Jon Stewart faces his next chapter: Goodbye to "the joy machine" of the writing room and the anxiety of being the poster boy for the left

"You have to never be precious with the material," Stewart reflected on the fast pace of "The Daily Show"

Published July 23, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart              (AP/Charles Sykes)
Jon Stewart (AP/Charles Sykes)

In February, after Jon Stewart casually announced his retirement from “The Daily Show” during an otherwise ordinary afternoon taping, the first interview he did was at a small comedy show and live podcast called “Employee of the Month,” at Joe’s Pub (part of the Public Theater). Stewart was scheduled to appear on “Employee of the Month” already, but the announcement cast his appearance in a totally different light. Press requests for a little theater show suddenly skyrocketed; I was seated next to someone from Rolling Stone and down a row, apparently, from a group from BuzzFeed. It was the beginning of wondering not just what happens next with “The Daily Show,” but what Stewart will be post-“The Daily Show”—a nightly comedy show that he turned into a touchstone for American liberalism.

It’s a funny setting, Joe’s Pub. Having a notebook in there makes you feel like you’re a fedora-clad reporter from the 1920s; it’s a gorgeous space, decorated like the nicest speakeasy you’ve never been to, with table service, a live band, and the promise of something or other onstage offering up a good time. It’s kind of the opposite of “The Daily Show,” in that sense—where that show is splashy, loud and nationally broadcast, “Employee of the Month” felt like an intimate little time capsule. The show is the brainchild of comedian Catie Lazarus, who has herself auditioned for “The Daily Show”—and though she didn’t get it, she has a strong personal relationship with Stewart. In those first few weeks, as speculation grew about who would host the new “Daily Show,” Lazarus’ name came up, especially after this evening. She’s a confident, funny host, with an incredible onstage presence both as an interviewer and as a comedian. And though she did not end up being the person chosen to succeed Stewart—that will be South African comic Trevor Noah, whom I will be writing more about next week—the meeting onstage of Lazarus and Stewart was one of colleagues interested in the same topics and dedicated to the same principles.

And as they spoke, for about 45 minutes, what emerged—perhaps by accident—was an outline of the man Stewart has tried to become, and as Lazarus made quite clear, a discussion of the many ways in which he’s succeeded. It was a rare opportunity to hear Jon Stewart discuss his own legacy—a topic much on the mind of fans of “The Daily Show” and, indeed, anyone interested in politics, media or the intersection between them. Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times dubbed Stewart our “satirist-in-chief,” and a week before his Joe’s Pub appearance, I wrote:

If the voice of the people is the voice of God—if comedy is the second, far more critical draft of history, following the news—then Jon Stewart is one of the most influential political figures of our era, despite having never run for public office, written a word of policy, or strategically donated millions and millions to a special-interest group. But his show, and his perspective, and his steadfast commitment to liberal-minded sanity got a lot of us through eight years polarized with a crappy president and eight election cycles in a country that is increasingly on the most basic civil rights, on the most essential responsibilities of government. Stewart was the liberal organizer and rallying point before Obama’s presidency was a twinkle in David Axelrod’s eye; as difficult as it has been to advance a progressive agenda over the last 16 years, it would likely have been impossible without Stewart’s ability to connect to millions of viewers and remind them that they weren’t alone in hoping for something better—better from government, better from media, better from each other.

It was sort of astonishing, then, to see Stewart onstage, and to see that he is “just” a guy; he came to the event in a sweatshirt and jeans, emphasizing the “casual” in “casual conversation.” His patter with Lazarus was full of the kind of humor that he couldn’t ever quite fit on “The Daily Show.” Lazarus and her crew had dug up an old headshot of Stewart’s, from when he was 23 and, in his words, “still working the Jewfro,” a clip from the 1998 film “Playing By Heart,” where he has a romance with Gillian Anderson, and photos from the early “Daily Show,” including one of him and Stephen Colbert as “babies,” to use his term. Lazarus projected the photos and videos on a screen behind them, and Stewart kept turning back, half-joking that she was going to have one of his ex-girlfriends up there, who would confirm that “he can’t fuck for shit.” True story, he added: “I lost my virginity in 1981 … the girl appealed, I got it back. Didn’t lose it again until ’83.”

Both comedians also lapsed into the accents of their elderly Jewish friends and relations. Stewart said his elderly relatives and acquaintances, as well as the wider Jewish community, always had very specific critique for him—on his treatment of Israel, of course, but also more specific concerns: “I saw you worked on Yom Kippur—you know I think of the children, though your wife, God forbid, she’s Catholic…”

Where other comedians might be all riffs and banter, what’s striking about Stewart, even in sweats, is how his sense of mission permeates everything he does. Mission, and an incredible humility that is either authentic or very, very well-faked. It underscored what made Stewart America’s most important newscaster, even though he was on a comedy network at 10 p.m.; he consistently projects integrity and trustworthiness, which reveals itself as incredible humility, poise and consideration on even the most everyday of topics. Stewart is a funny man, but not every funny man is one you’d want to invite over for dinner; with Lazarus, in that room, he was essentially the friend at the party that told the best jokes and was nice to everyone, the one who offered to help with the dishes and thoughtfully brought a gift. Stewart’s extraordinary (and now famed) humility would reject that as just basic human decency, but clearly, that is a human decency that isn’t terribly common at all.

At the same time, there are sour notes to Stewart's tenure on "The Daily Show." In 2010, Irin Carmon at Jezebel wrote about how the show had a "woman problem"; though women from "The Daily Show" responded in their own open letter, the show had a distinct lack of female correspondents for years outside of Samantha Bee (who is married to another correspondent). The stories that surfaced revealed a darker side to the camaraderie of "The Daily Show." Stewart threw a script at a female executive producer, and then may have refused to let her onstage when the show received that year's Emmy. And just today, black writer Wyatt Cenac revealed on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast that he was told to "fuck off" by Stewart after bringing up a concern about race.

Neither situation is hard to believe, in the high-stress, egocentric and caustic world of late-night television; comedy is more often than not a racist, sexist medium. It's interesting, though, to note that he apologized (repeatedly) to Cenac, after the initial outburst, and also that "The Daily Show" made a concerted effort to hire more female correspondents after Olivia Munn—leading to the hiring of the black and female Jessica Williams, who is now an essential part of the "Daily Show" experience.

He certainly pays lip service to the notion of sharing success — and has been able to share success with his crew members who have become stars in their own right, like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Steve Carell:

When you can find people that have that kind of talent and creativity but also that kind of humanity—they’re good fucking people. And a pleasure to be around. In creative environments, you don’t always get that. Too many people use creativity and art as an excuse to be an asshole. … This business has the idea that someone else’s success diminishes yours. That’s a bullshit idea.

Stewart was not always as big as his principles, but there is evidence that he tried to recalibrate when possible. His episode of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" reveals a particularly high-strung version of himself, one both very afraid of giving offense and very frustrated with being constantly held to a higher standard—even though, frankly, he himself made that standard.

In that sense, leaving "The Daily Show" behind is a chance to no longer be the unofficial, unelected representative of the American people. Stewart is self-deprecating to a fault—at Joe's Pub, when Lazarus remarked, "You always shit on yourself as an actor," he responded: "I always shit on myself for a lot of things"—and that seems to have stemmed from an extraordinary anxiety at suddenly being everyone's poster boy for liberalism.

He spoke candidly on the limitations to the format of “The Daily Show": “One of the difficulties of satire is that it is a cathartic but relatively impotent exercise. Shame only goes so far for people. … When satire is introduced to cultures or societies that are really unaccustomed to that type of freedom of expression, then it can have real effect.” (Stewart’s film “Rosewater” is about exactly that—a comedian in Iran.)

Lazarus observed that “The Daily Show” was able to get the language of a policy for veterans changed, but Stewart pushed back on the idea that satire was similar to “boots-on-the-ground activism”: “Everything we do that has a point of view is advocating a position or an argument … Satire is a process, and what we did for Veterans Affairs went through the same process.” The difference, he argued, was perhaps that the solution here was quite simple (changing the “as-the-crow-flies” distance reckoning to regular old Google Maps).

As he told Lazarus, from the get-go, his vision of “The Daily Show” was a show that would focus on media critique. “Those networks, they’d just become a more potent force in the dialogue.” Cable news seems like it is covering a “completely separate world” than the New York Times front page, he pointed out; they’re “geared to catastrophe.” And part of what made “The Daily Show” so ideal to process the news is that it unfolded anew every day. “One of the great things about the show is that it’s disposable, in the sense that you’re going incredibly fast. You have to never be precious with the material. You can’t claim ownership over it, over your ideas and things. You have to learn to read and react very quickly.”

He continued: “The thing I’ll miss the most, I think, is the thoughtful conversation in the morning that turns into a rewrite dance-party.” The news—such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year—would have the writing staff thoughtful and even bereft in the mornings. But then around 4:30, in the rewrite room, came “that stupid childlike jolt of joy. That joy machine.” Which is to say, Stewart and his team used “The Daily Show” just as we the viewing audience did—as a way to transform the incredibly depressing state of the world into something enjoyable. “The actual being-on-TV part has almost peripheral… I’ll miss the experience of making it much more than I’ll miss presenting it.”

As his relaxed demeanor onstage demonstrated, there will be perks to leaving the show behind. He cited wanting to spend more time with his kids “before they really don’t want anything to do with me anymore.” Lazarus asked when and if he takes his death threats seriously, and he responded without hesitation: “When they spell my name without an ‘h.’” But then, as he contemplated directing more projects, he responded more seriously: I have a lot of ideas. I mean, partially that’s why I decided to move on from the show. I got to the point where I was like, well, you shouldn’t stay somewhere just because you can.”

It evidenced a singular sense of purpose, what we now know to be characteristic of the man—a comedian who chooses to direct dramas about Iranian prisoners, help his friends, and appear on a minor comedian’s monthly comedy show during a major turning point in his career because he already promised he would. But lest we take his words too seriously, he followed it up, as ever, with a snappy, self-deprecating joke about his own tenure on “The Daily Show”: “You can only go so far with four facial expressions and five-to-seven curse words.”

"So far," for Jon Stewart—a man who changed the landscape of both political comedy and television news in one show—is apparently very far indeed.

By Sonia Saraiya

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