The following is an account of David Remnick's interview with Jon Stewart at last week's New Yorker festival.
"Jon Stewart has won two and a half million Emmys for The Daily Show,'" said New Yorker editor David Remnick,"and he changed his name from Jon Stewart Leibowitz to Jon Stewart — as Leibowitz was too Hollywood."
So Remnick introduced Stewart to the sold-out crowd packing the final event of the 2006 New Yorker Festival Sunday, and with that he sped off with his hand-held microphone and a few prompts here and there to explore the Jon Stewart phenomenon for the next hour or so.
Remnick said he was sure of Stewart's glee the day the Cheney news came out. "Dick Cheney shoots man in face. It's his best friend...Now if the guy had died it would not be funny...but he didn't so it is," said Stewart."How many people do you know who have ever shot anyone in the face?" By now he has most of the audience in hysterical laughter. His timing is impeccable, his bullet-like rat-a-tat speech keeping the cadenza coming. "One of Cheney's friends said 'Yeah he peppered him pretty well,'" said Stewart in disbelief. "He didn't pepper him — which is what you do to a salad — he shot him in the face! And he was seventy eight! He's the Vice President and he shot him in the face!''
Remnick, laughing along with the audience, switched it up to the current scandal, asking if the recent IMs from Mark Foley were as much fun. Here, Stewart takes on a slightly more serious tone. "No, that was not as much fun. Now, obviously if the Vice President had done it...and then kicked him over and shot him in the face" — more laughter — "then that would be real fun." The conversation moved to his various guests, such as President Musharaf ("We're enormous in Waziristan") and the flip side, Sharon Stone, to the broader culture of our media and the times. "We traffic in showbiz and Hollywood mostly," he says."They are so similar...it is not so much that politics is Hollywood for ugly people...rather that showbiz is politics for the powerless: What they do kind of doesn't matter." The audience is with him, not only because he's funny, but because he's so clearly speaking as one of them.
"Politicians are all salesmen," he tells us. "It is a bit like when a movie is opening and they tell us all about their product. They seem to believe we have a demographic...that they can come to us to tap in to it." (See this notion of a society preoccupied with focus groups and never ending polls explored in Joe Klein's Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialised by People Who Think You're Stupid .) "Is there a demographic?" Remnick asks, sincerely. "Here's the thing I should explain," says Stewart, in a mock-serious tone. "On my show, you can see me, but I can't see you." He doesn't answer the question, but the deft use of sarcasm is his particular skill. Everyone is laughing. Which helps distract from the deflection.
"Is Clinton selling?" Remnick ventures, attempting to keep this interview at some level of seriousness. (I note here that Stewart was in the driver's seat for this interview; Remnick seemed a little wowed by Stewart's humour and celebrity, and of course when you laugh you are somewhat disarmed.) "His new fragrance,'" Stewart deadpans, and goes on: "He is always selling. He makes us think he cares...You leave there thinking, yeah, I can hang with this dude. My mom thinks she is the first mom he has met...and that the experience was an amazing one — for him!" When Musharaf was on, his security team brought out the sniffer dogs to check for explosives "It's a good thing they can't smell weed and porn or we would have been finished!"
"Is there a politician you are impressed with?" asks Remnick. "Lincoln," he replies, after a long pause.
"Anyone alive?" Remnick wonders. "...Not so much," he deadpans. He then continues - and this is where it starts to get really interesting, rather than just funny.
"People think we are cynics. It's important not to confuse scepticism with cynicism" he tells us. "We are in pain. We are desperate babies crying and wanting to be held.'" Part jest, but part confession: the American public wanting comfort but denied it by politicians who continually fail to inspire and impress. Then he continues.
"We have pages on the show. I just want to make it clear..." — and here we have one of his impeccably timed, nuanced, pauses — "that we will sodomise them." Shrieks and yells of laughter, and then, like any top prize fighter, he moves in for the knock out punch. "I make sure I tell them when they come: I will sodomise you. Just so long as that is ok with you, it will happen." I can't write now, for I too am one of the howling admirers.
However, when Remnick asks if there is anyone he can vote for without being disappointed, Stewart admits that he finds the entire process dispiriting. He says that shame must be used to expose the politicians. Remnick volunteers that Stewart is "the most astute political critic there is," and Stewart repeats it: "I am the most astute political critic there is." He points out that what really makes him unique is that he can make sodomy jokes. Astute, that.
Stewart goes on to argue that more news groups should be like Fox News. Remnick is aghast. "No?" Remnick gasped. "Yes," Stewart immediately replied, suggesting that all news would be better if they were reactive in a similar way. Nobody is waiting for the thud on the doormat of the in-depth analysis in the newspaper, he tells us. In our contemporary media, there is either clarity or noise. CNN is just noise and they have "no editorial direction and do not know why they are doing what they do. They know they are in Atlanta," he says, turning from the jab to the left hook and is deadly serious once again . "They just throw shit up and do not know why...Fox believes they are correct and have an editorial policy of challenging views in the media they disagree with. We are also reactive - because we think most of it is theatre. Politicians work twenty-four hours [a day] to make noise...today there is no such thing as news."
Jon Stewart is a comedian, but he is bang on the mark with much of what he observes. He points out that it is ludicrous to go along with Bush's veil of stupidity, after all, the guy went to Harvard and Yale ("Stupid is 'Oh let's eat a bar of soap.'") He says that rather Bush talks to us like we're stupid. He then goes on to mimic Bush, whom he accuses not only of never answering questions put to him, but of simply describing facts. So, when talking about Dennis Hastert, he will say he's "a Congressman, father...mammal...he has skin..." All technically true, and yet.
Stewart also notes another type of non-answer by Bush: "Mr President can you tell us why we went to Iraq?"
"I am the president." Pause. "I make decisions." Laughter. "I'm a decision maker." Pause. "That's the job of the president."
Stewart describes the hypocrisy of politicians being caught on camera saying something and then denying it baldly subsequently. He is dumbfounded each time it happens. He then says that the major news broadcasters, in spite of their 24-7 output, never seem to show this. His contention is that the real problem facing us today is editorial direction: While there are good journalists with integrity, the editorial control is in disarray or silent. Without the support of an organisation, he explains, there can be no real challenge to the current situation - and he believes that they need to be far more challenging. He goes on to say how people like James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin are snake-oil sellers; that at some point they believed in something, but they have been corrupted by the game.
"So what's not happening?" Remnick asked. Stewart answered him by arguing that real opinions are lacking. Sources with integrity that are experts and have built up a reputation and experience over substantial time - and are not just lobbyists or think tanks - are lacking. He talks about the wilful hypocrisy of politicians that bring books out after being in an Administration and being key players in that organisation. The real problem is, he concluded, is that the American public is just too comfortable. They are too well-off and won't do anything until it affects them on their own doorstep. They hear these things and then shrug and say "I am gonna go cut the grass."
However, we have seen this idea pushed quite a bit, that selfish, uncaring and ignorant Americans (a very popular view currently in Europe) are content just to consume rather than doing something positive to change things. However, it does beg the question why anyone would get inspired to do anything in an age where politics has become so despised.
So I went to the microphone myself and put it to Mr. Stewart, that what we had experienced over the last few years was a collapse of "belief in ideas that could change the world."
"Only Americans allowed to speak." he taunted. "Next!"
I carried on in spite of his dodging the point (British accent intact), suggesting that society had withdrawn from pursuing competing ideas, differing visions of how to change the world for a managerial, pragmatic, bureaucratic excuse for politics. So surely it should come as no surprise that people withdraw?
"Look, it isn't about cynicism. There's one way we can get them to vote: The draft."
I was flabbergasted. Surely he wasn't suggesting compulsory voting? In a democracy? I suggested that when more people vote for American Idol than the American president, it is not so difficult to make fun of politicians. They are no longer trusted and seen as irrelevant. He agreed with this point. I continued, asking him whether, despite his claim for scepticism not cynicism, that his style and show simply endorsed cynicism? He answered that he did not believe this so and in fact that mistaking the joke for the act is egregious and wrong.
Perhaps; personally, I do believe that his show ends up making fun of the people rather than the ideas of those people, mostly because there are so few ambitious and compelling ideas in the public arena to address, let alone make fun of. Perhaps the clearest indication of the difficulty inherent in messy business of actually arguing for something, as opposed to just mocking people, is what happened when Stewart went on "Crossfire," the now-defunct CNN show with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. He started off by being funny, but went on to plead for honest debate, arguing that that was their responsibility, not to do theatre. However, after some to-ing and fro-ing he ended up calling Tucker Carlson a 'dick' (see the video here). He told us that he regretted that.
But I want to leave you with some of the words from the man himself. First, his final rant: "If you were a podiatrist and everyone that came to you died, you would be fired. What is happening with these guys? 'We are liberators,'" — pause— "'Er, Nooooh,'" — pause — "Then, 'It will last six months'" — "'Er...Noooh.'"
(Then, something altogether more touching and charming: He proposed to his wife by having the clues inserted in the New York Times crossword, of which they are both ardent fans. What a guy, you gotta love that.)
Stewart does a great job of poignantly exposing the shortcomings of the spin-doctors and politicians with no ideas of substance - or integrity - and the failure of many in the media to expose that themselves; but, in the end, we should not forget that what Stewart does is farce. He doesn't, and he tells us that repeatedly. Funny man that he is, he isn't looking to change it himself (and note that he did say he wouldn't be running for president). For anyone who wants to see different results in the world, we are going to need to look elsewhere. That is where the real hard work begins. And it ain't very funny.