As he took his seat behind a long anchor’s table in a Midtown Manhattan studio and prepared to deliver a comedy monologue inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times, Jon Stewart told his audience how unusual the whole enterprise felt to him.
“I used to do this every day and now I’ve done it three times in the last six years,” he said. “But it’s still delightful to see your faces. Look at you all, you’re clearly taking care of yourselves.”
On a mid-September evening, he was about to record one of the earliest episodes of his new Apple TV+ series, “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” which makes its debut on Thursday. This topical comedy show is Stewart’s return to television after a six-year hiatus — his first such project after stepping down from his 16-year run as host of “The Daily Show,” the influential, headline-driven news satire on Comedy Central.
Chatting casually with his audience, Stewart advised them that what they were about to see would likely remind them of his old program — and differ from it in unexpected ways.
“You may walk out of here and be like, I loved that — it’s sort of like ‘The Daily Show’ but maybe a little deeper,” he said. “Or you may walk out and go, those free tickets weren’t worth it.”
Sure enough, Stewart, who was dressed casually in an unzipped jacket and jeans, began the taping by delivering a comic jeremiad on gun violence in America, complete with quick cutaways to video clips of news anchors saying awkward things and risible remarks from longstanding foils like Wayne LaPierre and O.J. Simpson.
That was Act 1; in Act 2, Stewart conducted an in-studio interview with April Ross and Janet Paulsen, gun-control activists who were both shot and paralyzed by men they intended to divorce. The full conversation ran just over an hour and Stewart interjected little, letting his guests tell their own stories and explain how they hoped a struggling system could be reformed to protect others.
When Stewart returned to address his audience, he could perhaps sense they had just seen something they weren’t anticipating. “Uh, funny show!” he said in a facetious voice. Then more sincerely, he added, “It’s powerful, isn’t it?”
As he told the crowd, this was the crux of his new program: “Trying to figure out how to diagnose what’s really, actually going on here,” he said. “Then it’s up to the rest of us to not let it go.”
“It feels more cathartic than just yelling at the screen,” Stewart explained.
Given the opportunity to create just about anything he wants, the 58-year-old Stewart has returned with something that looks very much like “The Daily Show.” In biweekly episodes that will run about 40 to 60 minutes each, the new series focuses on people with real stakes in enduring and seemingly intractable issues: on the one hand, people affected by them and, on the other hand, people with the power to do something about them. (The show’s debut episode, about U.S. military veterans, ends on Stewart’s interview with Denis McDonough, the secretary of veterans affairs; a subsequent episode about the economy concludes with him talking to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.)
Stewart has tried to put some of this philosophy into a practice as an advocate for 9/11 emergency workers. But now he is returning to a TV arena that is teeming with other topical comedy shows, informed by his muckraking sensibilities and in many cases hosted by people he hired at “The Daily Show.”
And his own cultural compass is hardly infallible: Since leaving Comedy Central, he developed an animation project for HBO that never made it to air, and he wrote and directed the election comedy “Irresistible,” starring Steve Carell and Rose Byrne, which was poorly received at its release last year.
When Stewart and I spoke one-on-one in a video interview a few days after the taping, he was relaxing in his New Jersey home with his dogs Scout and Dipper snoozing on either side of him. He was cognizant of the limitations facing a program like “The Problem With Jon Stewart” — and the possibility that topical comedy shows don’t bring about much real-world change at all — but unfazed in his desire to keep creating them.
“Your purpose can’t be efficacy,” he said. “Your purpose has to be, what’s the best iteration of this idea? How do we best execute our intention? That’s the whole purpose of making things.”
With the curtain about to go up on his latest series, Stewart said, “Are you worried when you show it to someone they’ll say it sucks? Yeah, that’d be a drag. But I like making things, and I would still like you to put it on your refrigerator.”
Stewart spoke further about the creation of “The Problem With Jon Stewart” and his reflections on his time at “The Daily Show.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How do you find your topics for “The Problem With Jon Stewart”? It feels like you’re looking for subjects that outlast the daily headlines.
Like everything with the show, it’s annoyance-based. We’ll come in and go, you know what’s driving me crazy right now? And then that spurs a discussion. It’s kind of like “Blue’s Clues.” You go, what’s wrong, Blue? “I’ll tell you what’s wrong — these burn pits.” OK, Blue. You look for situations that might seem intractable and try to view it from a different perspective. It turns out that racism and war have a long horizon. They turn out to be more cyclical than we might have thought.
What made you want to be back on TV at all? Once you decided to, how did you arrive at this format?
It was thinking about the parts of working on “The Daily Show” that I found frustrating. We spent so much time trying to fend off the day-to-day that we didn’t have that much of a chance to sit back and have a more considered analysis. The “Daily Show” process was relatively eccentric. It’s ephemeral and I love the forgiving nature of that: You go in on a Tuesday show and miss all your marks, but then there’s always Wednesday and there’s Thursday. There’s other parts that can be less satisfying. It’s all an equation — satisfaction over time and whether that diminishes or increases.
You were previously working on an animated project for HBO that got canceled. What happened there?
I got out way over my skis on that one. But man, sometimes you go to the fixin’s bar and you’re like, Oh, why don’t I try the banana peppers? Ohhh, that’s not going to work. Beyond that, I was working on the film [“Irresistible”], and this idea had a pin in it until I was done with those other things. I’d been considering it for a very long time.
Is advocacy a central component of the new show?
Maybe not advocacy as much as amplification. That seems like a worthwhile use of the privilege of television. I’ve always viewed it as a uniquely, oddly arrogant privilege. Like all comics, who walk into a club, where all the seats are facing one way and there’s one seat in front of everyone, and you think to yourself, I’ll take that one — I’ve got some thoughts on airplanes that I’d like these other people to hear. Now you feel like, well, if you’ve earned some capital in all of this, why not spend it on people better than you, who are doing remarkable things? You can help frame their good work.
Are you finding it challenging to talk to guests who aren’t celebrities, and who may have harrowing stories to tell about their personal experiences?
They don’t seem to be promoting any movies. That was the thing that I was most struck by — I kept saying to them, “And what do you have coming up?” No, it’s not meant for that, really. It’s stakeholders. It’s the people who are affected by these various things, getting an opportunity to frame their situation in their own words.
Do you find yourself thinking — even in, say, an interview with Janet Yellen — I’d better weave another joke in here?
That’s who I am as an individual. I do that at dinner. I do that with my children. That’s a discomfort that I think is deep within my own genetic material. I got like a cytosine and a guanine switched. That’s what it means to live inside my brain.
Does it feel strange to now be doing this show in a TV landscape that’s oversaturated with “Daily Show”-style topical satire programs?
Look, all viewing universes are stuffed to the gills. If you begin to view what you make as a function of external processes — whether it’s other shows that traffic in a similar sensibility, or internet commentary or expectations — I think you can’t win. Because you won’t create something that’s authentic. Imagine saying to someone who plays guitar, “Lotta guitarists out there, man.” There’s no question, but this is a song I want to sing.
It doesn’t crowd out your message to have to compete with Famous Original Ray’s Topical Comedy and Ray’s Famous Original Topical Comedy on every corner?
But you got to figure, at 2 o’clock in the morning when everybody’s high as [expletive], it tastes pretty good.
Do you think there’s a sense in which these kinds of shows ultimately weren’t helpful? That they left viewers with a sense of complacency — if they’ve laughed at a problem they’ve done enough to solve it?
Boy, wouldn’t that be nice? It would make the Friars Club roast the most effective social movement of all time. I hope none of us have the delusion that this is an effective way of change. Did I have a pretty strong hand in ruining the way we talk? You certainly hope not. But there’s an awful lot that’s made of, oh, the smug liberals and they condescend and that’s what has driven conservatives. I think it’s a fable. I have an AM radio and I know that for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Democrats, liberals, New Yorkers, are portrayed not as dumb or as smug but as an enemy to American democracy that needs to be excised.
There’s a whole idea out there that there’s a real America that’s the opposite and antithesis of that, and it’s all just nonsense. I think late-night comedy is tame as [expletive] compared to right-wing media. Making a little fun and calling some names, this is patty-cake. But the hand-wringing that goes on around it is strategic on the part of people who want to discredit those types of thoughts. I don’t know what is the remedy to that poison that is pumped into the atmosphere by those outlets.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said that, during the Vietnam War, “every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” Is that observation still valid today?
I think he’s overstating the power of it. I think it’s maybe three feet. And there’s no tin, it’s just loose custard. I think he’s dead-on. It’s easy to confuse cultural power with power — the people that control the levers of change. That’s a whole other element that’s far more difficult to breach. There’s probably not a thing on “The Daily Show” that I advocated for over all those years that came to pass. But think of what that’s like for people who have actual skin in the game. It’s one thing to pontificate on that, in a studio at remove. It’s another thing to be subjected to real power and feel that on a daily basis.
In your final monologue on “The Daily Show,” in which you warned that “bullshit is everywhere,” you advised viewers, “If you smell something, say something.” Does that actually accomplish anything?
People say pointing out hypocrisy does nothing. I don’t know that it does nothing, but it’s certainly not enough. The ethos of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that always spoke to me. The idea that when there was a group delusion or a spell to be broken, that you could break it with an honest assessment or a funny dagger or something along those lines. And you would say, “Hey man, this [expletive] is naked.” And everyone would go, “Oh my God, that’s right, the tyranny is over.” You never expect that you live in a world where the boy would say, “But the emperor is wearing no clothes!” And everyone would turn and say, “You’re the enemy of the people! That’s fake news! You run a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop!” You’re like, wait, what? You’re not prepared for that moment to have no impact.
I think the mistake is thinking that speech was me saying, “And this is how we win.” That isn’t. There’s so many different ways to build positive culture.
Do you think “The Daily Show” made people more cynical?
I think people always thought “The Daily Show” was cynical and it never was, in my mind. Certainly this show isn’t. If anything, it’s overly idealistic and naïve. Cynical would be to pretend like the show is really doing something. It’s not and I don’t think any of us ever thought it actually was. But it felt good to us. It was a bear scratching his ass on a tree.
Is the goal of “The Problem With Jon Stewart” that you will give a platform to people who are directly affected by an issue, and to people with the power to do something about it, and then viewers will hopefully be encouraged to take action on this issue themselves?
No. [Laughs.] I don’t think we can ever lose sight of the fact that it’s still just TV. I’m not trying to denigrate the form that I’ve worked in for my adult life. But don’t be fooled that this momentary boost is somehow akin to change or effective activism. If it gives those individuals a quick boost and it helps them get over the hill, boy, that would be amazing but those hills — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, we’re all Sisyphus. I’d rather feel like the person pushing someone up than the person kicking them back down. Isn’t some small measure of comfort and support and entertainment and insight better than noise and exploitation?
When I visited the show, a member of your studio audience asked about your ’90s-era appearance on “The Nanny.” You told the crowd — humorously, but aptly — “I don’t necessarily want to be your personal time capsule.” Are you concerned, with this show or in general, that your viewers won’t ever let you evolve into something different than what they’ve already seen?[Laughs.] I guess we’ll find out! I think very little about legacy and what people think I am. I’ve been hired and fired so many times, from working in bakeries to laboratories to bars. I never view myself through a singular lens. Another person in the audience said to me, you’ve been gone for six years and you’ve missed so much. And I was like, “I’ve actually been alive this whole time. I get what you’re saying, but I had to wear a mask and buy a bunch of toilet paper and water. I had the ups and downs of the previous administration and felt it deeply.” People perceive you, but if you allow their perception to define you, then you live in a hologram. And I’m just trying to embody the universe I actually live in.
If I let other people define who I was, I’d probably still be bartending underneath a liquor store in Trenton, N.J. You can’t live like that.