In Conversation JonStewart
What do you do after 16 years turning The Daily Show into an American comic institution? If you’re this comedian, you might spend a summer making a movie about torture.
In 2009, The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones interviewed Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter, in a Tehran coffee shop. Just days before Iran’s presidential election, Jones, pretending to be a spy, demanded to know why Iran was evil. Somehow the joke was lost on Iran’s repressive theocratic regime, which arrested Bahari four days after the episode aired, claiming that the bit proved that Bahari was himself a spy. He was locked in solitary confinement for 107 days. In a fitting coda, Jon Stewart spent his summer vacation last year making a movie, his first, that depicts Bahari’s plight. Rosewater, which opens November 14, could be seen as a bridge between Stewart’s TV present and his undefined but rapidly approaching future. The comedian has sat behind the anchor desk of his multi-Emmy-winning Comedy Central show since 1999, but his contract ends next fall and he is uncertain whether he wants a new one. Now, over two conversations in October inside the show’s 11th Avenue studio, Stewart reflects on his life in the satirical-news business and the legacy The Daily Show will one day inevitably leave behind.
There’s a lot of terrible stuff going on in the world at the moment.
I’m off this week, man, so I’m not paying attention.
I’ll catch you up: Ebola, ISIS, massive droughts. Is it harder to make humor when people are genuinely frightened?
No. It’s harder to make humor when there’s no consensus, when there’s no issue that has galvanized a decent amount of mind space. If you have to spend the first five minutes of a bit going, “There’s this thing called ‘corporate inversions,’ ” you can still create something, but the synapses fire much quicker when people are already focused on something. I can remember right after 9/11, when all those anthrax scares came and TV news started putting up that ticker at the bottom of the screen. There was a real electricity to it, and you could do any joke. People are scared, but they want to remember, Okay, we’re still human. There is a certain heightened awareness to things, but it’s not Mad Max.1 When you look at this Ebola thing, it’s fucking crazy how overwhelming the coverage has been. One guy had it, he brought it here, and then two people that cared for him got it. More people are going to die from the flu, more people have been killed by cops since this happened! But all anybody can talk about is that we’re all going to die of Ebola.2 You’ve got congresspeople out there: “Let’s completely shut off Africa! Let’s submerge it!” What was it Ted Cruz said? Somebody told him, “The medical experts say that would actually not be helpful.” Cruz says, “Let’s just not listen to the experts and use some common sense.”3 Of course, let’s not think about the people who study this. Let’s go with the gut. The gut is, Ewww.
In purely political news, no doubt you’re excited about the prospect of Romney 2016?
I am not. My favorite thing about Mitt Romney now is, imagine if the second-string quarterback on a football team got to just go around on all the shows and go, “I’d have fucking nailed that pass.” For Romney, it’s, “Ebola? There wouldn’t even be Ebola if I were president. I’m not sure Africa would still exist.” It’s so fucking funny. Then you watch Dick Cheney out there being asked his opinion about isis. It’s like bringing on Conrad Murray4 to talk about, “So, what do you think they’re doing wrong with these patients?” “I don’t know. Why don’t they try to kill them with propofol? That’s what I did.” Every time Cheney goes on TV, why wouldn’t you just begin and end every interview with, “Now, you fucked a lot of this up almost every day for eight years. What do you think?”
Does the thought of President Hillary cheer you up at all?
We need such a systemic overhaul that it’s very hard for me to look at any individual and be hopeful. I just feel like we’ve forgotten to invest in our own country, in the infrastructure here. I’m not talking about isolationism. But I do think we have this incredible political mechanism that can begin to churn more efficiently and make those changes. God knows we can’t figure out how to get out of our own fucking way now. Hillary strikes me as competent. She’s certainly very bright. But she’s a little hawkish for me.
It was interesting that when Hillary was on The Daily Show in July, she kept talking about America needing to “tell our story” better around the world. As if our biggest foreign-policy problem is our image.
Yeah, I didn’t understand that. I think that, honestly, was somebody trying out a campaign theme in the way that I might try and work out a comedy bit with some friends. I think she came over and was like, “Here’s my campaign theme: retelling America’s greatness to the world. America’s got to tell its story.” Well, America’s story is complex. In Iran, they hear that story and go, “We had a democratic government, and you overthrew it to install a shah.” But I don’t understand why owning that history means that you don’t believe in America. The whole thread of “Obama’s not American because he apologizes for America” is such utter horseshit. It is unconscionable and in some ways negates almost entirely the rest of your criticisms.
Speaking of Iran: You learned a great deal about its politics and culture writing and directing Rosewater. Did you make the movie because you felt guilty about contributing to Bahari’s jailing?
Listen, Jews do a lot of things out of guilt. Generally it has to do with visiting people, not making movies. If I could draw a linear, rational line to what we had done and the charges against Maziar, I would be really devastated. You couldn’t do something more inane and vapid than Jason Jones in sunglasses and a kaffiyeh in a café going, “I am an American spy!” But you can’t control what idiots will weaponize. The Iranian regime wasn’t just arresting people who’d talked to The Daily Show. Thousands of people had been swept off the streets. We’ve done other pieces on the show where people should have been arrested. Maziar’s memoir was really compelling. I was very interested in the generational aspect, that his father had been imprisoned by the shah and his sister by Khomeini.5 There was a universal aspect to it — the absurdity of totalitarian regimes. And Maziar didn’t demonize his torturer, he humanized him because, in his mind, if you view them as monsters you can’t fight them.
You tried to hire established screenwriters6 before deciding to write the script yourself.
It was weird. We were pitching an Iranian prison story on spec, and Oscar-winning writers were not jumping at the chance. I figured there was some type of conspiracy. But it turns out they just didn’t want to work like hell on this thing and not make any money. Because there’s no money behind it. I may have done this at a loss, just from what we spent on hummus alone.7
What was going on in your life that made you want to make your first movie? You were writing it at night and on weekends during the 2012 presidential race. Did it feel like an antidote?
It’s more like trying to keep that little man in your head from going, “You failed everyone who ever loved you.” I wouldn’t say it was an antidote to American politics. It was more like — do you know how sometimes when you were a kid, if you had a shitload of stuff to do, you felt like you got it together? If you had soccer,8 you would go to school, you’d go to soccer, and then you’d get home and you’d actually get your homework done. But when it wasn’t the soccer season, you’d just find yourself waking up in a puddle of SpaghettiOs in front of Bullwinkle.
Still, after having built The Daily Show into a huge success, making your first movie was a big risk.
But is it a risk at this point in my life? Yes, it’s very different from the forgiving nature of The Daily Show, where you lay a turd on Monday and Tuesday you’re back at it. With the movie, the idea that it’s all sort of building to this one opening weekend, you really do feel like that prom pressure of “I will lose my virginity!” But I get criticized all the time, so that’s not different. The failure would have been not attempting it.
As a first-time director, how did you establish trust with the cast and crew?
I bought a beret and a little megaphone.
The first scenes you shot were in a working prison in Amman, Jordan, with a mostly Arabic crew.
Prison is not necessarily a comfortable place to shoot a film about prison, because the prisoners are not looking at you going, “Yeah, yeah, dramatize this, that’s what we’re looking for, a good dramatizing!” Plus it was Ramadan, in the summer. It gave things an air of tension that maybe helped the actors, but crew-wise, it made it difficult.
So how did you get them to do what you wanted?
I’m pretty sure that’s a Guild rule, that as the director, they have to listen to you. As long as your beret is on at 45 degrees. Anything steeper than that, then you lose them. The biggest issue for me was losing my inhibition at pushing the actors until you get what you think is right. It’s similar to how I would say to John Oliver or other people on the show, “Trust your discomfort.” If you have discomfort, try and articulate where that’s coming from because it’s probably not your imagination. There’s probably something in the scene that’s not working. But it took me a little bit until I felt comfortable to walk in there and go, “Okay, okay, that was great, that was great. How about you don’t cry this time? Yeah, don’t cry, because there’s really no point in you crying like that.”
The physical reality of Bahari’s incarceration was more brutal than what you show in the movie. Why did you dial down the torture?9
I wanted the violence to be more like the shark in Jaws. This type of torture, it’s not what we envision. We see these images of beheadings or vicious violence, but that’s not the norm. The norm is we remove you from your life, we isolate you from your surroundings, that’s how we break you down. Somebody with a German accent and a monocle and scar on his face doesn’t have to stand over you with electrodes to make people understand that there is an atrocious violence in isolation.
So you’re saying it’s a date movie.
I think it’s a good date movie. Take someone that you want to torture. That’s the other challenge, to do a movie about discomfort that registers that discomfort with the audience but not to the extent that they’re truly unable to sit there anymore. You have to try and find those moments to release that.
And there are moments of subtle, absurdist comedy. But did you find yourself needing to hold back from inserting actual jokes?
The bagel shop in the movie, yeah.10 That was one of those continuity problems. I tried my best.
The Iranian interrogator’s obsession with New Jersey as a den of massage wickedness — which comes straight from the true story — had to be right up your alley.
Yeah, off-camera I’d invent things about the various massage oils that would be used: “Some of it pumped right from Saudi Arabia.” Just ridiculous shit, just to entertain us as we progressed. Because it wore on people emotionally, the amount of work, where we were doing it, the conditions we were doing it under, and the type of story we were telling.
The relationship between Gael García Bernal as the prisoner and Kim Bodnia, who plays the interrogator, is both sinister and kind of beautiful. Gael told me you were an excellent director.
My job during the entire filming was keeping Kim from actually hurting Gael. My credo throughout the whole thing was “Nobody dies. We’re making a movie about a thing that’s bad, but we’re not doing the bad thing.”
After you finished filming, you visited a refugee camp for Syrians fleeing the civil war. Why?
Yeah, the Zaatari camp.11 I wanted to see theater, and they were putting on a show. No. You feel a responsibility, to some extent, to see the outcomes and effects of everything that’s going on in the region and to experience it in even the smallest of ways. I have not traveled much as a person, like a lot of Americans. As a comic, I’ve traveled a lot, but you’re not going to get that much perspective going in between Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Rochester. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways, in a lot of complicated ways. You do sense the similarities — to get maudlin — of the family of man, but you also feel the distance between the cultures and you see the effects of colonization.
The camp is kind of astonishing in the creativity that’s utilized to improve conditions. They’re living in corrugated sheds, and they’ve figured out how to pull electricity off the grid and create water, and they’ve separated it into zones. There’s probably more democracy within that camp than in the country that they came from, not to suggest that it’s a better place to live.
The other side of it is, I think we have a Sally Struthers vision of the downtrodden. These are middle-class doctors and lawyers and craftsmen, and now they are uprooted and living in a corrugated-metal shed in the middle of a desert in Jordan for maybe forever. And for what? Nobody can figure out for what. The level of violence that these children have seen is staggering, and the shock will carry through those cultures for decades. Rosewater is about witnessing things, and I just wanted to make sure — and I have no illusions that I’ve lived it or really saw the camp — that it was seen.
And from there you went to Cairo, at a really perilous moment — just before Mohamed Morsi12 was overthrown by the military — to visit Bassem Youssef,13 who is known as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.”
He had come on The Daily Show a couple times. I had always promised him that I would go on his show, never thinking I’d ever be anywhere near Cairo. Bassem said, “You should really come this Friday, because next Friday I have a feeling there may be blood running through the streets.” But it was clear even at that time that the police and the military had sort of abdicated the streets. So it was chaos. Bassem tapes near Tahrir Square, in a live theater downtown. So to get me there, I’m in this crazy Mercedes-Benz caravan with guys with AK-47s. You’re driving through, and the streets are just teeming with thousands of young people on the verge of revolution. Naturally, a caravan like that is going to attract a certain amount of attention, because maybe it’s Mubarak. We pull up in front, and there are faces just pressed up against everywhere. The security guys kick open our car door, and they grab me by the back of the neck and start dragging me through the crowd, waving their guns. I’ll never forget thousands of young Egyptian men at once going, “Who the fuck is that?” It was like being in One Direction and coming out in front of an audience of 70-year-old men. Nobody gives a shit. “Oh, they caught a Jew. Eh, you guys can go ahead. You don’t need the guns. You could have just walked in.”
You talked about the electricity of doing The Daily Show in the days after 9/11. It must have been somewhat similar for Bassem in Cairo, maybe even more ominous.
Egypt is a place where comedy can actually make real change, because satire is not part of the conversation. Bassem is presenting ideas that are anti-authoritarian in a way that people have never heard. His really was an important voice in their revolution.
You sound slightly jealous. There’s a scene in Rosewater, during a riot. Maziar is holding his video camera. One of his friends is throwing rocks at the Iranian soldiers and says disdainfully to Maziar, “You have a weapon, and you choose not to use it.” Does that have resonance for you — should you use The Daily Show as more of a weapon?
I think we use it to the best of its ability but recognizing its limitations. 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 distills something to a more visceral element that does not generally present a grander picture.
But beyond creating great jokes, you don’t think the show has changed anything in the political world?
Nothing, as far as I can tell. As far as I can tell, politics has gotten worse. But 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. Of just pointing shit out and going, “Hey, somebody should get over there! Come on, get somebody over there!” 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. If we give a shout-out to that, or if an articulation of something does them some good, that’s wonderful. But 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.
I do consider this show and this movie a conversation that we are having with a culture and with people. But it is definitely much more passive. It’s like when people say Bob Dylan changed the world in the ’60s. 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.
Four years ago, you and Stephen Colbert staged the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,”14 and now you’ve made a movie that’s a political statement. Are both those things an expression of your frustration at the limits of tackling big issues through comedy, particularly on The Daily Show?
I don’t think so. I think it’s more bumping up against the limits of boredom. Doing anything for 16 years, there is going to be a level of sameness to it that is difficult, I’m sure, for an audience, but also difficult for a performer. That’s why nobody does the whole run of Cats. At a certain point, you’re like, Really, I’m going to go out there in fucking tights again?
The show hasn’t been ridiculing the political media as much recently. Is that because we’ve gotten better?
The media landscape has changed drastically during your time at The Daily Show. Comedy has been ascending while traditional news has been cratering.
Well, I don’t see them as two poles. But 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. We are, in some ways, the cheap protest vote. I remember people said I was voted the fourth most trusted.15 But my name being in there was a fuck-you to everybody else. A dildo rolled in glitter would serve the same purpose as my name in that conversation. I still think 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. 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.
Yeah, but when you were offered the chance to change a part of traditional political journalism instead of mocking it, you turned down the possibility of hosting Meet the Press.16
First of all, NBC didn’t offer anything. They were exploring it in the way of, “Maybe it’s time to do something ridiculous.” There was definitely a meeting. I spent most of it telling them what a crazy idea I thought it was and kind of going through all of the different reasons why I did not think it was appropriate either for me or for them. That venue feels like an Establishment vehicle. They run on access. There’s a certain symbiosis with politicians. I am a part of an Establishment but in a slightly different element. We’ll do certain bits that would be disqualifying in terms of that person ever talking to us again, and I’ll say to other people on the staff, “You know, what’s nice about this show is that when I leave, I’ll leave with no friends but you people.” I think I would be too reactionary to execute something like Meet the Press properly. I mean reactionary in the sense of, “What’s wrong with you!” Nobody wants to be yelled at.
And the truth is that you’re holding out for Brian Williams’s job.
That’s right. No. I want to be the first male host of The View. Which is not to say that at some point maybe there will be another iteration of this conversation.
Do you look at BuzzFeed, do you look at Vice News?
I scroll around, but when I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, “Come on in here and see a three-legged man!” So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.
Between The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and “Weekend Update,” have we reached the saturation point of fake news?
I don’t know that what we’re doing is fake. It’s jokes about the news. Look, as long as there are ten shows about finding people who know how to sing, I think we’re pretty safe. There will never be a saturation point of good comedy.
John Oliver’s show is interesting because he’s doing these 15-minute pieces that in some ways are editorials or investigative pieces where the jokes feel secondary.
See, I don’t view the jokes as secondary. They’re doing a longer-form version of a similar process. I think what John’s been able to do really effectively is utilize those same tools but in this more considered form, and that’s really exciting to watch.
You helped launch The Colbert Report. Stephen is going to drop the character when he moves to The Late Show, so what will he bring that people haven’t seen?
A raging drug habit.
People have no idea. It’s going to be Breaking Colbert.
I will tune in for that.
Stephen’s talent is very apparent to everybody, but if you’d been to his 50th-birthday party and you saw the love bomb he was surrounded in — I said to my wife, “I will guarantee you this party spawns a thousand arguments on the drive home.” Everybody got in the car that night with their spouse and it was, “Why don’t you love me like people love Stephen?!” Or, “Why can’t you be a kindhearted and good individual like Stephen Colbert!?” It was one of those magical nights, filled with the warmth and affection of friends and family. I just think viewers are really going to enjoy getting to know Stephen.
That’s strange, because I had heard Colbert’s birthday party was at Scores.
I didn’t say it wasn’t at Scores.
Will he be able to keep doing subversive things like attacking Amazon and Google when he’s on a big mainstream network?
Being on Viacom cable networks is really not that different a universe than CBS late night anymore. Your address matters much less now in the democratized world of Hulu or YouTube. No matter how it’s done, he will be as subversive in different ways.
Just as long as he brings his Sondheim17 routine.
He will. Dude can sing and dance.
You’ve consciously diversified The Daily Show’s staff over the years. Why has that been important to you?
I was defensive at first about our writing staff being all white and male, and then I had to examine what were the structural issues, and what’s my own ignorance of some of this. It’s been a long process, and that’s just one metric, but I wanted a wider and deeper pool of people to draw from. Hopefully, I’ve grown and learned as I’ve gotten older. I’ve had some very frank conversations with women on the staff and minorities on the staff about the inherent difficulties, the fact that in their lives they have to make decisions and strategize in a way that I take for granted. I don’t think people recognize how exhausting it is sometimes to be black.
You were pretty worked up trying to get Bill O’Reilly18 to acknowledge “white privilege” the other day.
He’s six-five! You know, if I want him to hear me, I’ve got to climb the mountain.
The show also did a controversial segment recently about the racism of the name “Washington Redskins”19 Were you wrong to ambush those fans who were defending the team name?
I wouldn’t call it an ambush. We don’t lie to people and say we’re not The Daily Show or “This won’t happen” or things like that. I even said on the show if we found out that these people had been intentionally misled, that segment wouldn’t have aired. That’s not the case. I’ll tell you where there was a real ambush — when the Native Americans went to the stadium and people said the most vile shit to them. The ugliness that arose was mind-numbing. So for the story to be these poor people, the Redskins fans, who sat in a room and had to then talk to the Native Americans … I don’t understand the weird defensiveness. We all live in a country built on this very devastating scenario with the people who were already living here. That’s our original Manifest Destiny sin. In some ways, by accepting the flaws, the progress that we’ve made is more impressive.
Whether it’s racial or economic or political, people are more than ever locked into information silos. The right has Fox News and Breitbart and Rush. The left has MSNBC and HuffPo and … you. Does it bother you that The Daily Show is preaching to the choir?
No. Any show that’s been on the air for however long a time, the people who are attracted to it are probably the people who like it. Unless they’re hate-watching, which probably also happens.
Do you think The Daily Show has made the split worse?
It’s possible. We’re part of the media landscape, and the media landscape has become more striated. But there’s a difference between four half-hours a week and 24 hours a day, seven days a week, hammering away, like Fox News. They’ve tapped into a real feeling of persecution in a horrible, amazing way.
Do you wish The Daily Show had a bigger red-state audience?
Do I wish more conservatives liked it? Not really. But you never make a calculation on who you think the audience is or who you want it to be. You make a calculation based on, what do we think is right? What do we think of the torture memos? What do we think of drone strikes? What do we think of the NSA? The thing that people give us shit for sometimes is that we’re not activists in that sort of ideological way.
Or that you’re naïvely optimistic. That’s basically what Marc Andreessen20 called you in New York Magazine, saying he thinks you believe passing a law can fix any problem.
That’s in no way what I think. But I think we can pass smarter laws. Surely we can administer smarter laws. Like the Volcker Rule seemed like a very smart, easy thing that became 850 pages of bullshit that was infused by corporate lobbying. I think the fact that our lawmakers spend four to five hours a day raising money means governance is a part-time job. They are basically fund-raisers who also legislate.
You had Nancy Pelosi21 on the show and got really frustrated talking about the corrupting role of money in politics.
Nancy Pelosi has been overtaken by the Borg. She said, “Yes, we have to get money out of politics.” “Well, what about the Democrats, don’t they have to take it out?” She says, “We’re not the problem.” “What about the revolving door of people going out of Congress and getting lobbyist jobs?” She says, “That’s the executive branch, not our branch.” What? It’s sort of like the old George Costanza thing:22 “It’s not lying if you believe it.”
How about Elizabeth Warren?
I’ve been impressed by her. You can’t help but watch the evolution of somebody who comes on as an advocate and then becomes a politician and see the caution grow. It’s like watching an uninhibited free spirit suddenly have to look both ways before crossing the street wearing a suit.
Has that happened to Warren?
I think you see hints of it. I think it’s inescapable at some level.
Is there any politician you really want to have on who hasn’t agreed to do the show?
No one, really. It’s not that people don’t refuse all the time. Like Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, they won’t come on. We’ve asked them a million times. Marco Rubio has been on a couple times. He generally likes to mix it up. The truth is, I’m not particularly hankering for a conversation with those guys. I always find it interesting how guys come on this show and they soft-pedal their beliefs. They’ve written a book called Liberals Will Fuck Your Dead Grandmother.You ask, “Why would you write Liberals Will Fuck Your Dead Grandmother?” “It’s not about that. We’re not that far apart.” Right. But then why would you write that they’re necrophiliacs? “Did I?” They completely back away. Jim DeMint writes a book that says, “This is a battle between socialism and free enterprise.” He comes on the show: “Oh, so you want to get rid of Social Security?” “No, that’s a great program.”23
What do you think of Rand Paul?
I’m not sure Rand Paul knows what he thinks of himself right now. He’s all over the place.
I can’t decide whether I believe his visit to Ferguson24 was cynical or intriguing.
I think intriguing. I do think there is a genuine effort on his part to understand what’s going on. Unfortunately, I think he’s slightly disingenuous when it comes to claiming he really doesn’t understand. Does he listen to the Republican caucus? Has he heard the things they say? Has he seen the difference in how what happened in Ferguson and at this pumpkin festival25are described? “A bunch of kids got rowdy on the streets today” versus “Animals rioted in Ferguson.” Paul seems genuinely perplexed, which I guess is refreshing. Better than Ted Cruz, who appears to have been bitten by a Machiavellian spider. That dude is distilled ambition. It’s all calculated.
What about Chris Christie? He’s more moderate than some Republicans in the 2016 field. And he’s a Jersey guy like you.
Jersey! We haven’t had a guy since Wilson!26 You’ve got to throw us a bone. I have a little bit more experience with Christie’s policies. I don’t particularly appreciate the way he’s governed the state, so it’s very difficult for me to say I’d like to see him go national — “Shouldn’t everybody suffer from this?” Even when you agree with Christie, he adds this unnecessary edge that he wears as a badge of honor. A nurse you’re about to put in quarantine, you may not want to say, “She’s wrong, and she’ll learn that. Once she stops shitting in a box in a cold tent, she’ll realize I’m right.”
Six years in, has Obama been a failure, or is he underappreciated?
It depends on what aspect of him that you’re talking about. I think it’s hard not to think of the country as a disappointment, that in a time of war nobody is being asked to do anything, and we have a Congress that continues to say we need to build a double fence along the Mexican border to make sure that isis doesn’t carry Ebola over the Rio Grande, but they won’t come back from recess to talk about it and put themselves on record. That’s just blatant cowardice and blatant disregard for their own rhetoric. I’m not some huge fan of, “Why aren’t we arming rebel groups that we don’t know how to vet?” Or, “Why aren’t we putting boots on the ground?” But make a case where the rhetoric matches the reality. Don’t come on television like Obama, walking down I Killed Bin Laden Lane, and say we face an existential threat to our very existence. If it’s an existential threat, we shouldn’t be dealing with it as an issue of containment.
So am I disappointed in Obama, am I disappointed in the Congress? Honestly, I think I’m just in shock. I think I’m a little stunned that we can’t do better than this, because I know we can. I’m a little stunned that Republicans continue to, if it’s not their ball, refuse to play. I’m a little stunned that Democrats, given their opportunities, haven’t been able to be more effective. The VA treatment backlog,27 the bureaucratic nightmare we put our veterans through, has been devastating to me.
Do you think there should be a draft?
I do. I absolutely do. I’ve watched military families suffer in a way that is unconscionable considering the demands that we have placed on them over this ten-year period. When I say there should be a draft, I also think it should be noncompulsory military. There should be a draft where every young person has to do one year of something — military, public works — something so that we all feel invested in the same game, because that’s the part that we’ve lost.
One of my biggest criticisms with Obama is that he ran on rebuilding a corrosive system and just basically tried to put new wallpaper up. And yet he has done some impressive things. Would I have done the health-care system that way? No, but he did, and he got it passed, and millions more people have health care, and it’s hard to imagine that’s a bad thing. My biggest concern is how good we’ve gotten at campaigns and how bad we’ve gotten at government. The entire system is incentivized backwards.
You talked about career politicians losing human feeling. Has that happened to Obama?
No. He’s actually a pretty human guy. I think that’s what makes it so difficult for him. I mean, I can’t say it for sure, it’s absolutely a projection, but I think he hates these fucking people. I really do. I just get the sense that he believes that he’s surrounded by idiots.
On his own side?
In general. For a good portion of it, he’s right. Idiots and obstructionists, and it’s frustrating. Beyond that, though, I do think he’s not a super-active manager. That doesn’t seem to be his thing.
The Republicans look as if they’re going to gain more power in the midterms.
It’s going to be very interesting. They’ve spent six years basically cock-blocking. Now they will be on the hook. So what do you do? Do you go Sam Brownback28 and ruin Kansas — enact all of the crazy stuff you’ve been talking about and then watch everything go to shit? I guarantee you they have some good ideas that would have alleviated problems in the health-care rollout or other things. But it’s the opposite of Pottery Barn’s “You break it, you bought it.” They fuck up the government and sit back and say, See, it doesn’t work.
You’re coming to the end of your term in office. Your Daily Showcontract finishes in September 2015. How much are you thinking about “Okay, what’s next?”
I’m thinking about it a lot.
Is there even a small part of you that still wonders about doing the big-network late-night job?
No. I’m 51, I have young kids. I think that it’s not something that would be sustainable for me, either through passion or interest or ability, so it would be a bad choice for them and for me. Being up for a job is different from necessarily having the ambition for that job, if that makes sense.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what your ambition is because you don’t know what your day-to-day is. I liked the day-to-day of being a stand-up. That being said, I don’t know that that would’ve been a sustainable life for me either. Being on the road that many weeks a year, it’s a fucking hard life. For the time period that I did it, and now, in the way that I can do it here, it’s really great. This job has been really sustainable for me, but not to the extent that I’ll be here forever. It’s not that kind of thing.
Are there comics whose career arcs you admire?
I love what Louis C.K. has done. Stephen. The guys who are banging it out on the road, man. Seinfeld did the best sitcom, did it for as long as he felt like doing it, moved back to New York, just goes on the road, does what he wants.
Could you see yourself writing or directing a straight comedy film someday?
Why not? Maybe a remake of The Little Tramp.
Could covering the 2016 election motivate you to stay at The Daily Show?
Yeah. But part of the thing to remember is this is not the only process by which you can work material, and sometimes it’s more important to step back and reconfigure a conversation than continue the same conversation because you know how to do it.
As hard as you’ve worked, is there any part of you that’s amazed someone is still paying you to make jokes?
I was talking about this with Steve Carell, because he’s in Foxcatcher. He’s a true dramatic actor and drills it. We were at some festival in Telluride. We’re surrounded by French directors and German directors and Iñárritu.29 We’re just looking at each other in disbelief. I think we both feel somewhat more comfortable in a basement underneath a Middle Eastern restaurant asking the audience for suggestions. I think the rest of it feels like a certain amount of gravy.
What do you want the legacy of The Daily Show to be?
It’s very difficult to say we want the legacy to be “It was the funniest show in television history,” but you want it to be appreciated for what I think it was: consistently funny, consistently smart over a long period of time. I felt like we never took the opportunity for granted. I think more than anything I would hope people would be like, “Those guys fucking brought it every night.” They might not have hit it every night, and there have been some shows that tanked. But I feel like we bring it every night.
Whenever it ends, you need to do what Derek Jeter did.
You mean, final game in Boston?
No, a farewell tour where you collect Lego sculptures of yourself and rocking chairs.
In August, you had all the members of the Wu-Tang Clan on the show. Your next career move could be to replace ODB.
You know, I do like it raw.
It was a great image — nine black guys with you, in a suit, in the middle.
How much did I look like their agent? What’s funny is, because I worked at MTV all those years ago, I’ve known these guys a long time. I said to Method Man backstage, “Finally, we really are using weed medicinally.” We are that old now.
*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.