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Jon Stewart On The 'Daily Show': 'I'm Still Really Proud Of The Work We Do'

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Jon Stewart On The 'Daily Show': 'I'm Still Really Proud Of The Work We Do'

Television

Jon Stewart On The 'Daily Show': 'I'm Still Really Proud Of The Work We Do'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I recorded my interview with Jon Stewart last week about writing and directing his new film "Rosewater," we also spent some time talking about "The Daily Show." But there wasn't time for that chapter in last week's broadcast, so we have that part for you today.

Jon Stewart took a leave of absence from "The Daily Show" in the summer of 2013 to shoot "Rosewater," which he adapted from the memoir by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist now living in England. Bahari was imprisoned in Iran in 2009 after covering the country's contested election and the protests surrounding it. Bahari was accused of being a spy, and part of the evidence his interrogator used against him was his appearance in a satirical report on "The Daily Show." So here's part two of my interview with Jon Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the pieces that you did in the recent past was on the so-called latte salute when president Obama, you know...

JON STEWART: Right.

GROSS: ...Exited Marine One, I think it was...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...With a cup of coffee in his hand and saluted the Marines with a cup of coffee in his hands...

STEWART: Correct.

GROSS: ...And a lot of people on the right said that is so disrespectful of...

STEWART: Of course they did. How dare he. And their outrage was genuine, and from a place of true patriotism.

GROSS: (Laughter) So out...

STEWART: To salute with a latte - make it an American coffee - black from 7 Eleven.

GROSS: (Laughter) So I want to play an excerpt of the comments that you made about that on the show.

STEWART: Sure.

GROSS: And we'll start with a collage of clips that you showed of right-wing pundits commenting on the latte salute.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Learn the proper respect of the salute.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's insensitive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's the meaning of it? That's it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It looks terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's outlandish and it's disappointing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Put your coffee in the other hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Our commander-in-chief displayed his complete disrespect for the men and women in uniform.

STEWART: Shut up.

(APPLAUSE)

STEWART: You don't really care. You don't really care about this. You have no principal about this. You're just trying to score points in a game that no one else is playing. Here's how we know.

ERIC BOLLING: It's an arrogance that he portrays. These people put their lives on the line for us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You're right.

BOLLING: Show the respect. Salute these guys.

STEWART: So the principal here is show respect for the people who are putting their lives on the line for this fight. Here's Eric Bolling on that very same episode.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The first female pilot piloting for the UAE dropped the bombs on ISIS on Monday night.

BOLLING: Would that be considered boobs on the ground, or no?

STEWART: First of all, forget the rampant sexism in that statement. Second of all, she's a pilot, so whatever gender-specific equipment she might be carrying is in the [bleep]ing air.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: And thirdly, what was the quote that someone said earlier in your program? These people are putting their lives on the line for us. Show respect. So [bleep] you and all your false patriotism. When Bush took us to war...

(CHEERING)

STEWART: ...Any criticism was shouted down as treasonous. When Bush took us to war, any criticism was shouted down as treasonous. But a president you don't like has the country poised on the same precipice - no transgression, no matter how immaterial and ridiculous is too small to cite as evidence that this president isn't as American as you are.

GROSS: OK, that's John's Stewart on "The Daily Show." You sound genuinely angry. I mean when I heard that on TV, I thought, like, that's the real thing. He's mad.

STEWART: Well, I think it's - you know, we have to do a show everyday, and there's certain days that you bring things to the floor that you don't have the same outrage or passion for. And then there are certain things that happen that truly ignite - that truly get to the crux of the dysfunction of our system, and that's one of those. And it's wildly upsetting to watch that go down - you know, for them to be so relentless in their attack on the president for something that they not only didn't care about with the president previous to this, but the president previous to this would salute the troops with a dog in his arms - with a Scotty.

They don't care about the reality of it. They care about symbolism. They care about wearing a flag pin as opposed to coming up with actual strategies that don't put soldiers in unnecessary danger for poor planning. So as long as they want to attack symbolism, we'll try to attack the reality that surrounds it.

GROSS: So, you know, you talk about this being false patriotism in that piece. And I'm wondering if that makes you...

STEWART: Well, because it's wielded. They wield it like a cudgel. They - you know, they wield it as though - you know, they've spent years talking about how this president or anybody on the progressive side is somehow not really American. They love America. They just hate about 50 percent of the people who live there. And it's infuriating.

GROSS: Does this make you angrier - are you angrier about that after your experiences over the summer shooting the film about Maziar, who was a political prisoner in an authoritarian regime - after visiting Egypt where Bassem Youssef was thrown off the air because of his satire and - you know and imprisoned for a while, too, but - and silenced. So do you find yourself being angrier about the things that you're angry about?

STEWART: That's a good question. I honestly don't think that's the case. I think I'm angrier about it because I view the media as such a great tool against that type of cudgel - against that type of authoritarian mentality - against that type of dogma, and to see it utilized in service for that is what I think is so angering about it.

GROSS: Recently, I was surprised to see on television ads for Koch Industries. And I'd never seen Koch Industries advertised before. And these are ads for the multinational that is owned by the Koch family and the Koch brothers. Charles and David are two - like, they have several different organizations that fund a lot of conservative - like, ultraconservative groups. They spent a fortune on political campaign ads during this election. Anyways, so this is a short ad that doesn't tell you what Koch industries does. There's no product that they're selling.

STEWART: Right, right, right.

GROSS: Anyways, they took out an ad on your show...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which you ended up parodying. And...

STEWART: Yes. We assumed they were trolling us at some level.

GROSS: (Laughter) So what - first of all - and apparently you didn't know that they had bought an ad on your show until after the fact.

STEWART: Right. Well, people don't tell - it's not like anybody...

GROSS: Right.

STEWART: Hey, we got Burger King. You know, nobody - we don't even pay attention to that.

GROSS: Well, the ads aren't on while you're shooting the show. They're inserted afterwards, right?

STEWART: That's correct. And we don't - you know, we're very separate. I think our job is sort of to do a good enough show that Comedy Central can sell ads, but they don't ever consult us. It's not as though they would call us up and say, are you OK with Verizon? They have their - you know, they have their side. We have our side.

GROSS: No, I mean it's kind of like in journalism. There should be a firewall between advertising and editorial.

STEWART: Right, right, right. That's correct.

GROSS: But anyway, so what was your reaction when you found out that the Koch brothers who you parody a lot - you know, who you satirize a lot on the show (laughter) had taken out an ad on the show?

STEWART: My reaction was - I believe a small lightbulb popped over the head, and I went, (singing) opportunity.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: You know, it's a gift. I thought it was a grand gift, and it was very kind of them to hand us something along those lines, especially given the Reagan-esque commercial that they produced for themselves - this sort of (impersonating narrator) Koch industries is growing wheat so your grandmother can live.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: You know, it's really - it's quite the commercial they put together. It's the kind of commercial that corporations usually do after they've killed a bunch of people by pouring something into a river they weren't supposed to pour into a river. So it definitely has that air of, please don't look at what we really do. Just look at this field. Isn't it pretty? Isn't it?

GROSS: What I'd like to do is play the Koch Industries ad and then hear the satire of that that you did on the show. So let's start with the Koch Industries ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Koch industries started in the heartland. We help make better food, clothing, shelter, technologies and other necessities. We build on each other's ideas to create more opportunities for people everywhere. We are Koch.

GROSS: OK, and here's Samantha Bee voicing " The Daily Show's" satire of that ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

SAMANTHA BEE: We're Koch industries - not just an energy company. We're in your food, in your pants and in your home. And if there's a way to monetize your thoughts, we'll find it, all while backing 17 shadow organizations to buy elections from Pennsylvania Avenue to Main Street. You won't always see our names on our campaign ads because the politicians we own say that's OK. With our heartfelt devotion to fossil fuels, we make your planet warmer and your water more flammable while lubricating your birds and rearranging your polar bears. We can't raise your little girl for you, but we can handpick her school board and approve her textbooks. And when she lands her first job, we'll be fighting to reduce the minimum wage because we actually believe it could lead to Nazism - yeah, Nazism. We're that [bleep] out there. We're Koch industries, the next generation of robber barons, bending the democratic process to our will since 1980. Oh, and our brother David likes ballet.

GROSS: (Laughter) So that's the "Daily Show" satire of the Koch brothers' ad that ran on "The Daily Show." Did Koch Industries respond to that?

STEWART: Not that I'm aware of, no. I mean I don't know that they, you know, monitor it in that regard. I don't know. They seem somewhat thin-skinned in that regard, but I don't know - it's not like they called us. I mean we do get called. There are - you know, generally if we do a piece on something, you know, people will respond to it. They'll call us or they'll fire something off. But we didn't hear anything. We don't know if they're continuing to advertise. We don't know if it was merely a troll. We don't know if it was done just before the midterms. We honestly - we finished the show and go, yay, and then we move on to the next thing and try and figure out - so we're actually never really in contact with the - I guess you would -the advertising people. And they didn't call us and say hey, could you lay off the Koch brothers? They're giving us money.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that satire?

STEWART: It came from just deconstructing what it is they actually do versus what they would like you to think they do, and creating just a more visible template of all the things they've got - all the pies they've got their fingers in, as opposed to that - you know, it's like those BP commercials when they come out and say, you know, (impersonating narrator) we're working for a better energy tomorrow.

And you're like yeah, but what are you doing today? So it was that type of thing - is trying to just be very literal in our articulation of exactly what they do. So it had to have a great deal of specificity, and it had to reflect the actuality of what they were conducting through the political arena.

GROSS: We're listening to part two of my interview with Jon Stewart. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to part two of my interview with Jon Stewart. He's been hosting "The Daily Show" since 1999, but took a break in the summer of 2013 to shoot the new film "Rosewater," Stewart's debut as a screenwriter and director.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In a lot of ways, I think it takes courage to do something that you don't yet know how to do, and you don't know if you're going to be good at it when you're already the best at what it is that you do.

STEWART: But I - it's definitely not - I never - I don't think it's courage. It's more the sense of - you know, when you're a standup comic, you learn by doing standup comedy. So I think what is steeped in you is this idea of, that's how the process works. You throw yourself in. There is no way to get experience. You just do it. You know, people will always say to me, how do I become a standup comedian? And I say well, I think you should probably get on a stage and tell jokes because that's all you have. It's on the job training.

So I think when that is your work history, you don't view that as a strange thing. Oh, you've never shot a film before. Yeah, but I never did stand up comedy before. You just kind of go out and do it. And the best part about this is - as opposed to stand up comedy - you can surround yourself by people with great expertise and talent who can support your - you know, not to sound too Rumsfeldian, but I didn't know what I didn't know. And I was very clear with them at the outset, you know, you're going to have to raise flags early and often if I seem to be going off the rails here.

GROSS: So your contract with "The Daily Show" is up, I think, at the end of next year. And everybody's wondering if you're going to renew or not. I'm not going to ask you. You probably - you might not know, and even if you did, I wouldn't expect you to tell us.

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: But I'm just thinking of the difficult spot that you're in 'cause, you know, maybe you want to try something else, especially after having done this film. Maybe you're a little, you know, restless. On the other hand, you're so darn good at doing "The Daily Show."

STEWART: (Laughter) That's kind of you.

GROSS: And it's - people like me - I mean I feel so conflicted. I want you to be happy. I want you to do whatever...

STEWART: Well, thank you, Terry. That's very kind of you.

GROSS: ...Wherever your heart takes you, Jon Stewart, I want you to go.

STEWART: Thank you, Terry Gross. You're very kind.

GROSS: But at the same time, I really - I - like, I really don't want you to leave, you know?

STEWART: Well, that's very kind of you, and it's nice to hear.

GROSS: So you've got that pull.

STEWART: It's much better than, I would like you to leave. That would be a lot worse to hear.

GROSS: But you've got that pull. You've got fans like me, like, you know, wanting to keep you in place. And then also, like, you must know some place in your mind that, like, you're so darn good at it. Like, you created this thing that has so caught on - that has kind of changed the nature of political satire in America. There's all these offshoots of it now on television including John Oliver's show, "The Colbert Report." And I know that's about to end. Larry Wilmore's show - you're an executive producer of that.

STEWART: Right.

GROSS: So anyways, I'm just wondering about the conflict that maybe you'd be feeling about knowing how special this thing is that you created and yet perhaps wanting to do something else.

STEWART: I think that's - you know, it's always difficult. I do feel like I don't know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well suited for as this show. That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that's not enough anymore, or that maybe it's time for some discomfort. And sometimes, the comfort of that - you know, I'll never - I'm certainly convinced I'll never find the type of people that I've been able to work with in that environment and be able to have that feeling of utilizing sort of every part of something that I think I can do. I felt like I utilized to full capacity on that show.

And I'm still really proud of - you know, I'm really glad that you brought up those bits. I think there's other bits that we've been doing - I think there's a tendency when something's been on the air for a really long time to dismiss it only because of its familiarity. And it's hard to retain that first blush of love that you have when you first find something that takes you, whether it be, you know, artistic, material or music or other things. But I'm still really proud of the work we do day in and day out and hold up some of the bits that we've done recently to anything that we have done in the history of the program.

And so that is the difficulty - is when do you decide that even though it's this place of great comfort and you feel like you're plugged into it like you've never been plugged into anything else that you've ever done, you know is there also a part of you that - you know there are other considerations of family or even in the sense of just not wanting to be on television all the time. You know, there are - you can't just stay in the same place because it feels like you've built a nice house there. And that's really the thing that I struggle with. And it is unclear to me.

I will - 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 that I have just made, and I will want to grab it back. That being said, you know, the moment I sign on for more, I might feel as though it's sort of like that scene - you ever see with George Costanza? Not to go back to "Seinfeld," but I'm going to go back to "Seinfeld."

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: George Costanza - do you remember he went out with Susan?

GROSS: Yeah.

STEWART: And they broke up. And then he decided he was going to ask her to get back together, and he was going to marry her. And he was all excited, and he did it, and she took him back. And there's that scene of him walking up the stairs with her to the apartment, and the minute he starts walking up the stairs he goes, what have I done? This is the worst thing I've ever done. I've got to get out of this relationship.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEWART: That's what you're trying to balance with.

GROSS: Right.

STEWART: But, that being said, you know, you said earlier, you're in this sort of unfortunate position. I would say that I'm in the most fortunate position. I cannot tell you how fortunate I have been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show and all the opportunities that I have. And I consider it gravy - everything. You know, I hate to even get maudlin or weepy about it, but it's been - it's so far exceeded my expectations of what this business would be like for me.

GROSS: I have to let you go, but I just want to say I'm going to miss Stephen Colbert so much when the show ends even though...

STEWART: Yes.

GROSS: ...I'll certainly want to see him on his new show. But I'm going to miss "The Colbert Report."

STEWART: He's going to be great.

GROSS: Oh, I have no doubt about that.

STEWART: Yeah, he's...

GROSS: But I can only imagine how much you're going to miss having him as a colleague - having back-to-back shows and you know...

STEWART: The back-to-back shows, I will because I feel like we are sort of - it's so complimentary. And I feel like we're a whole hour. I don't ever feel like it's our half-hour and his half-hour. I feel like it's an hour.

But somebody said that to me. They said, are you going to miss Stephen Colbert? And I said well, actually, you know, I'm not going to miss Stephen Colbert 'cause I still get to talk to Stephen Colbert all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: And the Stephen Colbert that I know and love is luckily always just a phone call away. So, you know, the show I've always admired and just been sort of blown away by, but the man is even more impressive, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he's going to do.

GROSS: Jon Stewart, it's been so wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

STEWART: It's wonderful to talk to you, Terry. Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: (Laughter) Jon Stewart is the host of "The Daily Show." He wrote and directed the new film "Rosewater." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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