Why Jon Stewart doesn't see The Daily Show as fake news
Plus five other insights from the Comedy Central host
Jon Stewart's Daily Show empire is at something of a crossroads.
The Colbert Report, for which he serves as executive producer, is dissolving next week and will be reincarnated in January as The Nightly Show, starring Larry Wilmore and a "diverse panel of voices, providing a perspective largely missing in the late night television landscape." Stewart's Daily Show contract is up in fall 2015 and he's openly toying with leaving the show to do something else.
It's not clear what he might do next, but while heavily promoting his new film, Rosewater, Stewart answered a lot of questions about his current gig as host of The Daily Show. Here are some of the details, thoughts, and other insights he has shared about the show Comedy Central bills as America's "most trusted name in fake news."
1. Stewart doesn't see The Daily Show as fake news
The Daily Show isn't the only satirical take on the news, but Stewart isn't totally on board with the "fake news" label. "I don't know that what we’re doing is fake," he told New York's Chris Smith. "It's jokes about the news." And while his show shares common ground with John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and even Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," he said, like talent-searching reality TV shows "there will never be a saturation point of good comedy."
And comedy has its strengths but also its limitations, Stewart told New York:
You know, satire isn't journalism. That's not to suggest that we're not responsible for the content that we put out there. I stand behind the point of view. That being said, the tools we use are exaggeration, hyperbole, puns, imitation, ridicule. Sometimes they can cut through things in an easier way but generally in a more superficial way. It distils something to a more visceral element that does not generally present a grander picture. [New York]
2. He trashes CNN because he thinks it can do better
Stewart is also wary of the "most trusted" part of his show's motto. "I do think that the general sense of our show as somehow being more authentic or having integrity is based almost purely on a dissatisfaction with traditional journalism," he told New York's Smith. "We are, in some ways, the cheap protest vote."
If he is hard on cable news — and he is, especially on CNN and Fox News — it's partly because he thinks "there is room for the type of network that would be purely based on the functioning of government as opposed to the drama and the daily dalliances and story lines," he added, optimistically:
Rooting out corruption could be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business. I think that could be interesting. It does not exist. That's why we make fun of CNN, because they are an opportunity squandered. You just think, boy, what you could do with all those wonderful toys. [New York]
Stewart's frequent mocking of CNN hasn't gone unnoticed at the network. In Stewart's Rosewater interview with the network, Jake Tapper asked him why he "craps on CNN a lot," despite using a lot of their footage in his movie. Tapper was apparently pleased with the answer:
3. And he trashes Fox News because he thinks it's genuinely terrible
If CNN, like Arby's, gets mostly good-natured ribbing on The Daily Show, Fox News is a constant source of material and mockery. The difference, Stewart told Rolling Stone's Andy Greene, is that Fox is pushing something toxic and almost subversive.
Conservative talk radio wears its pitchfork on its sleeve, Stewart said, but "Roger Ailes' great gift was mainstreaming that nativist, paranoid streak in American politics and putting it on television in a much prettier, shinier box."
Compared to his fellow Fox News pundits, frequent sparring partner Bill O'Reilly "appears to be almost a Kennedy Democrat by this point," Stewart told Greene, but "Sean Hannity is probably the most loathsome dude over there. That's just pure cynicism, and it's horrible. Everything is presented in as devious a manner as it could possibly be presented." But the Fox News Channel is really popular, Stewart conceded, and he had some ideas on why:
They have a real sense of persecution. I've just figured that out recently. Their feeling of persecution is real. They truly feel the loss of absolute power is the same as persecution. Like, watch them do their "War on Christmas" stuff. It's real, man. There's no bullshit. They are in the middle of Rockefeller Center talking about "They won't let us put up a Christmas tree!" [Rolling Stone]
Liberals don't really have their own Fox News, Stewart suggested, because "the audience on the left for something like that would be much more fractured, and not everyone would be as animated by that sense of grievance" and victimization.
4. Stewart is deeply ambivalent about The Daily Show's role in society
If Fox News is part of the problem, Stewart doesn't seem convinced that his show is the answer. In the 15 years since he took over The Daily Show, "as far as I can tell, politics has gotten worse," Stewart told New York. At the same time, "this show was not designed to change our political system. It was designed as a mouthpiece for our point of view."
It's a relatively selfish pursuit. Maybe it is a weird form of sideline activism, if that's even a thing.... But we're not doing the work. Activists do the work, and they're slogging it out day in and day out in the trenches of those terribly bureaucratic and corrosive and corrupt societies.... I never try and confuse what we do on the show with what real people do to change the system. We are part of that ecosystem, maybe, but in a very peripheral way. [New York]
Stewart compared his show's role in society to the finer arts. "It's like when people say Bob Dylan changed the world in the '60s," he said. "He wrote some good tunes, and some people who did actually end up changing the world probably hummed them a lot, but that's not what changed the world."
And The Daily Show has a symbiotic relationship with the media outlets that post and hype his video clips, Stewart told The Washington Post: "The beast needs food. We're part of that ecosystem too. We're not separate from it. Our beast exists to get eyeballs too."
5. Stewart really doesn't like interviewing politicians
Politicians like coming on The Daily Show to reach its young, politically tuned-in audience, Mo Rocca noted during a CBS Sunday Morning interview with Stewart. But when he asked Stewart if he liked interviewing the politicians, the Daily Show host didn't mince words. "No, I despise it," he told Rocca. "As most sentient creatures, I think, would."
Politicians are like "salespeople," but less honest, Stewart explained. "They live in a world of denial and conjuring. It's very strange, it's very strange to talk to people who have lost their awareness that that's what they're doing."
The odd thing, Stewart told The Washington Post, is that his comedy show seems to be held to a higher standard than straight journalism, and even politicians. People have great concern "for the rules of the moral universe of comedy," he said, "but not as much concern for the moral universe of governance. I've never heard someone ask a leading figure, 'Where do you draw the line?' I hear that a lot to comedians: 'What's too far?' I don't think I've ever heard that with a president."
6. And he apparently really doesn't know about sticking with The Daily Show
Stewart fielded quite a few questions about whether he will sign a new contract with Comedy Central next fall, or whether he'll go on to a new endeavor. If he knows, he's not telling, but he seems to really not know his future plans. "Oh, God, I don't look ahead like that," he said when Rolling Stone asked if he wanted to stick around through the 2020 elections. "There's obviously a shelf life for me. There's only so many times people can see me doing the same shit without going, 'We want something fresh.' That's just a natural progression."
Stewart is pretty clear that he wouldn't want to move on to a network talk show like Colbert, or a political talk show like NBC's Meet the Press. A Sunday gabfest is a bad match, he told Rolling Stone, and he tried his hand at a nightly variety show about 20 years ago. "The people spoke. They felt that was something I should not be doing. They felt, in fact, that I should be locked out of the building. I also wasn’t something that I felt necessarily comfortable doing. I don't think I'm particularly suited for it."
On NPR's Fresh Air, Terry Gross urged Stewart to renew his contract next year, because he's "so darn good at doing The Daily Show." Stewart said that there may be no other job he's "as well suited for," but "there are moments when you realize that that's not enough anymore, or maybe it's time for some discomfort." At the same time, he added, "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 I just made, and I will want to grab it back." You can listen to the whole interview, and Stewart's elaborate Seinfeld analogy:
Everyone gets bored with their job after a while, so it won't be a shock if Stewart moves on. And besides, he tells Rolling Stone, he's already landed his "dream guest": "I've had Springsteen, so I'm pretty much OK."