Jon Stewart

If Jon Stewart didn’t have his daily show, called The Daily Show, he thinks he would sit around at home all day in his underwear screaming at his television set and occasionally firing bullets at it, ‘like Elvis used to do’. Actually, he has three sets, permanently tuned to Fox News, MSNBC and CNN respectively. The 42-year-old American  ‘anchorman’ of The Daily Show, a satirical current affairs show that has won five Emmys and a Peabody award, watches the news addictively, he explains, all day, looking for comedy material in order to produce ‘a nightly half-hour series unburdened by objectivity or journalistic integrity.’

The show, which can now be seen on our screens, on the recently launched More4, starts with Stewart tapping his papers on his desk and saying in his deadpan way something like: ‘Good news for war buffs tonight. The Middle East peace talks have ended in failure.’ He often shows clips from his bete noir, the right-wing Fox News, and follows these with a sceptical lift of his eyebrows, or an incredulous rub of his eyes. When Condoleezza Rice admitted to the Senate that she had seen a presidential daily briefing in August 2001 entitled ‘Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside The United States’, Stewart showed the clip and afterwards stared into the camera for 20 seconds. He then buried his face in his hands, lifted his head up and moaned: ‘You’re fucking kidding me, right? Please, please say you are kidding me.’

It is mid morning and Stewart is at home in the Manhattan brownstone he shares with his wife Tracey and one year old son Nathan. A pitbull in the next room puts in an occasional bark. On his show he is always cleanshaven and wearing a sharply-tailored suit, at home he is a jeans, sweatshirt and stubble man: ‘I have a pit crew on the show whose job it is to make sure I don’t look homeless,’ he says in a chewy, Eastern seaboard accent. ‘I put on whatever they lay out for me. Then a make-up artist comes in and spray paints me.’

I ask how, for the benefit of any English viewers yet to catch The Daily Show, he would describe himself? ‘Shorter than you probably thought I was. That is what works on television. That and having a head slightly too large for your body. The closer you resemble a Peanuts character the better.’

Although he is 5ft 7in, he is being self deprecating about his hawkish good looks. He has good cheek bones and thick, dark hair frostings at the temples. His face, moreover, has appeared on the covers of Newsweek and Rolling Stone and, in 1999, when he began hosting The Daily Show, he was voted into the top 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine. ‘That is true,’ he says when I point this out. ‘I am adorable. Or at least I was. I had been gradually climbing the ladder of most beautiful people, going from 119 to 78, and then finally I made the top 50. But by 2000 they had decided I was ugly once again.’ Pause. ‘Look, I was never thought of as good looking until I had a television show. In American being on television automatically makes you beautiful. You could put a cantaloupe on television in America and someone would want to fuck it.’

Stewart and a few of his collaborators on the show are coming to London this month for a one night show, essentially a reading of his bestselling book America (The Book) A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. ‘It will be a chance for British people to turn up and get any question answered about America that they want. Any question at all.’

I ask about the claim he makes in the book that America invented democracy. ‘Sure, we did,’ he says with a shrug. ‘That and teabo.’

Will he also be discussing Britain’s special relationship with America? ‘Yeah, I think for the purposes of the discussion, though, it would be easiest just to merge Bush and Blair into one, Primesident Blush.’

Though Stewart says he is not comfortable being more than two minutes away from a joke on the Daily Show, he does secure interviews with political heavyweights, who have included Bill and Hilary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, former Republican presidential challenger Bob Dole, General Wesley Clark, and counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke. John Kerry bantered with him in a bid to seem more human. Vice-presidential hopeful John Edwards announced his candidacy on the show. Stewart’s response was: ‘I have to warn you, we are a fake show, so you might have to do this again somewhere.’

He is polite and mildly mocking with his guests, rather than scratchy. ‘I don’t think we are partisan. I’m curious to know what makes these people tick. I mean, I have five minutes and if you can’t find out exactly what makes a man tick in five minutes then…’ He’s joking again. You have to wonder, though, why these politicians come on. ‘I think it’s because they think no one they know is going to be watching,’ Stewart says. ‘We exist outside the world of politics. Also politicians are salesman and they think we have a captive audience of disaffected youth who they can market to. The only demographic that seems to matter to them is the young people, even though the young tend not to vote. It’s a feeling that if you can tap into their life force then you can be immortal.’

He has a point. The New York Times often refers to the ‘Jon Stewart generation,’ meaning young Americans whose only knowledge of current affairs comes from the Daily Show. He has been credited with energizing an otherwise apathetic youth electorate. (‘A lot of them are probably high,’ Stewart says by way of explanation.) The politicians are trading on his cool image, clearly; does that, I ask, make him feel used? He laughs. ‘I could give a shit. Look, if you are going to have good sex you might as well satisfy both parties. People think we have a political agenda on the show, but if we do, it isn’t working. Since we have been on these past five years the world has gotten worse. So, if anything, we have a corrosive effect. We thought we were helping but as it turned out The Daily Show has destabilised the Middle East.’

His debut on the show coincided with the dimpled chad election of 2000 and, with George Bush in the White House — a man not to be misunderestimated — he has not been short of material since. He must, presumably, consider this the best of all possible worlds in which to be a satirist? ‘I wouldn’t wish ill on the world for my own personal showbiz gain,’ he says. ‘Then again I’d like to have a pool.’

He is contracted to stay with the show until election 2008, who does he think that will be between? ‘Well I image it will be Hilary Clinton and Jed Bush, the House of Clinton versus the House of Bush. As you in England move away from a monarchy we move toward it.’

Since 9/11 the Bush administration has made much of the concept of American patriotism; does Stewart consider himself an American patriot? ‘Patriotism is an antiquated term that they have tried to rebrand, like New Cola. I think they use the patriotism charge against dissenters because they are not keen on having their record dissected. There are lots of ways to dismiss your critics and in a post 9/11 world probably the most visceral one is to say you are a traitor. That seems an extreme and artificial viewpoint to me. Michael Moore is celebrating his ‘subversion’ with great wealth and fame, he is not sitting in a gulag.’

The reference is telling. Stewart may be a staunch Democrat — his nickname is Lefty — but he is a much more thoughtful and witty man than Michael Moore, with whom he is sometimes compared. Whereas Moore is irritating and smug, Stewart is dry and droll and offers a more charming, warm and acceptable face of American liberalism. Asked to compare his work with Moore’s, Stewart says simply: “He’s an activist. I am a more passive editorialist.’ Frown. ‘I always find it odd when asked about my political views; where I come down on certain issues. The truth is, I wish I were ideologically strong enough to understand whatever position I have, but it changes quite frequently. If anything, I’m a confusedocrat. Some days I feel clear about what we should do, other days I’m as baffled as the next guy. My views are usually coloured by the last person I talked to, which makes me shallow but probably very typical. I still find in my heart I can be persuaded and that is a nice place to be. If I hear a cogent argument I am open enough to add that to my viewpoint. I would hate my mindset to calcify.’

Has he ever been tempted into politics himself? ‘There are pictures I have of myself in a shoebox here that would preclude me from working at the post office, let alone Capitol Hill. I can basically write the negative campaign about myself right now.’

If he were in charge, would he bring ‘the boys’ in Iraq home? ‘ I don’t even know what that means. It’s like ‘would you prefer people didn’t die?’ I don’t think we should have been there in the first place. To me it made about as much sense as attacking Australia after Pearl Harbor. I’m not sure what Iraq had to do with the War on Terror.’ Pause. ‘Bush and Cheney say we shouldn’t criticise the war in Iraq right now because it is bad for the morale of the troops. No. Improvised explosive devises left around by insurgents are bad for the morale of the troops.’

‘Dude, I totally want to smoke a bong with you,’ Stewart told a Christian fundamentalist guest on his show who had been explaining the theory of creationism. It seemed like a clash of cultures. I ask whether, from his home in liberal New York, the conservative, moral majority heartland of the Mid West looks like a different country? ‘Yes but the people of Kansas must look at our gay pride parade and think we are a different country. I think most people in the world could find common elements if they tried, but most of the world is run not by moderates but by extremists, because extremist kill more, the moderates have lawns to mow.’

Stewart always seems relaxed and nonchalant on television, is that all a front? Is he a screaming tyrant as soon as the cameras are off him? ‘Yeah, Thorazine takes the edge off. What you see on television is a post medicative state.’

Has he always been a joker? ‘People don’t go into comedy because as a child they were morose. I think it’s a brain tick. As a youngster it’s more obnoxiousness. All it was good for then was getting my ass kicked and getting suspended. As you get older you hone it, learn to make points. Like most things in life, making people laugh is about being liked and, ultimately, about getting laid.’

Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz, as he was then, grew up in suburban Larenceville, New Jersey. His was a middle-class household: his mother taught gifted children, his father was a physicist who worked in laboratories developing x-rays and lasers. Was he under pressure to follow in his father’s academic footsteps? ‘My family was aware early on  that I was not going to be following in anyone’s intellectual footsteps. My older brother is quite brilliant in those matters. At table, he and my father would be drawing graphs on napkins while I would be rubbing pizza on my forehead. As Rummy would say, you go to war with the army you have.’

Stewart nevertheless attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he was something of a soccer star. ‘Soccer took up most of my time but I did come away with a psychology degree,’ he says. ‘I started out doing chemistry but they kept wanting the correct answer rather than the long answer. In psychology you can give any answer as long as you do it in ten pages or more.’ He started using his middle name as his surname when he began as a stand up comedian in 1987. ‘Leibowitz sounded too Hollywood,’ he says. No, really, I press, why did he change it? ‘No, really. To pretend I wasn’t Jewish.’ He keeps his face straight. Why is it, does he suppose, so many of America’s greatest comedians have been Jewish? ‘If you had our history wouldn’t you try to be likeable? Might as well be funny.’

When I suggest that his constant funniness might make him difficult to live with he says: ‘Hey buddy, I bet you’re no picnic either!’

Fair enough, but I don’t have a compulsion to make people laugh all the time. ‘I think I am probably hard work, but not for that reason. I spend all day writing jokes. When you do that for a living it scratches the itch. I am like a dog after you have thrown him a ball. Earning a living from jokes means I don’t have to be the centre of attention. Away from the show I cocoon myself. At dinner parties, friends don’t await my witty repartee. They are aware what a dolt I am, their expectation are very low.’ He thinks he would be considered neurotic were he not on television. Instead his self-loathing is considered endearing self deprecation. ‘I don’t think I’m a crying on the inside clown. I’m quite optimistic, though I do have a permanent look of exhaustion.’

He says his one year old son has inherited that look. ‘He has bags under his eyes. People think he’s tired but its genetic. In other ways Nathan is the antithesis of me. He doesn’t understand that I am a night person. He hasn’t gotten that yet. He would be Finland to my America. The timing is completely off.’ Stewart’s wife, a vet, is pregnant again, a girl due in February. When I ask how they met he says: “You mean how did a comedian come to meet a vet? Well I met her on a blind date, but I imagine you could meet one just by carrying a sick dog around.’

A happy image on which to end.

The Daily Show is on More4 every night at 8.30. America (The Book) is published by Penguin. Jon Stewart will be at the Prince Edward Theatre, London, on December 11.

THE WIT AND WISDOM OF JON STEWART

‘It is often said that America ‘invented’ democracy. This view is, of course an understatement; American invented not only democracy, but freedom, justice, liberty and ‘time-sharing’

‘The human race is by nature brutal, amoral, unreasonable and self centred, but for the first few hundred thousands years of our existence as a species, we were way too obvious about it.’

In 1300BC God gives Ten Commandants to Israelites, making them His Chosen People and granting them eternal protection under Divine Law. Nothing bad ever happens to Jews again.’

‘The fact that Magna Carta was written in 1215 is, by law, the only thing you are required to know about it.’

‘thanks to blessedly isolated geography, a can-do spirit and an indigenous population with primitive weapons and surprisingly weak immune systems, the United States has experienced consistent growth and expansion over its entire history.’

‘The story of Africa in the modern age is one of war, disease, corruption, repression and poverty. On the upside, there are tons of monkeys and you never need a jacket.’

“Which of the following is the best combination of reasons to vote for a candidate? a) Issues and eyes; b) Party affiliation and hair; c) Background and teeth; d) Religious zealotry and tits.”