Jon Stewart On His 'Daily Show' Run: 'It So Far Exceeded My Expectations'
Jon Stewart hosts his last episode of Comedy Central's The Daily Show on Thursday, wrapping up a 16-year run in which he turned the once-obscure fake news show into a cultural phenomenon.
The Daily Show eviscerated politicians and media elites with video montages and Stewart's biting commentary, but in 2010 Stewart told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the show made him more "emotional" than political.
"The [more] you spend time with the political and the media process, the less political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption," Stewart said.
The host was known for calling out politicians and media personalities who he felt were being disingenuous. In 2004, he appeared on CNN's Crossfire and implored the show's hosts to "stop hurting America."
He told Gross that he was bothered less by politicians than by the media: "I feel like politicians, there's a certain inherent — the way I always explain it is when you go to the zoo and a monkey throws its feces, it's a monkey. But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn't say, 'Bad monkey!' — somebody's got to be the zookeeper. I tend to feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates."
When asked in a 2014 Fresh Air interview about stepping down from The Daily Show, Stewart said, "I don't know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well-suited for as this show. I hate to even get maudlin or weepy about it, but it so far exceeded my expectations of what this business would be like for me."
Fresh Air pays tribute to Stewart's tenure on The Daily Show with pieces from four different interviews since 2000, including a 2006 conversation with former Daily Show executive producer Ben Karlin, which you can listen to in the audio link above.
On what made him want to try stand-up
It really is a rhythm that either makes sense to you or doesn't. I think it's similar — I would watch someone who is a musician and just go, "Wow. That just looks like magic to me," but I'd watch a comedian and go, "Huh, alright. I could see why he thinks that." So it's a rhythm that makes sense to you that is whatever your thought process is. To get up onstage for the first time, obviously, you're doing more of an impression of a comedian than you are yourself. You're writing jokes that you think are supposedly funny and that sort of thing, and then it takes a long time to sort of discover your own rhythm, but the rhythm itself made sense to me.
On how The Daily Show is put together every day
You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized. People always think, "The Daily Show, you guys probably just sit around and make jokes," and we've instituted — to be able to sort of ween through all of this material and synthesize it and try to come up with things to do — we have a very 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.
On why he doesn't think of the show as journalism
The reason why I don't think it's journalism, the reason why I think it's analysis, is that 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? ... 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 that when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a guttural level — it's not because we have a journalistic integrity. Hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate.
On a Daily Show experience that stands out to him
There was a congressional bill where they were going to get money for first responders for Sept. 11 for chronic health issues. And it's a no-brainer — the people that went into the towers, that were down there searching — to have their health bills taken care of. And ... the Democrats wouldn't bring it [for 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 you couldn't give any money to illegal aliens. 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 shot it down — their own moral failing. So we did a segment on the show called "I Give Up." ... Like, we came in that morning just really despairing as we watched this go down, and we walked out that night feeling like ... we put it through the prism and the synthesis and the digestive process ... and we made ourselves feel better. We didn't make ourselves feel better by ignoring it, by dismissing it, by not dealing with it; we made ourselves feel better by expressing our utter rage at the ineptness and lack of courage from our legislators.
We have to do a show every day and there are certain days that you bring things to the fore that you don't have the same outrage or passion for, and then there are certain things that happen that truly ignite, that truly get to the crux of the dysfunction in our system — and that's one of those. It's wildly upsetting to watch that go down, for them to be so relentless in their attack on the president for something that they not only didn't care about with the president previous to this, but the president previous to this would salute the troops with a dog in his arms, with a Scottie. They don't care about the reality of it; they care about symbolism, they care about wearing a flag pin as opposed to coming up with actual strategies that don't put soldiers in unnecessary danger for poor planning. So as long as they want to attack symbolism, we'll try to attack the reality that surrounds it.
On deciding to leave the show
I think there's a tendency when something has been on the air for a really long time to dismiss it only because of its familiarity, and it's hard to retain that first blush of love that you have when you first find something that takes you. ... But I'm still really proud of the work we do day-in and day-out. ...
You can't just stay in the same place because it feels like you've built a nice house there. And that's really the thing that I struggle with and it is unclear to me. The minute I say I'm not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy and I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I've just made and I will want to grab it back. ... I cannot tell you how fortunate I've been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen [Colbert] and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show and all the opportunities that I have. And I consider it gravy, everything.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow morning, a generation of 30-somethings will wake up and realize they're going to have to vote in their first presidential election without the wit and insight of Jon Stewart. Stewart hosts his last episode of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central tonight, wrapping up a 16-year run in which he turned the once obscure fake news show into a cultural phenomenon. "The Daily Show" transformed late-night satire, eviscerating politicians and media elites with video montages and Stewart's biting commentary. The show became an important news source for viewers young and old and a regular stop for serious authors and newsmakers. "The Daily Show" won Peabody Awards in 2000 and 2004 for its election coverage and Emmy awards 10 years straight. Here's a clip from last night's show. Stewart's going over the different targets the show's taken on over the years, wondering if he's made any difference. After a collage of clips illustrating his relentless critique of Fox News, he said this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: Face it, Fox. Now you're just a bloody husk of the news corporation you once were - irrelevant influence caput.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This Thursday's GOP primary debate hosted by Fox News.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fox News will make the decision tomorrow night as to which candidates make it in the prime time.
STEWART: Did I say Fox News's influence is gone? What I meant was it's gone all the way to the White House.
STEWART: It will decide the next leader of the free world. What the [expletive] is going on here? Dammit.
STEWART: The world is demonstrably worse than when I started. Have I caused this?
STEWART: Have - have...
STEWART: Have my efforts all been for naught?
STEWART: As I shuffle off this basic cable coil, must I discover my years of evisceration have embettered nothing?
STEWART: Sixteen years of barbs and jeers spurred none to greatness.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart from last night's show. We're going to remember Stewart's years on "The Daily Show" today by replaying parts of Terry's interviews with him and one of the show's executive producers. We'll begin with a short excerpt from the first time Terry interviewed Stewart. It was May 2000, about a year-and-a-half after he took over as host of "The Daily Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
STEWART: News shows basically function as entertainment shows. So our show can live in that area between what news shows ostensibly are supposed to be and what news shows are, which is just another vehicle for ratings for a network. So we live in sort of that area of you won't believe what's growing in your washing machine. What you don't know about it could kill your children - that sort of scare tactic, when they use their tactics of scaring and sensationalizing things just to get people to tune in. That's, I think, the pompousness that we exploit.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So what are some of the stories you've done using the same kind of scare techniques as the newsmagazines?
STEWART: Well, we did a big story on gravity and how it could be affecting your children, keeping them on the ground, etcetera, and what a dangerous thing it might be. It was just a huge promo with kids on a slide. You know, we used all the - you know that empty swing on the playground...
GROSS: Oh, right.
STEWART: ...That they use every now and again to show that if you don't watch this thing your child could be gone from the swing. I'm not really sure what it means. So it was about gravity. We did another one on Ritalin. Our correspondent Steve Carell listed all the symptoms where you could tell if your child had ADHD. And they were things like wants his mommy, keeps outgrowing clothes, which was basically every child in the country. And so his premise was everyone - all kids - should be on Ritalin because it makes it a lot easier for parents. And while he was discussing all the various options, he was taking the pills himself, and he ended up tripping.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, that's good. That's good. Jon Stewart, I first heard about you when you signed for the MTV show "The Jon Stewart Show" in...
STEWART: First of all, thank you for calling me Jon Stewart. I think that's very nice to use my whole name, Terry Gross.
GROSS: Oh, oh, yes, all right, OK.
STEWART: You know what's nice about this, Terry?
GROSS: What's nice about this?
STEWART: You don't find me amusing in the slightest.
GROSS: No, I do.
GROSS: Now, why do you think - see - wait - now - let me - wait. I'm going to stop you right here. Wait, no - let me explain - let me explain something to our listeners. We are talking long-distance. I'm in a studio in Philadelphia and Jon's in a studio in New York.
STEWART: And I'm naked on an air mattress somewhere in Hoboken.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's right. So now you can't see me smiling with amusement. And unless...
STEWART: Oh, I can't?
GROSS: No, and unless I laugh out loud, you think you're really, like, bombing in our studio and you're not.
STEWART: I have a picture of you sitting here smiling and nodding. It's on a bobble-headed doll.
GROSS: See, but I'm just faking it in the photo but these smiles are for real here.
STEWART: All right, that's very nice of you, Terry.
GROSS: Oh, I think it's really hard for a comic like you to be alone in a studio with nobody in there as an audience - not even me, not even your interviewee.
STEWART: I think it's hard for a comic like me to be alone anywhere. I'm a needy son of a [expletive].
STEWART: No, I'm sorry. All right, there you go. And no fake laughter, Terry, I won't have that. I won't be condescended to.
GROSS: See, now, I - well, that's the thing. Now I have to just fake laughter to make you feel more secure. Is that fair?
STEWART: No, you don't - not at all. Here's the thing - I feel tremendously secure by the fact that NPR has asked me to come on. You have no idea of the kind of validation that means to me.
GROSS: So now we can both be very disingenuous and proceed (laughter).
STEWART: Yes. I am - my career is to be disingenuous.
GROSS: That's the way I like to keep it.
STEWART: That's my whole career. If I wasn't disingenuous I'd actually be helping people charity-wise.
STEWART: Think of all the crazy things I think about the government and if I was actually a genuine person, I'd be out there doing something about it...
GROSS: Oh, right.
STEWART: ...Instead of writing a bunch of jokes.
GROSS: How did you decide to, like, try stand-up? What made you think that you would feel comfortable standing in front of an audience doing your four minutes or seven minutes or whatever, you know, when you were just getting started?
STEWART: I guess - I guess my work at Alcoholics Anonymous and just the fact that, you know, I'd done so well in that room. You know, it's a rhythm that either makes sense to you or doesn't. I would watch somebody who's a musician and just go wow, that looks like magic to me. But I'd watch a comedian and go that's - yeah, all right. I could see why he thinks that. It's a rhythm that makes sense to you. You know, to get up on stage for the first time, obviously you're doing more of an impression of a comedian than you are yourself. You're writing jokes that you think are supposedly funny and that sort of thing. And then it takes a long time to sort of discover your own rhythm. But the rhythm itself made sense to me.
GROSS: Did you do autobiographical stuff in your early stage act?
STEWART: Everybody does. That - here's the sort of evolution of man as comedian...
STEWART: Sort of like that little chart. You start out talking about your family. That'll get you about 20 minutes of material. That 20 minutes of material gets you on the road. When you get on the road, you develop your 15 to 20 minutes of hey, you guys ever been to Chattanooga? Hey, that's a crazy town. You know, they got a museum there of old cars joke - you know what I'm saying? So you get your I'm a comedian on the road, hey, hotels, come on people, that soap, seriously, people, anyone?
STEWART: And then also you're spending a lot of time in rooms watching TV. So that's when you first develop your - have you seen this commercial about the guy in the Kotex? So there's that bit. And so you develop your thing. And then at a certain point, you exhaust all of that and you turn to the events of the day. And that's, I think, sort of the general evolution of the comedian. So you don't - you know, and some people stay with the family thing all the time. They get - they can mine that. But the majority of people move off of that once they've mined because the problem is once you start being a comedian, you stop living to a certain extent.
GROSS: Because you're on the road all the time.
STEWART: Well, you stop living a sort of a normal life. It's like with the rock bands, you know, everybody always writes their heroin song and their jeez it's lonely on the road song, you know, (singing) on steel horse I ride 'cause I'm a wanted - wanted dead or alive.
And I think we all know Bon Jovi's not actually wanted dead or alive. I think we understand he's not an outlaw. But he is on a steel horse, a bus, a metaphor for the loneliness of the road.
STEWART: And so that's what we all do.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart talking with Terry Gross in 2000, just about a year-and-a-half after he'd started hosting "The Daily Show." They had a chance to speak again 10 years later in 2010 on stage in front of an audience at the 92nd Street Y in New York. By that time, "The Daily Show" and its companion offspring "The Colbert Report" had established themselves as some of the most important sources of insightful and influential political satire on television. The 92nd Street Y where they recorded this interview is famous for its lecture series, its lyrics and lyricist series, as well as its programs about Jewish life.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I just want to say thank you before I ask you the first question.
STEWART: You're welcome.
GROSS: The last thing I see every night - in addition to my husband and my cat - is your show. I'm able to go to bed with a sense that there is sanity someplace in the world.
STEWART: Oh, that's very kind of you. Thank you.
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.
STEWART: For some reason on my monitor...
STEWART: ...In the studio it shows up. It's very surprising.
GROSS: Sanity with punchlines.
STEWART: It's sanity punchlines.
GROSS: It's great.
STEWART: Absolutely. 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.
STEWART: So very exciting for me to be here. There's the - I believe it's the Wailing Wall...
STEWART: And the 92nd Street Y. So obviously, for me, this is an honor to see such a big turnout this close to the end of Sukkoth.
STEWART: I got to get these out 'cause honestly it's the only place in the world this stuff works.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what the morning meeting is like.
STEWART: The morning meeting is - 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. And 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. They are...
STEWART: They live lives of true sadness. They are - they're mole people. They are - someday they will be free and we will all celebrate their freedom. 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 that 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 - 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. Then we read them and go over the notes of how we want 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 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.
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 had videos of Glenn Beck telling us what to do. And you do that all the time with politicians.
GROSS: And the videos go back a long way. How do the people on your staff find those old videos?
STEWART: Well, you can search on LexisNexis if you have an idea of what you want. And, you know, if the ideas - when you see the pledge, so you're obvious first thought is OK, 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.
STEWART: I don't think so.
GROSS: I don't know.
STEWART: I think it's called Googling.
GROSS: Yeah, but...
STEWART: 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?
STEWART: That's funny because we often feel that way as well.
STEWART: 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 that when we tell a joke it hits you at sort of a guttural level as opposed to not - it's not because we have a journalistic integrity. Hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart in conversation with Terry Gross in 2010 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Tonight is his last night as host of "The Daily Show." We'll continue our tribute to Stewart after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Like millions of other "Daily Show" fans, we're doing our best to come to grips with the departure of Jon Stewart as the show's host. Our method of coping is to listen back to some of the interviews he's done here on FRESH AIR. We'll hear more of his interview with Terry at the 92nd St. Y a little later in the show, but up next, let's hear more about what went on behind the scenes at "The Daily Show" from Ben Karlin, who joined the show as head writer in 1999, shortly after Stewart became the anchor. When Terry interviewed him in 2006, Karlin was an executive producer of the show. She asked him about one of Stewart's most memorable encounters on cable television, and it wasn't even on his own show.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, you know, there's a famous television moment (laughter) where Jon Stewart was on "Crossfire" with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. And he basically said to them - he basically begged them to stop hurting America. And he said to them, the thing is, you're doing theater when you should be doing debate. He said, it's not honest - what you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.
And this (laughter), this ended up on the Internet, and the website I saw it on - I went back to the website last night - there's already been, like, over 3 million hits just on this one website that has the clip. You were with him, I think, at CNN when you basically...
BEN KARLIN: Yeah, we were down in Washington. We had done a book event earlier in the day and had gone over, and it was actually something that, you know, in our private moments, Jon, DJ and myself would talk a lot about how great it would be to just call those guys out on what they do. But it was always this thing that was talked about in the laboratory of our private sanctum. And then when it was brought out into the - into the world, while people responded to it in a positive way, I don't think that Jon - I know that Jon did not feel great about the way that all went down. And being in the room while it was happening, I can tell you, was probably the most awkward thing that I've ever kind of witnessed because, you know, it was real. It was - you know, there's this kind of veneer that everyone puts on when you go on television. And this was someone, you know, just being unbelievably, painfully honest to people's faces. And there was just a - just, you could just feel the air just being sucked right out of the room.
GROSS: So were you in the audience when this was happening? Could Jon Stewart see your face?
KARLIN: Well, I was in the - instead of standing backstage, I wanted to watch it from the auditorium. So I was kind of in the back of the auditorium watching it with a producer. And, you know, the lights are down, so I don't think he could see me because I was standing way in the back.
GROSS: Thinking, oh, no (laughter).
KARLIN: Well, it was awkward 'cause I was standing next to the producer of "Crossfire," or one of the producers...
GROSS: Oh. (Laughter).
KARLIN: ...And I just...
GROSS: Very awkward.
KARLIN: In the commercial break, I was just like, this is going well.
DAVIES: That was Ben Karlin, former executive producer of "The Daily Show," speaking with Terry Gross. So here's Jon Stewart as a guest on CNN's "Crossfire" in 2004, speaking with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CROSSFIRE")
STEWART: You're doing theater when you should be doing debate, which would be great. It's not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. And I'll tell you why I know it.
TUCKER CARLSON: You have John Kerry on your show and you sniff his throne, and you're accusing us of partisan hackery?
CARLSON: You've got to be kidding...
STEWART: You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.
STEWART: What is wrong with you?
CARLSON: Well, I'm just saying, there's no reason for you - when you have this marvelous opportunity not to be the guy's butt boy, to go ahead and be his butt boy. It's embarrassing.
STEWART: I was absolutely his butt boy. I was so far - you would not believe what he ate two weeks ago.
STEWART: You know, the interesting thing that I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse...
CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school.
STEWART: ...And you fail miserably, I think.
You need to go to one.
The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk...
CARLSON: Wait, I thought you were going to be funny - come on, be funny.
STEWART: No. No, I'm not going to be your monkey.
CARLSON: What? What?
STEWART: I watch your show every day, and it kills me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I can tell you love it.
STEWART: Oh, it's so painful to watch, you know, because we need what you do. This is such a great opportunity you have here to actually get politicians...
CARLSON: Is this really Jon Stewart?
STEWART: ...Off of their marketing and strategy. Yeah, it's someone who watches your show and cannot take it anymore.
STEWART: I just can't.
CARLSON: What's it like to have dinner with you? It must be excruciating. Do you, like, lecture people like this when you come over to their house and sit and lecture them and - you know, they're not doing the right thing, that they're missing their opportunities, evading their responsibilities?
STEWART: If I think they are.
CARLSON: Blah. I wouldn't I want to eat with you, man. That's horrible.
STEWART: I know, and you won't. But the thing I want to get to...
PAUL BEGALA: We did promise naked pictures of the Supreme Court...
CARLSON: Yeah, we did. Let's get to those.
STEWART: Why can't - why can't we just talk - please, I beg of you guys.
CARLSON: I think you watch too much "Crossfire." We're going to take a quick break.
STEWART: No, no, no, no. Please.
CARLSON: No, no, hold on - we've got commercials.
STEWART: Please, please. Please stop.
CARLSON: Next - Jon Stewart in the rapid fire. Hopefully he'll be here - we hope.
STEWART: Please stop.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart, on the CNN show, "Crossfire," in 2004. CNN canceled "Crossfire" the following year, citing in part Stewart's criticism of the program. Coming up, we'll hear about Stewart's early days as a comic long before he signed up as host of "The Daily Show." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Tonight, Jon Stewart ends his 16-year run as host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Today, we're listening back to Terry's conversations with Stewart over the years. Let's get back to the interview Terry recorded in 2010 before an audience of about a thousand people at the 92 Street Y in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, you made "The Daily Show" a much more political show than it was before you came 'cause 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...
STEWART: How did you get access to him because I call over there all the time?
STEWART: He's a very busy man.
GROSS: So this is what Stephen Colbert said about being on your show and working with you and becoming more political. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
STEPHEN COLBERT: 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. I didn't realize quite how liberal I was until I was asked to make passionate comedic choices as opposed to necessarily successful comedic choices.
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?
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 'cause political I always sort of denote as a partisan endeavor. But we - 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 his feces. It's a monkey.
STEWART: But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn't say bad monkey - 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. They're representing a constituency.
STEWART: 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 overtime. 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 fear - 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?"
GROSS: So what was your comedy like before it became a critique of politics and media?
STEWART: Mostly balloons.
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.
STEWART: There was - let's see. You know, it was so long ago. This was 1980. There was a lot of Saddam Hussein stuff. I don't know if you remember that guy.
STEWART: There was stuff about, I remember, the first Persian Gulf War, where again I - it was this idea that, you know, everyone was afraid it was going to be another Vietnam. I think the joke was, you know, another - 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. It wasn't even another Woodstock. You know, it was that kind of thing.
GROSS: So you were voted most funny person in high school. What got you that honor?
STEWART: (Laughter) It was mostly the political stuff (inaudible).
GROSS: Yeah, I'm sure.
STEWART: You know, I was obnoxious. I was obnoxious. And people in New Jersey in the late '70s dug that, man.
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 [expletive].
GROSS: So was this from - like, did you have a stage or something to be funny on? Or were you just funny in the halls or...
STEWART: No, I had a stage.
STEWART: I had a stage set up. And then people would come by and go, hey, what are you going to, geometry class? Nice shirt. Does it come in men's? Boom. You know, that kind of comedy.
GROSS: I mean, were you performing? Were you in shows? Were you in...
STEWART: I was not into theater. I was into sports. And...
GROSS: That's funny.
STEWART: Well, I had the...
STEWART: I had the dream. 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 here are of that era. It was not - we were not in the world where everybody was special yet. I came from the era of you're not special.
STEWART: Don't - you think you're special? You're not so special.
GROSS: Jewish parents can be very good at giving you that message.
STEWART: Oh, no, my - listen. My mom - 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? Hey, good luck at the Gay Pride Parade, you know.
GROSS: Mr. Big Shot.
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.
DAVIES: We're listening to an interview Terry recorded with Jon Stewart at the 92nd Street Y in New York back in 2010. We'll get back to that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. To mark the end of Jon Stewart's 16-year run as host of "The Daily Show," we're listening back to interviews he's done with Terry over the years. Let's get back to an interview recorded in 2010 onstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, you know, you got MTV shows earlier in your career and worked on other shows. But when your MTV interview show was discontinued, you went on Letterman's show right afterwards.
STEWART: Right - no.
GROSS: Was it another show that was discontinued?
STEWART: Yeah, it was - there was an MTV show and that was the thing they cut.
GROSS: That was the thing that was canceled.
STEWART: That was the thing that got canceled and I went on Letterman that night. Although I 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 LA, but in LA 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. So if that's what they were telling you who you were, who did you think you were then?
STEWART: That's one of the things that I think I pride myself on is not thinking about that.
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 at - there's a place called the Comedy Cellar in the Village on Macdougal Street and the great group of guys that were together in those days performing. And they put me on every night at 2 a.m. I was the last guy on every night - and not on the weekends 'cause I wasn't good enough for weekends.
So Sunday night through Thursday night, it was me and drunk Dutch tourists in a basement in the Village. And I would perform for the plate of hummus that would be served to me 'cause above the Comedy Cellar is a Middle Eastern restaurant because - 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 much more comfortable at the anchor desk on "The Daily Show" than standing up in front of a microphone?
STEWART: No, I love stand-up comedy.
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 OK, let's go, right, right. And then you'd think about it. But that to me is artifice. I like the crafting of it.
GROSS: 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.
STEWART: You'd be surprised how easily I turn it off when I go home.
STEWART: I'm - 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?
STEWART: No, I'd rather they suffer.
STEWART: I'd rather not. I figure I'll catch up with them.
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...
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.
STEWART: The - 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 still - you know, 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?
GROSS: OK, so...
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 so great?
STEWART: There was a congressional bill where they were going to get money for first responders for 9/11 for chronic health issues. And it's, I mean, it's a no-brainer, the people that went into the towers, that were down there searching, to have their health bills taken care of. And legislative maneuvering...
STEWART: The Democrats wouldn't bring it up 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 couldn't 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 a - 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. And 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.
STEWART: And the ability to articulate our sense of just absolute sadness but through a prism of comedy, like - we came in on 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 - 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 with 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? [Expletive] good day's work. That was it.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart speaking with Terry Gross at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in 2010. Coming up, an interview recorded last fall right before the release of "Rosewater," his directorial debut. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. After 16 years, Jon Stewart is stepping down as host of "The Daily Show." We're listening back to some of his appearances on FRESH AIR. Last fall, Terry spoke to Stewart about "Rosewater," the first film he wrote and directed. Stewart took a leave from "The Daily Show" in the summer of 2013 to shoot "Rosewater," which he adapted from the memoir by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist now living in England. Although most of their conversation was about Stewart's directorial debut, Terry couldn't help but ask him a little about "The Daily Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: One of the pieces that you did in the recent past was on the so-called latte salute. When President Obama, you know, exited Marine One, I think it was, with a cup of coffee in his hand and saluted the Marines with a cup of coffee in his hands and a lot of people on the right said that is so disrespectful
STEWART: Of course they did. How dare he. And their outrage was genuine and from a place of true patriotism. To salute with a latte - make it an American coffee, black from 7-Eleven.
GROSS: So I want to play an excerpt of the comments that you made about that on the show. And we'll start with a collage of clips that you showed of right-wing pundits commenting on the latte salute.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Learn the proper respect of the salute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's insensitive.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's meaning of it? That's it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It looks terrible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's outlandish, and it's disappointing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Put your coffee in the other hand.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Our commander in chief displayed his complete disrespect for the men and women in uniform.
STEWART: Shut up. You don't really care.
STEWART: You don't really care about this. You have no principle about this. You're just trying to score points in a game that no one else is playing. Here's how we know.
ERIC BOLLING: It's an arrogance that he portrays. These people put their lives on the line for us. .
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You're right.
BOLLING: Show the respect - salute these guys.
STEWART: So the principle here is show respect for the people who are putting their lives on the line for this fight. Here's Eric Bolling on that very same episode.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The first female pilot piloting for the UAE dropped the bombs on ISIS on Monday night.
BOLLING: Would that be considered boobs on the ground or no?
STEWART: First of all, forget the rampant sexism in that statement. Second of all, she's a pilot, so whatever gender specific equipment she might be carrying is in the [expletive] air. And thirdly, what was the quote that someone said earlier in your program? These people are putting their lives on the line for us, show respect. So [expletive] you and all your false patriotism. When Bush took us to war any criticism was shouted down as treasonous. When Bush took us to war, any criticism was shouted down as treasonous. But a president you don't like has the country poised on the same precipice - no transgression, no matter how immaterial and ridiculous, is too small to cite as evidence that this president isn't as American as you are.
GROSS: OK, that's Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." You sound genuinely angry. I mean, when I heard that on TV, I thought like that's the real thing. He's - he's mad.
STEWART: Well, I think it's, you know, we have to do a show every day. And there's certain days that you bring things to the fore that you don't have the same outrage or passion for. And then there's certain things that happen that truly ignite - that truly get to the crux of the dysfunction of our system and that's one of those. And it's wildly upsetting to watch that go down. You know, for them to be so relentless in their attack on the president for something that they not only didn't care about with the president previous to this, but the president previous to this would salute the troops with a dog in his arms - with a Scotty. They don't care about the reality of it. They care about symbolism. They care about wearing a flag pin as opposed to coming up with actual strategies that don't put soldiers in unnecessary danger for poor planning. So as long as they want to attack symbolism, we'll try to attack the reality that surrounds it.
GROSS: So, you know, you talk about this being false patriotism in that piece. And I'm wondering if that makes you...
STEWART: Well, because it's wielded. They wield it like a cudgel. They, you know, they wield it as though, you know, they've spent years talking about how this president or anybody on the progressive side is somehow not really American. They love America; they just hate about 50 percent of the people who live there.
GROSS: So your contract with "The Daily Show" is up, I think, at the end of next year. And everybody's wondering if you're going to renew or not. I'm not going to ask you - you probably - you might not know and even if you did, I wouldn't expect you to tell us. But I'm just thinking of the difficult spot that you're in 'cause, you know, maybe you want to try something else especially after having done this film. Maybe you're a little, you know, restless. On the other hand, you're so darn good at doing "The Daily Show." And it's people like me, I mean, I feel so conflicted. I want you to be happy. I want you to do whatever...
STEWART: Well, thank you, Terry. That's very kind of you.
GROSS: ....Wherever your heart takes you, Jon Stewart, I want you to go.
STEWART: Thank you, Terry Gross. You're very kind.
GROSS: But at the same time - I really - like I really don't want you to leave, you know?
STEWART: Well, that's very kind of you and it's nice to hear.
GROSS: So you've got that...
STEWART: It's much better than I'd like you to leave. That's - that would be a lot worse to hear.
GROSS: But you've got that pool. You've got fans like me like, you know, wanting to keep you in place. And then also like you must know someplace in your mind that like you're so darn good at it. Like you created - you created this thing that has so caught on, that has kind of changed the nature of political satire in America. There's all these offshoots of it now on television including John Oliver's show, "The Colbert Report" and I know that's about to end. Larry Wilmore's show - you're an executive producer of that.
GROSS: So anyways, I'm just wondering about the conflict that maybe you'd be feeling about knowing how special this thing is that you created and yet perhaps wanting to do something else.
STEWART: I think that's, you know, it's always difficult - I do feel like I don't know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well suited for as this show. That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that's not enough anymore or that maybe it's time for some discomfort. And sometimes the comfort of that, you know, I'll never - I'm certainly convinced I'll never find the type of people that I've been able to work with in that environment and be able to have that feeling of utilizing sort of every part of something that I think I can do. I felt like I utilize to full capacity on that show. And I think there's a tendency when something's been on the air for a really long time to dismiss it only because of its familiarity. And it's hard to retain that first blush of love that you have when you first find something that takes you, whether it be, you know, artistic material or music or other things. But I'm still really proud of the work we do day in and day out and hold up some of the bits that we've done recently to anything that we've done in the history of the program. And so that is the difficulty - is when do you decide that even though it's this place of great comfort and you feel like you're plugged into it like you've never been plugged into anything else that you've ever done, you know, is there also a part of you that, you know, there are other considerations of family or even in the sense of just not wanting to be on television all the time. You know, there are - you can't just stay in the same place because it feels like you've built a nice house there. And that's really the thing that I struggle with. And it is unclear to me. I will - the minute I say I'm not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy. And I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I've just made and I will want to grab it back. That being said, you know, the moment I sign on for more I might feel as though it's sort of like that scene - you know, have you ever seen with George Costanza? Not to go back to "Seinfeld" but I'm going to go back to "Seinfeld."
STEWART: George Costanza, do you remember he went out with Susan?
STEWART: And they broke up. And then he decided he was going to ask her to get back together and he was going to marry her. And he was all excited and he did it and she took him back. And there's that scene of him walking up the stairs with her to the apartment. And the minute he starts walking up the stairs he goes, what have I done? This is the worst thing I've ever done. I've got to get out of this relationship. That's what you're trying to balance with.
STEWART: But that being said, you know, you said earlier you're in this sort of unfortunate position. I would say that I'm in the most fortunate position. I cannot tell you how fortunate I have been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show. And all the opportunities that I have - and I consider it gravy - everything. You know, I hate to even get maudlin or weepy about it but it's been - it's so far exceeded my expectations of what this business would be like for me.
GROSS: Jon Stewart, it's been so wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
STEWART: It's wonderful to talk to you, Terry. Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Jon Stewart speaking to Terry Gross last fall. Tonight after over 16 years, Stewart hosts "The Daily Show" for the last time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.