Jon Stewart on Tampa's Warrior Games, Gasparilla and whether he'd ever do TV again

The talk show icon wants you to be as inspired by veterans as he is.
Published June 13

This is what Jon Stewart wants you to know about the Department of Defense Warrior Games: It’s not about feeling sorry for anyone.

Hundreds of ill and wounded veterans arrive in Tampa on June 21. They’ll compete in Paralympic-style sporting events from archery to wheelchair rugby to golf over the following seven days.

Yes, the stands should be packed because those men and women who served deserve your attention, Stewart said. But the part that might surprise you is what you get out of watching them compete. The entertainment. The inspiration. A glimpse at military-grade tenacity and camaraderie. The stuff that the comic and former Daily Show host thinks you might want your kids to see.

“This isn’t about, ‘Oh, these poor men and women,’ ” Stewart told the Tampa Bay Times by phone. “You’ll be stunned at how much you will get out of it. It’s about what they can contribute to us, not about helping them out.

“That’s the thing that you sort of learn from it. This is an enormous display of the finest human capital we have, who have found their way back to it through these games. My friend D.T. (Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr.), who has been doing this for a while, he was the phoenix. He was burned in Afghanistan, and these games were his resurrection, his rebirth, and he stands as an icon to his resilience. That’s what people are missing if they don’t go.”

It reads dramatic, but there’s no hype in Stewart’s voice, only what sounds like earnest experience and emotion. He became an advocate for veterans first as a TV host, shining light on toxic bureaucracy at the V.A. affecting care and other issues.

He didn’t stop being a master of righteous indignation when he left the Daily Show. We asked Stewart about his experiences lobbying Congress for health care for 9/11 first responders, and his recent meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss how that legislation could apply to burn pit-affected veterans.

He offhandedly mentioned he’d be going back to D.C. soon, and days later delivered an outraged, tearful testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee demanding it extend the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. It went viral.

The weeklong Warrior Games will take place at venues across the area including the Tampa Convention Center and the University of South Florida. Games are free to attend. Find a schedule at dodwarriorgames.com.

Stewart will host the opening ceremony on June 22 with country star Hunter Hayes and the closing ceremony on June 30 with headliner Sara Evans. Both events are at Amalie Arena. Tickets are $15 through Ticketmaster.

We asked Stewart about his involvement with the event, his upcoming movie Irresistible with Steve Carell and what he thought of his first Gasparilla experience. We forgive him for getting fictional pirate Jose Gaspar’s name wrong.

How did you get involved with the Warrior Games?

We had done an internship program at the Daily Show for veterans. We had a guy, Sid (Goodfriend) from American Corporate Partners, who asked if we’d mentor some veterans who had thought about working in TV and film. We tried to develop an immersion program, 20 veterans per semester, and they’d do weeklong immersions in different jobs. At the end we’d have a job fair. After that, Sid asked if I’d host the Warrior Games when they had them at Westpoint four years ago. So I went up to host it and was blown away by the tenacity of the participants, the vibe of the whole event. It was incredibly inspiring. At Westpoint, though, it was difficult for people to get up there to see it, outside of family. I brought my son along with me — I like taking him places where people are better than me — and I was saying ESPN should really cover this. My son said, “Yeah, well, why don’t you call them?”

So will ESPN be covering the games in Tampa?

ESPN will be there, and so will Yahoo Sports. They were even able to pull it together for Westpoint. They did a nice story on those games. Then they did a live SportsCenter at the Warrior Games in Chicago and Colorado Springs. We did some longer pieces, shot some field stuff, and I believe they’ll be doing the same in Tampa.

You’ve been one of the most prominent voices for veterans issues for years. Was there someone you met or something you saw that spurred that?

It was probably around when we got involved with Iraq in 2003. I’d been, eh, I guess you could say somewhat critical of that decisionmaking process (laughter). So I thought it would be best if I wasn’t talking completely out of my a--, and I started going down to Walter Reed hospital and meeting people who had been wounded. I got involved with the USO, I met a ton of amazing people, and through those connections got to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. I thoroughly enjoyed it. To be clear, I got way more out of it than they did from my presence, but it started with those early experiences of being blown away by the quality and resilience of those people.

You volunteer the time you spend hosting and promoting the Warrior Games. What do you get out of it personally?

I get hats. And shirts. If you do it long enough you get a pretty full wardrobe. No. You know, we ask an awful lot of that community and it’s a very small community. The amount of people who serve is a tiny portion of the country, and yet they and their families bear the burden of all our policies in that area. It’s the least we can do to give them some deserved attention, so that the things they go through are more clear. Otherwise it would be very easy to take that for granted. I think we owe them our attention when they’ve lived up to their commitment.

Why should someone go to the Warrior Games?

First of all, the level of competition is extraordinary to watch. You’ve got Marines versus Navy. You’ve got Air Force teams from Australia, Denmark, England. Last time, they got me into a sitting volleyball tournament. If you can stay away from that you won’t leave covered with bruises like I did. You will be surprised by how competitive it is, but it’s also the camaraderie, the tenaciousness and resilience of the athletes, the incredible pride. It’s an inspiring week. I imagine there will also be popcorn and hot dogs, and a lot of it is air conditioned too. Tampa has really stepped up at every turn. We’ve seen a commitment from the powers that be to draw people and help the games. Our hope is that people will come out not just to opening ceremony, but to see the competition.

Are you athletic yourself?

I’m a 56-year-old man. I literally have pulled three muscles talking to you on the phone. I was athletic. I played soccer at William and Mary, but apparently if you don’t stay oiled properly things get a little creaky.

The phrase “support the troops” is kind of ambiguous. Is there anything you suggest people do that’s more than a bumper sticker?

It probably means different things to different people. It’s hard to judge what’s sincere and what isn’t, but I certainly always prefer an actual gesture over a symbolic one. And also, they’re not a monolith. It’s a group of people who have made the decision to join for a variety of reasons, who have a variety of opinions about things. I’d say, when you have a chance to remind them that it’s important to you, do it. Let them know that they mean something. And any manner by which you can do that, I think, is welcome certainly.

You were in Tampa for Gasparilla riding on the Warrior Games float. How was that?

Odd. I was unfamiliar with Gasparilla, and just to see that many pirates in one place, uh, you generally just don’t realize it exists. A guy was telling me about Juan Gaspar, this pirate who came and took over Tampa, he told me this incredible story about it, and I said, you know, I’ve studied a lot of American history, and I’ve never heard of this. He said, “Yeah, it’s mostly bulls---.” I was under the impression there was this whole background and foundation, but in reality it was basically, “What if we all got drunk over the weekend?” But that’s fine. When Mardi Gras started out it was supposed to be about Lent. I also like the fact that they stretch Gasparilla out with a parade for kids, a parade for adults, and “let’s have a parade for people born on odd days.” It goes on for weeks.

The Daily Show spent a lot of time making jokes about Florida and even specifically Tampa and its many strip clubs. Now that you’ve spent some time here, how has reality lined up?

In general on that show you’re just picking out individual moments. The hope is that a place is slightly more complicated in reality. ... After spending some time there, though, I’d say we nailed it, pretty good. Yeah, we were right.

You were in a meeting with congresswoman Mikie Sherrill in Washington in March. What was that about?

We’ve been pressed into service for the 9/11 responder community, and the only thing comparable to what they faced is burn pits (a common way U.S. soldiers burned waste in Iraq and Afghanistan). So the idea was to take some of the knowledge of what doctors and legislators have learned from 9/11 bills and apply it to burn pit veterans. We think those veterans should be eligible for screening programs and other things that could catch cancers or illnesses that might arise earlier, so we could treat them and have a higher success rate. The meeting was about trying to apply knowledge from one situation to another. Those exposures are going to rear their heads in a way that isn’t going to be pretty.

What have you learned from lobbying congress?

That our government functions incredibly smoothly and is incredibly responsive to all the needs of its people (laughter). Look, I leave it up to others to make the judgment of motivation, but it certainly was a difficult and eye-opening experience. It has been an education, and not in the illuminating kind of way.

The film you’re working on, Irresistible, is a political drama with a character who is a veteran. What can you say about it?

I’ll save that for hopefully once I’m done editing it. It could turn in to cars that turn into robots, depending on what I’ve got. We’ve finished the overwhelming majority of (filming). I’ve got another day or two. Now it’s a question of sitting in a dark room and going, “What was I thinking?” And cutting it together. I was very pleased. Everyone performed really nicely. It was fun.

Why a film? And why this film?

I really like the writer. I thought he had a real feel for some of the issues of the day, and it was pretty funny, so it caught my fancy.

Oh, that simple?

Actually, uh, I wrote it. It was just an idea I had, so I wrote it, and we thought let’s have some fun, make a movie and have fun.

Is there any anxiety to keep creating?

I’d say there’s an anxiety just in general, mostly to do with bone density. The thing is, when you’re not on television, you still exist. I’ve been going out doing standup, doing some writing, actually having conversations with my family. With regards to projects and things, I just try to do things I’m interested in. Not doing things just to do them.

You did some standup dates with Dave Chappelle. Any chance you’ll go on a bigger tour with him?

Part of that is that standup is the way I started, and Dave is one of those guys I started with. We thought, let’s just go bang out some places that seem fun to go to, so we went to Europe, we’re going to Red Rocks. It’s kind of about, not bucket list shows, but that type of idea. I’ll probably go out and do some dates with some other friends. And of course, for me and Dave to be able to split gas money, that makes it that much more lucrative.

What would it take for you to do TV again, if you could create any job, any parameters you wanted?

There’s nothing TV did to make me go away. I’d done it for so long I was just ready to go. It doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be a situation in the future — I’m relatively busy — but there could easily come a time when I knock on the door and say, “Let’s do a Three’s Company reboot, and I’ll be the Suzanne character.” Who knows? I don’t know that I’d ever want to return to that type of grind, but maybe doing other things. I really enjoy the process. That’s the joy of it. And who doesn’t want more joy. … Unless you’re the joy police? Are you the joy police?

Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @SpataTimes.

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