Kickin It with Jon Stewart
The toughest thing about this gig sometimes, is interviewing someone you really admire.
You don't want to come off like a synchophantic fanboy. But you do like their work - and want to communicate how much it moves you while explaining why other folks should check it out. And, of course, you want them to like you.
Maybe that's why I'm a little disappointed in my Floridian story today on Daily Show host Jon Stewart. I got a little too hung up on exploring his social significance and didn't get to basic questions, like, what's your standup routine going to be like?
(his answer, for the record, was: "Obviously, the road show is more nudity. It’s a…. I’ll stand there and I’ll tell jokes to people, for, I think a good amount of time. It’s really a test to see how long people will stay before leaving.")
So, in honor of his two Saturday shows in Tampa -- there's still tickets available for the performances, which I will review for Sunday's paper -- here's a transcript of some stuff that didn't make it in the story.
By the way, Jon came in second in a Harris Poll asking folks their favorite TV personality, right between Oprah (#1) and Bill O'Reilly (#3). Really.
ME: Why do you keep doing standup comedy gigs in the midst of all your success? Are you one of those guys, like Seinfeld, who just can’t stop doing it?
Stewart: "It's not even about keeping doing it…it’s what I think I feel like I do. My goal in this business has never been in any respect -- I never thought, like, I have to move to New York and get my own daily comical look at nightly events show. I wanted to be a good stand up. I think I'll always view that as - it's sort of my, like, learning how to bartend. When the shit hits the fan, at least you know you got work. People are always going to drink. Which, by the way is my fallback….It's like going home a little bit. Actually, you know what, don't say that. Because you know what? Going home is kind of drag -- especially for the holidays. It's like going home with out the arguing and someone getting in your face and saying you've failed everyone who's ever loved you. It's like going home except for that."
ME: A lot of performers at your level are sort of mini-industries, with radio shows and books and merchandise. You don’t seem to have developed many platforms for yourself.
Stewart: "Have you not had any of my baked goods? Stu's cookies -- you've never had those? Part of it is trying to find…The idea that this takes a while. Every day kind of takes up your, uh, kinda takes up your time. Not that I want to take any time with my family. But adding responsibilities on to this; I'm not ambitious in that manner. I feel like I'm plenty busy."
ME: Some folks have wondered if you might be interested in moving to network TV. Say, at 12:30 p.m., when a certain red-haired guy takes over the Tonight Show on NBC. Any interest?
Stewart: "I don't know man -- huge money and exposure, doesn't sound like it's for me. I prefer my little world. I just don't plan ahead. I am fully engaged here. Fully enjoying it. I get free bottles of water whenever I want them. They bring in, literally pallets of them. Pop 'em in the fridge. Unless they're planning on billing me when I leave here - that could be a huge ruse….
"I don't feel like it all sort of adds up. At the end of the day, what are we competing for? The whole idea of legacy is just sort of silly. I feel like I've already earned a reasonable amount of applause during the death montage at the Emmys for whatever year I might happen to pass. So after that, what else are you working towards? You might as well just try and be involved with the best people you can be involved with and be creatively satisfied and try and live a work life that's humane - that you can get home and still spend time with your family. Other than that, what exactly does it mean to conquer other, you know…I just sound like a lazy fuck. This is probably bad advice to give to people."
ME: A friend of mine once said watching your show was amazing because it made her mad as hell and laughing to the point of tears at the same time. Given all the crap you’ve pointed out in modern media, have you sort of given up hope on it?
"Not at all…because there's so many really wonderful – well, the thing about the media, there's always the sense you want to look at it like it's this giant organism that functions independently. The media isn't -- it's made up of a lot of individual fiefdoms, many of which are extremely worthwhile. It's not meant to be absorbed in its entirety, and there is so much of it that it is overwhelmingly depressing. But our sense if always one of hopeful. I think history has always proven things are cyclical, I would be very surprised if there wasn't a comeback -- politically, media-wise. Something will fill that void. Nature abhors a vacuum - unless it's a Dyson."
ME: Where are we now on that cycle?
Stewart: (laughing) "I think we're on a downtick. It's always been - new media has always been revelatory. It's like when they talk about the new media of blogging, and people said oh, it’s a dangerous thing. Credibility has to be earned. There will always be those that rise to that occasion. And that's what you look forward to. You look forward to those voices arising…Our show is quaintly hopeful."
ME: Your former executive producer Ben Karlin said your Crossfire moment came after you guys had been talking about how awful the show was for months. Any media institution that gets your attention like that these days?
Stewart: "Uh….the White House Press Correspondents? And regarding Crossfire -- that type of program is not gone. It's become embedded in the way that those programs are done. It's how they're set up. Basically, the idea is, ‘he said, she said’ and no one is weighted any differently. You just have to come on and feel strongly.
ME: Some have compared your criticism of Crossfire, which led to the show’s cancellation by CNN, to pal Stephen Colbert’s devastating satire of the White House Correspondents Association at their annual dinner last year. Do you see the comparisons?
Stewart: “The only relevant comparison is neither one of us intended (the incidents) to be what they turned into. Both of us expected slightly differently responses, publicly and privately. I actually thought it was going to be a little bit of a giggle at the top of the show. But it became apparent that was not going to be the case. I think I was tired, and I think that the tone gentlemen on the show took with me took me aback. About halfway through I realized: Oh, the only people you can't put on the Crossfire, is the hosts of Crossfire. And that's when it sort of turned into something it wasn't supposed to be. As my wife said -- don't ever do that again. One thing you never want to be a part of in this business is great television, because it's awfully uncomfortable."
ME: “Clinton or Obama: Who's gonna yield the better jokes?
Stewart: "No idea. Again, I think our process is not one of comedic…Our show doesn't begin with a comedic premise, it begins with a more foundational one, and we take it from there. Because nobody's funny. Soupy Sales ain't running.”
ME: But when John Kerry says he wants to run for President again, doesn’t that joke write itself?
Stewart: “If the jokes wrote themselves, I would save myself an awful lot of money on these things. I think that they don't. Everything has to be put into context and one of the biggest problems is, you end up doing the same joke over and over again, and you have to really fight to not do that. People used to say what are you going to do when bill Clinton goes away? You're like, well, I'm going to finally not have to come up with clever ways to do blowjob jokes. I'll finally be able to put that to bed. At a certain point, you're done. You look forward - you want new situations and new ways to deconstruct and all those things.
"People misunderstand -- we're not activists in anybody's army. We're not trying to prove anything. Imagine feeling like there's someone who comes from a completely different perspective than you. The idea is to be able to let that person try and understand where you're coming form. It's much get a little humanity out of a interview than to try and throw somebody down and pour a bucket of water on their head. Which by the way that was what we did in the first year."
ME: As somebody who interviews people for a living, I’ve always felt that was the toughest task for talk show hosts to do well. Do you agree?
Stewart: "I think that's the weakest part of this show…I don't have any problem saying that. It lacks the point of view of the show. It doesn't have the same sense of irony. It doesn't have the same sense of distance that we have (elsewhere). I'm myself. Colbert is so amazing as an improviser that he's rendering a character in real time while doing the interview. But, for the most part, I'm myself and you can't get away with certain things as yourself that you can get away with behind some type of mask.”
ME: How do you deal with that?
Stewart: “You lower your expectations at times. You try to come up with things you want to accomplish in those interviews; you realize it’s four or five minutes and you say, let's try to make this funny, or a little bit interesting or bizarre. Or just pleasant: what we try to do is come up with one human moment for each guest. I feel like we do our best when we feel passionately about something and are working in a sweet spot, in a zone, where it feels like you're working hard but it's not labored. When the shows are rolling like that, it feels great. There are other days when you feel like you're putting out a comedy-like substance and our feet are in cement. I've learned over the years, that's the vagaries of it."
ME: What does it take to get people to reveal themselves during the story segments you guys do?
Stewart: “I don't think its meant to be unknowing on their part - I'm not out to trick anybody. They know there's a camera there, they know we’re from the Daily Show. I don't think it's, necessarily that they don't know they're revealing themselves. The question is whether we can get them to reveal themselves in a way that gives some insight into the story that we're doing and is funny. We live in pretty sophisticated times. It's pretty rare that you un across somebody that just doesn't get the game or doesn't understand that (adopts a funny voice): Wait a minute -- you're asking me to lay out my position in a way that might be re-edited? We just don't live in those times."
(as usual -- click on any image to enlarge)