's not – the reason why I don't think it's journalism, the reason why
I think it's analysis is we don't do anything but make the connections.
We're just going off our own instinct of what are the connections to
this that might make sense.

And this really is true: We don't fact-check, and we don't look at
context because of any journalistic criterion that we feel has to be
met. We do that because jokes don't work when they're lies.

So we fact-check so when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a
guttural level, as opposed to – it's not because we have a journalistic
integrity. Hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to
violate.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Jon Stewart in the second
half of the show. It was recorded onstage at the 92nd Street Y in
Manhattan last Wednesday night. Stewart and the writers of "The Daily
Show" have a new book called "Earth: A Visitor's Guide to the Human
Race." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview with Jon Stewart that I recorded last
Wednesday night, before an audience of about 1,000 people at the 92nd
Street Y in New York. The occasion was the publication of the new
satirical book by Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show," called
“Earth: A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race.” Jon Stewart is the host
and executive producer of "The Daily Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: One of the amazing things you did on your show, after "South
Park" did its Prophet Muhammad sequence over the summer...

Mr. STEWART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the whole idea was that, you know, the Prophet Muhammad was
like hiding in a truck, I think, under a shroud or something.

Mr. STEWART: Bear suit.

GROSS: And - bear suit. A right. And you’re not supposed to depict the
Prophet Muhammad visually.

Mr. STEWART: Especially in a bear suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But it turned out it was really Santa Claus. It wasn’t the
Prophet Muhammad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But...

Mr. STEWART: And then at the end you were like, geez, why was Santa
really hiding? It didn’t really make a lot of sense.

GROSS: But still, a lot of people - I think a lot of Muslims were very
angry at even the sentiment behind it. But...

Mr. STEWART: I don't think even a lot were. I think there were
certain...

GROSS: Some. Some.

Mr. STEWART: ...extremist groups that expressed their outage.

GROSS: Yes. Right. And there were death threats against...

Mr. STEWART: I believe that's correct.

GROSS: Yes, the creators of "South Park." And you did an incredible
thing afterwards. You devoted a segment to it and then you said - I say
to anyone who’s threatening death in the name of religion or politics,
and then a gospel group came out and then, do you want say what you did?

Mr. STEWART: I believe the phrase was: go (bleep) yourself.

GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And then we danced and sang. Can I tell you the most
difficult thing about that?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: Finally, a gospel group that'll sing, go (bleep) yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: I'll tell you, they're not, not easy to find. We called a
lot of churches. We're like do you have a gospel group? Yes, we do.
Would they possibly come and sing go (bleep) yourself? And they're like,
yeah, we could do "Amazing Grace."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Can you do - you know, so the negotiations to get them up
there were difficult. But, you know, I think the lesson that I sort of
took from all that is, again, there's a difference between disagreeing
with people like newscasters on Fox News that I think are incorrect in
their analysis of the day's events and people that threaten to kill you
for putting a cartoon image of Muhammad in a bear suit. And that's a
line that we too often forget.

And it’s very easy to de-humanize, and I will say in this room, I would
imagine, you know, Beck and Palin are easier punching bags and we can
think of it as, oh my god, I'm so scared if they take over. And you know
what? We'll be fine. You know, we had a civil war. Just, we're not that
fragile and I think we always have to remember that people can be
opponents, but not enemies. And there are enemies in the world. We just
need the news media to help us delineate. And I think that's where the
failing is, that the culture of corruption that exists in the media
doesn’t allow us to delineate between enemies and opponents and that's
where we sort of fall into trouble.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Now in terms of consequences...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) We are the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Yeah. We (Singing) Love on the rocks. Ain't surprise.
Something, something...

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. STEWART: Accept no lies.

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. STEWART: Baby we were born to rock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it strikes me that your interviews have gotten more serious
over the years. Not all of them, but some of them, most famous, Jim
Cramer. Well, one of the most famous, Jim Cramer, which basically held
him and CNBC responsible for the financial meltdown because they weren't
really reporting it. And what I mean by that is you accused him of being
able to see this coming, of knowing the things happening behind the
scenes.

Mr. STEWART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, what were the repercussions of it? Because he's certainly...

Mr. STEWART: He was sad.

GROSS: He was sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. I think he expected something more humorous.

Mr. STEWART: Probably.

GROSS: And you, but anyways...

Mr. STEWART: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I guess what I'm really wondering is how it left you feeling
about doing really serious interviews with somebody.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, I don’t care for it. I'm not, you know, I think I've
done, you know, three like that in 12 years. The intention is never to
go out there and be humorless and sanctimonious. Not that I can't do
that. You know, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: ...and have shown that in the past. But some of it is the
alchemy of the person's reaction to how it’s being presented to them,
their reaction if there are moments in the conversation where you become
infuriated. But that's never, it's never the goal. And the entire sort
of ideology of how it all happened is silly.

We were basically making a case - the Jim Cramer, Bear Stearns stuff
that we ran, and I don’t know if anybody is familiar with it. But it
was, you know, right before Bear Stearns ran from, you know, $60 to six
cents. You know, like that week he was like Bear Stearns, you'll love
it, you know, and then he hit the button and they're like...

(Soundbite of mimicking)

Mr. STEWART: You know, that whole thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So we had done that a year ago and so when we put it back
in it was just, it was all a reaction to, there was a gentleman named
Rick Santelli who had gone on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile
Exchange, and had done, this was his famous sort of Tea Party rant, and
it was about the irresponsibility of homeowners and how dare the
taxpayers have to bailout irresponsible homeowners who had taken loans
that they were unable to pay off.

And I thought that was an incredibly arrogant statement coming from
somebody who work for CNBC, a 24-hour news network devoted to financial
analysis, who call themselves experts, who - how were their judgment? So
that was the - the whole way that the bit came about was, you’re yelling
about the judgment of individual homeowners who took on loans that they
didn’t realize were going bury them or they didn’t know that the values
would go under water, let's go back and check your judgment. And it was
just a 10 minute clip package of them being wrong.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STEWART: He was one very small part of it, but he poked his head up
and went, that was unfair, that was out of context. So I said, because
we don’t want to take people out of context - hey guys, I thought we
checked this out. Go back and check, because if that's not fair, we
should actually come up with a way to figure that. Well, it turns out
not only was it fair, but there was a whole other Christmas box filled
with (bleep) predictions.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STEWART: So, what do you do in that situation? You put those
together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Then you put that out there and then he goes, that's it,
I'm coming on. I mean, they called us and said, can he come on? And...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. STEWART: And there was no, you know, they made a whole thing like
well; they promised they wouldn’t do the - no we didn’t. We didn’t
promise anything. In fact, I went back there right before the interview
and said, look man, this probably isn't going to be a pleasant
conversation. I hope it’ll be fair. See you out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And that was it.

GROSS: Now here's the thing I'm wondering, your brother, Larry
Leibowitz...

Mr. STEWART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...is the COO of...

Mr. STEWART: Changed his name from Stewart, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: It's less Jewish.

Mr. STEWART: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So...

Mr. STEWART: Wanted to seem more financial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: So because he's the head of the COO - he's the COO of the New
York Stock Exchange...

Mr. STEWART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...does he teach you things that you otherwise...

Mr. STEWART: He is - listen, he is like...

GROSS: Can he teach like what a credit default swap is?

Mr. STEWART: The guy is the most brilliant guy I've ever met. He has
tried on numerous occasions to educate me to these things, but he is in
no way responsible for my misunderstandings or misperceptions of the
financial world. You know, he does his best to present to me, when I ask
him...

GROSS: But you seem to really understand it.

Mr. STEWART: Really?

GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes.

We're listening to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart last
Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y in New York. We'll get back to the
interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart, last
Wednesday night on stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Stewart and
the writers of "The Daily Show" have a new book called "Earth: A
Visitor's Guide to the Human Race."

Now you made "The Daily Show" a much more political show than it was
before you came.

Mr. STEWART: Right.

GROSS: Because it was - it pre-existed you, but you completely changed
the show. And before I ask you about how doing the show changed you, I
want to play you a short clip of what Stephen Colbert said when Stephen
Colbert was on our show the first time a few years ago.

Mr. STEWART: How did you get access to him because I call over there all
the time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Very busy man.

GROSS: So this is what Stephen Colbert said about...

Mr. STEWART: All right.

GROSS: ...being on your show, working with you and becoming more
political. Here it is.

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT ("The Colbert Report"): When I got to "The Daily
Show," they asked me to have a political opinion or rather, Jon did. Jon
asked me to have a political opinion and it turned out that I had one.
But I didn’t realize quite how liberal I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Until I was asked to make passionate comedic choices, as
opposed to necessarily successful comedic choices.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So he feels that he became more political because you pushed him
to make passionate political choices in humor. Did doing the show make
you more political than you ever expected to be - more politically
aware, more politically engaged?

Mr. STEWART: I think it made me less political and more emotional. The
closer you spend time with the political and the media process, the less
political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at
corruption. So it’s - I don’t consider it political because political I
always sort of denote as a partisan endeavor.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: But we have - I have become increasingly unnerved by just
the depth of corruption that exists at many different levels. I'm less
upset about politicians than the media. I feel like politicians, there
is a certain inherent, you know, the way I always explain it is, when
you go to the zoo and a monkey throws its feces, it’s a monkey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: But, when the zookeeper is standing right there and he
doesn’t say bad monkey...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Somebody's got to be the zookeeper. And that's - so I tend
to feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the
media than by political advocates.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: They're representing a constituency. And the media, you
know, our culture is just a series of checks and balances. That's why
I'm never, you know, the whole idea that we're in a suddenly a battle
for, between tyranny and freedom, it’s a series of pendulum swings. And
the swings have become less drastic over time.

That's why I feel sort of - not sanguine, but at least a little bit less
frightful in that our pendulum swings have become less and less. But
what has changed is I think the media's sense of their ability to be
responsible arbiters or I think they feel fearful. I think there is this
whole idea now that there's a liberal media conspiracy. And so if they
feel like they express any moral authority or judgment, which is what
you would imagine is editorial control, that they will be vilified. Or
there's, you know, I honestly don’t know what it is.

GROSS: So you were doing comedy long before "The Daily Show."

Mr. STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: So what was your comedy like before it became a critique of
politics and media?

Mr. STEWART: Mostly balloons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It was a critique of religion and politics and media. It
was my feelings on that but in a, just in a much less savvy form, a much
less technically aware form, a much less educated form. Our process has
allowed us to extend it, you know. The amount of material that we go
through in a day now, I mean it took me six years to write my first, you
know, 45 minutes.

GROSS: What was in the first 45 minutes? Tell us something that was in
it?

Mr. STEWART: There was, let's see, you know, it was so long ago - this
is 1980. There was a lot of Saddam Hussein stuff. I don’t know if you
remember that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It was stuff about, I remember the first Persian Gulf War,
where again, it was this idea that, you know, everyone was afraid it was
going to be another Vietnam. I think the joke was, you know, it was
going to be another Vietnam. We can't go in there, it's going to be
another Vietnam. And then the whole war lasted two days. There wasn’t
even another Woodstock. You know, it was that kind of thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Or that, you know, it was a lot of those types of issues
still. It was actually a lot of religious stuff sort of working out. A
comedian's first 15 minutes is typically about his life. I'm a - you
know, your first joke is usually who you are. You just kind of walk out
and go, I'm a Jew who was raised in New Jersey - joke. You know, it’s -
and then you work through your family and, you know, you basically go
through your entire history with them and then you sit and stare at them
but they're not doing much. So you have to then spread out.

So then your next jokes usually come from where you go on the road. So
I've taken my act about being a Jew from New Jersey to Tennessee. Want
to hear about Tennessee?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You know, and then that's your next...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Your next act is about your life as a comedian. And then
when that’s exhausted, you tend to turn your vision to the world, and
that becomes sort of your tableau for the rest of your career - at least
in the instances that I've seen.

GROSS: So you were voted most funny person in high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What got you that honor?

Mr. STEWART: It was mostly the political stuff.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You know, I was obnoxious. I was obnoxious and people in
New Jersey in the late '70s dug that, man.

(Soundbite of snapping fingers)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You know, I think I always - it’s not like I was morose and
then suddenly went into comedy. I mean, I was a - I guess what you would
consider back then, a pain in the ass.

GROSS: So was this from, like, did you have a stage or something to be
funny on, or were you just like funny in the halls or?

Mr. STEWART: No, I had a stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I had a stage set up and then people would...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: ...come by and go, hey, what are you going to Geometry
class? Nice shirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Does it come in men's? Boom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You know, that kind of comedy...

GROSS: And were you performing? Were you in shows? Were you in...

Mr. STEWART: I was not into theater. I was into sports and...

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. STEWART: Well, I had the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I had the dream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I had the dream that I would not have Bud Harrelson's body.
I thought I would have, perhaps, I would grow into something. So I
wanted to be an athlete. I didn’t want to be in show business.

It was a very different world and I know a lot of people in here are of
that era. It was not - we were not in the world where everybody was
special yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: We had not entered into that stage of where everybody had a
Facebook page that they could personalize with tunes they love and, you
know, my kids will never know what it's like to have nothing to watch
because there's like, they will, I mean, I'm surprised that when we have
human interactions, they don’t like go, let me freeze that and just run
that back. Like they're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: They're accustomed to things being presented to them when
they want it in exactly the form that they want it. And they're
accustomed to the idea that I'm special and I can do anything and if I
do it, just by the very nature of me doing it, it is in fact then
special. I can from the era of - you’re not special.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Don't - oh, you think you’re special? You’re not so
special.

GROSS: Jewish parents can be very good at giving you that...

Mr. STEWART: Oh, no, my mom - well, listen...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: I mean, that's not her, but that was the culture of the
time. She was, I think, an anomaly in that era. You know, she, there was
like a quiet confidence because she had to fend for herself. You know,
divorced in the '70s and that sort of thing. So I think she had a very
different outlook, but that, the community at large was not like that.
The community at large was, hey, hey, you going to move to New York,
huh? Eh, good look at the Gay Pride Parade, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Mr. Big Shot.

Mr. STEWART: Yeah. You know what I mean? It's not - it wasn’t about
empowerment and creativity. I didn’t - there was, I had no sense of this
world of expression that existed out there.

GROSS: Well, you know, you got MTV shows earlier in you career and
worked on other shows. But when your MTV interview show was discontinued
you went on Letterman’s show right afterwards.

Mr. STEWART: Right. No.

GROSS: Was there another show that's continued?

Mr. STEWART: Yeah. It was - there was an MTV show and then it was bought
by the guy - Arsenio Hall was on and he had a Dog Pound...

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Then he left.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. STEWART: And they thought who is going to look out for the Dog
Pound?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So they hired me, because what a perfect line of succession
that would be. I have an idea, let's bring in the opposite of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: So that lasted a very short time and that was the thing
that...

GROSS: That was the thing that was cancelled.

Mr. STEWART: That was the thing that got cancelled, then I went on
Letterman that night; although, was scheduled to be on Letterman not -
it was happenstance more than it was...

GROSS: Right. Right. So what you said to Letterman was that, you were
thinking of going to L.A., but in L.A., everyone tries to tell you who
you are. And in your case, they tell you, you’re a younger Richard
Lewis, you’re a younger Jerry Seinfeld, which means I'm a Jew.

Mr. STEWART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, if that's what they were telling you who you were, who did
you think you were then?

Mr. STEWART: That's one of the things that I think I pride myself on is
not thinking about that.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. STEWART: You know, I never in my career have ever thought about what
the goal was. The goal was always to be better than I was at the present
time at what I was doing. As a stand-up, my break in stand-up was not
getting on Letterman. My break in stand-up was - there's a place called
the Comedy Cellar in the Village on MacDougal Street, and a great group
of guys that were together in those day performing. And they put me on
every night at 2 AM.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I was the last guy on every night. And not on the weekends,
because I wasn’t good enough for weekend. So, Sunday night through
Thursday night, it was me, and drunk Dutch tourists...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: ...in a basement in the Village and I would perform for the
plate of humus that would be served to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Because above the Comedy Cellar is a Middle Eastern
restaurant because, of course. And I went on every night and I learned
the difference between impersonating a comedian and being a comedian.
And that was my break, was learning how to be authentic. Not to the
audience but to myself. I developed a baseline of confidence and also
insecurity. I knew how bad I was and I knew how good I was. And that is
what helped me through a lot of the ups and downs as we went along.

GROSS: You’re much more comfortable at the anchor desk on "The Daily
Show" than standing up in front of a microphone?

Mr. STEWART: No. I love stand-up comedy.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. STEWART: And the anchor desk to me feels more of an artifice than -
the show as it's done, I understand the practice of it. Performing the
show is the last thing I think about. My day is writing and rewriting
the show. And then a lot of times would be like, okay, let's go. Right.
Right, and then you think about it. But that to me is artifice. I like
the crafting of it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart last
Wednesday night at the 92 Street Y in New York.

We'll get back to the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Jon Stewart last
Wednesday night on stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Stewart and
the writers of "The Daily Show" have a new book called "Earth: A
Visitor's Guide to the Human Race.”

You work so hard on the show. It's so obvious how much work you put into
writing and performing it and how long your day must be and how it
probably never ends, particularly doing an event this rally. I mean,
you’re...

Mr. STEWART: You'd be surprise how easily I turn it off when I go home.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. STEWART: I've gotten really good at when I go home, the kids and I
and my -we watch "Wizards of Waverly Place," and I don't think about it
again.

GROSS: Have you changed the amount of time you’re willing to devote to
the show and to work now that you’re the father of two?

Mr. STEWART: No. I’d rather they suffer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I'd rather not. I figure I’ll catch up with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: No. But what I have decided is when I'm home, I'm home. And
to me, that's the difference. You know, I can't not be at work but the
real challenge is when I'm at work, I'm at work. I'm locked in, I'm
ready to go, I'm focused. When I'm at home, I'm locked in and I'm ready
to go and I'm focused on home. And we don't watch the show. We don't
watch the news. We don't do any of that stuff. I sit down, I play
Barbies. I, you know, and then sometimes the kids will come home and
play with me and then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: You know, it just, you know, they're just sitting there. I
mean, she's got a horse and a kitchen and I just think like, the
possibilities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: If I'm able to give them my full attention for the amount
of time I'm able to give it to them, I prefer that to, you know, I like
to turn the switch on and off. And it’s still, you know, it'll - in
times like this I don’t sleep well, just because of so much that's going
on, but I try not to let it affect me in my waking hours.

GROSS: Do you take anything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Hmm.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. STEWART: Manischewitz. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So just one more thing, do you have like an experience on "The
Daily Show" or as a comic where you say, this is my peak experience,
this is as good as it gets, like this is so great?

Mr. STEWART: There was a congressional bill where they were going to get
money for first responders for 9/11 for chronic health issues. And I
mean, it’s a no-brainer. The people that went into the Towers that - or
were down there searching, to have their health bills taken care of...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: ...and legislative maneuvering - the Democrats wouldn’t
bring an up or down vote because if they did that the Republicans would
be allowed to insert amendments. And one of the amendments that they
could insert was that you could give any of the money to illegal aliens.

And so the Democrats were afraid that they would have a commercial that
would be made that would say, you voted to give money to - so rather
than standing up and being moral for the people that risked everything
for us down there, they decided to try a legislative maneuver that made
it so that two-thirds had to pass the bill, so that no amendments could
be put in it. Well, the Republicans obviously, you know, shot it down -
their own moral failing.

So we did a segment on the show called "I Give Up."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And the ability to articulate our sense of just absolute
sadness, but through a prism of comedy - like, we came in in that
morning just really despairing as we watched this go down. And we walked
out that night feeling like we had yelled and felt, you know, we had a -
we put it through the prism and the synthesis and the digestive process
that we put it through and we made ourselves feel better.

And we didn’t make ourselves feel better by ignoring it, by dismissing
it, by not dealing it. We made ourselves feel better by expressing our
utter rage at the ineptness and lack of courage from our legislators and
we walked out of there that night feeling like, you know, what, (bleep)
good day's work. That was it.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: I would love to talk to you for hours and I have a feeling our
audience would love to listen to you for hours, but I am...

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: I am sadly required to end it about now.

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Sunrise. Sunset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Mandy Patinkin as Jon Stewart in "The Interview that Never
Ended."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Sunrise.

GROSS: I just want say thank you for giving me the privilege of talking
with you.

Mr. STEWART: Oh, please.

GROSS: And please let me lead the standing ovation for you and the work
that you do.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you. All right.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: My interview with John Stewart was recorded last Wednesday night
at the 92ns Street Y in Manhattan. The occasion was the new book by
Stewart and the writers of "The Daily Show" called "Earth: A Visitor's
Guide to the Human Race." You can find a photo from the event, as well
as links to our other interviews with people from "The Daily Show" on
our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BOWMAN: I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
130321994

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue