Aug. 6 will be a dark day for many. Jon Stewart, the irreverent host of The Daily Show, the satirical news program that a proportionately large audience considers more newsworthy than the actual news, will finally step down as the show’s host after 16 years.
The announcement came in February. It’s like losing a best friend for some viewers, many of whom have never lived without the 52 year-old New Yorker’s withering, bluntly caustic dissection of current affairs. A study in 2010 in revealed most young Americans got their news from The Daily Show — even more than from The New York Times and CNN.
“That was never my intention, but for a result like that, you can only be so grateful,” he says. “We obviously did something right.”
So what’s next for the figurehead of satire and inventive analysis? Perhaps a move into filmmaking? Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater, for which he left The Daily Show for 12 weeks to film in Jordan, indicates that’s a possibility.
The movie is based on a book and the experiences of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist imprisoned by Iran after he was connected to reports on violence against protestors of the country’s presidential elections.
Iranian authorities presented an interview he did on the Daily Show that year as evidence that he was in communication with an American spy, and Bahari spent 118 days in prison being brutally interrogated.
With his close personal connection with Maziar, Stewart felt compelled to work with him on a film of his torturous experiences, while also presenting the terrifying period with a humorous slant.
Casual in a gray sweater and dark jacket, Stewart spoke about his impending departure, his rep as “the most trusted man on TV,” and facing his critics.
Jon, firstly, like so many others, I’m very sad to hear you leaving The Daily Show. Why are you putting us through this?
Life. Time to move on. It’s been 16 years. It’s considered normal for someone looking to move on after that time. And it really has something to do, we all, especially in television and especially now, we all have a certain shelf life. I’ve set up a framework there that would be difficult for me to mutate, in a large enough way that it would make sense to me. The changes that I’ve made there are incremental and I think or I know, I’m at a point where I don’t know how to advance this anymore. I don’t know how to maintain it till it withers. The only thing that would decrease my participation there is a feeling to evolve it properly, to not want to stay there for the wrong reasons and having nothing to do with a greener grass somewhere.
It’s been likened to Oprah’s departure from network television.
I’m in good company then. Look, it is what it is, it’s my decision that was certainly in the back of my mind for some time, and finally I made my mind up. And if the world didn’t fall apart with Oprah’s departure, I think mine will have little impact.
So is it a personal decision, based rather than a professional one?
My family is certainly a factor. They’re always the main factor in all my decisions.
It will seem so strange not to have you on screens in the run up to an election though.
People have said this to me and while incredibly complimentary, I’ve been through it many, many times. It’s the same to me. And there’s only so many ways one can skin a cat. It’s becoming a redundant process, it’s going to be the same process. Nothing was going to be wildly different.
I think what people will miss most is your balance. You were frequently referred to as “the most trusted man on TV,” and as a fake news anchor, coming across more rational and together than any of the actual news disseminators on our screens.
Our show was always incentivized in maybe a different way. So much of news media is incentivized toward extremity and conflict. Because imagine you have a channel and its 24 hours of news. But in reality, only seven minutes of news happens a day, so they have to expand that. Those kinds of apparatus are built for 9/11, for catastrophe, for earthquake. All their resources are required for this incredibly large, incredibly urgent story. So in the absence of that, they’re not going to say, “Don’t watch us, but we’ll be here when it’s necessary.” They’ll try and gin up anything to that urgency. Ebola is a very serious issue, but they will make it more serious and more urgent than it needs to be. So that you feel compelled to tune into them. And I always just wanted to make the best show I could make every day. I don’t ever look at it as a responsibility. We work hard to control the only thing we can control, which is the quality we put out.
Back when you signed on for The Daily Show 15 years ago, it seemed that you were being groomed for the other late night talk shows. What was it about The Daily Show that stood out for you?
Because when you’re doing something that many days a week and writing that much material about it, you have to be driven about the point of view or you’ll be a bit lost. And I did a talk show that wasn’t about current events and feeling less grounded. I didn’t care as much about OJ Simpson or Monica Lewinsky, I needed it to be something that I really cared about.
The Daily Show connection in Rosewater is so absurd and crazy, did you almost feel a responsibility to get this story out there?
Yes, and I’ve said to Maziar, “I’d love to do a sequel if you can get yourself arrested somewhere else, we can work on that (laughs).” That wasn’t really the impetus for it, as much as, we had run some pieces about Iran, not so much having to do with the election but rather the culture. Maziar, when we’d found out that he had been arrested, you know, obviously it was an incredible shock, and we tried to contact the families and things, what they felt was best in continuing to publicize it. But as far as you know, this project, it really came much later when Maziar and I became friends. He and I used to have breakfast in the city when he would come by and that’s where the impetus for turning the book into a movie, began to come up.
When did you first meet him?
I hate to tell you this, but when we go to a place, generally that’s actually a picture, we’re standing in front of a green screen. Iran was the first time we sent someone somewhere. George Bush had called Iran the Axis of Evil and so, at the show, that was a relatively irresistible moniker that we thought, we must go to this place. To see evil with our eyes. But we couldn’t get in. Right before the 2009 election, they liberalized their entrance visa, because so many journalists were coming in to witness the election. So we snuck in on that. Without having any intention of covering the election. And the rest of it caught us off guard. So that was, that was more something that was a happenstance rather than a surprise And Maziar, he was Iranian but he worked for Newsweek. He had a connection with someone and not actually being journalists ourselves, we had contacted people for help in setting up bits. And because he was one of the people who had worked out of London, because he was Iranian, we were just asking him to participate, and get his feet on the ground.
But didn’t you ever feel these skits were going to put him at risk?
God no, we never, honestly, it never occurred to us. We had left before the revolution began in earnest and I thought a lot about it since then, the idea was there something in that. The problem of responsibility, what we did was nothing, what Maziar did was nothing. He wasn’t a spy, our interview with him meant nothing to that. When a country weaponizes the banal or idiocy or the innocuous, you ask yourself what could we have done differently and you ask yourself, nothing. Because whatever pretense they were using was false. It’s like if you get arrested walking down the street, you say to yourself, “What could I have done to not get arrested,” and you think, “Well, I could have just not walked.” The things that were being done were in no way what they were being used for. And I can’t imagine Maziar thought it was a risk either. It was a man, Jason Jones, wearing a kafiya, in sunglasses, being filmed, in the open saying to Maziar, “I’m an American spy, and I’d like to ask you about Iran.” I think you’d be hard pressed to think in any scenario that that might get me in trouble. It’s just so stupid. So I think that was, we thought a lot about it, you know, what he really got in trouble for was witnessing atrocity. What we could have done differently was not have someone not witness atrocity and that’s not an option.
Why take this one as your directorial debut?
Maziar had written this incredible book. And he asked if I knew how to make this into a movie. And not knowing how to do that, I said, “Of course, I know how to do that” (laughs). But it was going to be helping him to produce it. So we were going to establish a decent list of writers and people that we thought might make a great script for it. But that process was so glacial and took so long, and my eventual involvement as a writer and as a director was due to my impatience. I’d never been through that. We produce things like, 9 o’clock in the morning, you have a stupid idea, by 5 o’clock it’s on television. It was more the frustration of a movie that should be made as a current event, rather than a historical artifact. And I think we both came to the conclusion that if we want this film to be done, we were going to have to do it ourselves. But what I realized during this whole process, this whole experience, is that technology has changed the very face of what it means to be a journalist and what it means to bear witness. Because these regimes, generally have apparatuses that exist to suppress information, Western regimes as well, America as well. They may not be as ham-handed about it, it may not appear so kabuki in its practice, but journalists in America would be hard pressed to say they’d never felt the pressure to suppress information in some form from government or other entities. Well now that dissemination of information has been democratized, those regimes extend their tentacles much more forcefully, but in many more directions and that apparatus has become much not only much more expensive and unwieldy, but so much more ineffective.
The Iranian government has been, expectedly, critical of your film.
I expect nothing but absurdity. … I know I did everything I could to be fair and right with the story. I know there was nothing I could have done to make them feel, “Yea that’s fair, I see where we went wrong.” I tried to just feel as good about it, the integrity about it, as I could. Whatever they say, they say.
The critics have been somewhat unkind of the film too.
I’m used to it. You don’t perform in clubs, you don’t host the Oscars a couple of times without people drawing moustaches on your face and kicking you in the nuts. That being said, I do take seriously the notion of clarity of vision and recognize that I don’t know everything, I’m only too aware of that.
You use humor to tackle such a tricky, sensitive subject, and that’s really what you’ve done when it comes to politics your entire career, why is that?
I think some of that is wiring. I think it’s just, how I cope. Repression and humor.
Was this as a child? Because I read where you endured anti-Semitic bullying as a child.
You know, I came into a type of abuse, which all children face as a child in all places. Children have a unique ad special quality where they will assess you, find your weak spot, find what it is that they will hang on to and utilize it. But in no way was it, this was not a Louis Malle movie, it was in no way more than what the Italian kids in my school faced for being Italian. Or the Irish kids. Or the dork kids or the tall kids or heavy kids. Because of how my brain is wired, I tended to deflect it as humor where kids genetically superior to me would use fisticuffs. That, I don’t want to ever portray it that I ever suffered under this oppressive, it was very middle-class kid bullshit. I’m generally someone who likes to prat fall and run.