The Common Good
July 2009

The Truth Smirks (Extended Interview Content)

by Jim Wallis | July 2009

An Interview with Jon Stewart

Jim Wallis: The Hebrew prophets often use humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three. How conscious are you of this, and are you trying to make social change happen?

Jon Stewart: It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor in that regard, to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. Everyone here has a lot of respect for activists and an appreciation for what it takes to be an activist. For most of us, writing jokes, playing a little Guitar Hero in the afternoon, and calling it a day seems to be the way to go. Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit. The targets we choose, the way we go about it—it’s got more of a personal venting aspect than a socially conscious aspect.

But you do provide a perspective.

It’s definitely a perspective in the way that an editorial cartoonist might provide a perspective. We provide a different way of framing things, but it is [different from] the framing devices used by politicians. Their aim isn't the framing device; that’s merely a method to get to a goal. For us, that is the goal. Some nights we get the recipe right, some nights we don’t, some nights it’s too strident, some nights too silly, some nights it’s juvenile, but our goal is to make ourselves proud of the product in terms of how we crafted it, the jokes we came up with, that sort of thing.

A lot of people love your show because they feel like someone is finally saying what needs to be said, that the news media is an emperor with no clothes or has no backbone. Are you aware that you’re evoking this sense of relief?

Well, we hear feedback from the audience. We also evoke anger. You know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. It really is a question of does what you do find an audience, and is it an audience that appears to be ill-served? You can have the same conversation with Fox News and say there are a lot of people out there who feel a catharsis when they hear [them] spinning Obama’s love of Dijon mustard as proof that he is Lenin’s disciple. It’s not one or the other.

People have always said to us, “You want it both ways; you want to be taken seriously but then not.” And I always say, “When do we want to be taken seriously? We’re just doing our show.” It is what it is. It’s no attempt to be taken seriously. That’s how we’ve done things from the beginning and will continue to do so as long as we sell enough Budweiser that Comedy Central will let us stay on the air.

But you take on serious things. I preached a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral and talked about you—it was right after Jim Cramer appeared on your show. The scripture for that day was the text of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.

But see, that’s the thing. [Jesus] only had to do one show. We have to do four a week!

(laughing) But I likened your interview with Cramer as a modern enactment of that parable—you were overturning the money changers.

Gee, I hope it ends better for me. Again, people who do what I do have always been around, and I would say it’s more like Joey Bishop overturning the blackjack tables at a casino more than it is the other way.

But you were mad that night.

I was. One of the things that’s very important to everybody here is to write jokes about the subjects you actually care about, because it makes going to work worthwhile. Anybody in the public square making statements has a certain sanctimony that fuels it, but to lay it open that baldly on a regular basis would be really tiresome. But in general, there are very strong emotions that fuel the comedy for us, and that’s what makes it exciting for us—and hopefully makes it interesting for the audience.

With Cramer, though, it felt like there was something really wrong with the way the media covered the economic crisis. You seemed like you wanted to expose that—like what you did on Crossfire. Some say you singlehandedly shut down Crossfire.

Ultimately it is a business, and if Crossfire was generating the ratings that they thought—basically I walked onto a sinking ship and as the water was up to our waist, I said, “Hey, there’s water!” Believe me: You can’t sink something that they think they’re going to make money from.

The sense of timing is decided on by the world more than it is us. We had done the Jim Cramer piece six months earlier. We had done a whole Bear Stearns piece on him, and nobody really picked up on it—not that they should! So it caught us off guard. The Cramer thing was happenstance. The original impetus was Rick Santelli, who had gone on [the show] and did a bit of a populist rant—and Lord knows I love a good populist rant. To his credit, he’s been against bailouts from the beginning, but he was angry we were bailing out individual homeowners and complaining about why should we be paying money for their poor judgment?

So the impetus was it’s interesting to see CNBC criticizing homeowners’ judgment when their judgment throughout this whole economic crisis has been suspect. Jim Cramer took the bait and said, “You’ve taken me out of context with the Bear Stearns thing,” and they called to come on. The whole thing turned into more of a gladiatorial match between he and I, and we certainly had our fun with it. We had three pretty far-out shows from it, but the interview itself, I was expecting a slightly different conversation. I’m sure he was as well.

So you’re trying to be funny and do good satire, but you are sometimes trying to use satire to hold somebody accountable.

I don’t know that it’s to hold them accountable, because I feel that is a role we have not embraced—and maybe we’re kidding ourselves in thinking that’s not what we’re doing. My mentality is more from the perspective of an angry guy at a bar. To hold someone accountable you must be in a position of jurisdiction, and for us it really is a question of shouting back at the television. We get to do it on television, and we hopefully do it the way we know to do it best, which is with absurdity and sarcasm and silliness.

So you’re venting and trying to be funny but choosing targets that you—

—that speak to our sense of outrage. Isn’t everything fueled by outrage? Everything is fueled by discomfort. You have a discomfort about something and so you choose to act to ease that discomfort. The way we ease that discomfort is having the Thomas Jefferson Memorial sit on the Abe Lincoln Memorial’s lap when we’re talking about gay marriage, you know? It’s the way our brains work best. If there’s anything that was our craft, that’s it—to take those things that give us discomfort and by framing them in a manner that we think brings our point of view, kind of eases that sense. You feel like you’re able to vent.

Sojourners is a progressive religious operation, so—

Wait a minute! I thought I was talking to a gossip magazine! Wait, what?

We fooled you again!

Darn it!

When it comes to aspects of faith, you’ve said you’re not particularly observant—you said you had a bacon cheese croissantwich during Passover this year. What are the best and worst ways you’ve seen religion impact current events?

Religion makes sense to me. I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled. You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t.

So religion has no monopoly on religion.

That’s right. Like anything else that’s that powerful—that is touching that deep into the epicenter of the human psyche and our fears, it can be misused. I’m probably much more responsive in a bad way to dogma and to extremism than to religion. When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.” It’s when it gets into the realm of “This is the only way to salvation”—that’s when I think, “Okay, now we’re getting into a problem.”

The power of Dr. King’s religion that kept him going and the power of violent religious fundamentalism, which led to so much else—both are kinds of power.

That’s a great example because you’ve got somebody who preached nonviolence using the same tools that are used to incite violence.

One night you had the boy soldier Ishmael Beah on. You did more of a straight interview with him and said, “I know I wasn’t funny tonight, but tonight wasn’t a night to be funny. I’ll be funny again the next night.”

I’ve had a lot of those kinds of nights! Sometimes intentional, sometimes not. That’s probably the premise of the show—“Might not be funny tonight, but we’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

So the subject matter seems to change the frame.

The interview part of the show is somewhat problematic. It’s the one thing I don’t feel as confident in. Because I’m not playing a character and producing any comedy, the interviews exist in the improvisational, conversational human world, and that’s probably the place I’m least comfortable. Yet some of the interviews I’ve liked the best are the ones like Ishmael Beah. When you have people on where you feel as though they’ve touched something, then you feel like you’ve elevated it.

Do you think the media could improve? Could we have a forum where it’s a serious, diverse, and civic conversation about how to solve problems?

Absolutely! I think that does occur. Part of the problem is it may be a beautiful dance, but it happens in a snowstorm. There’s just so much noise around it. The 24-hour [networks] are dictating the pace of the conversation, and the pace is one of frantic urgency. It is a relentless beast searching for food, so there’s not a lot of ability to sit back and reflect. In the moments that are reflective and elevate the discourse, it’s easy for that to get lost in the rest of the static. There is a place for that, but it has to be really purposeful.

Are there big issues like climate change, poverty, torture, or what’s happening to kids in these wars in Africa that tug at you?

Oh sure! Certain issues for us loom larger partly because of the way they’ve been spawned. When you have a regime saying over and over again, “We don’t torture, we don’t torture, we don’t torture,” and yet each piece of information that comes out is pointing us in the opposite direction, you begin to think that’s probably not an area where we should be parsing language and spinning. If you want to [torture], make your case. But the way things are presented tends to influence what it is we’ll talk about.

Part of it, honestly, is trying to reconcile our reality to the reality we’re seeing in television. It’s trying to get back to, “Okay, so why is it that I’m seeing this as ‘yes, we have tortured,’ yet it appears that we keep hearing how we have never [tortured].” Make your case! Make the case that in these urgent times that’s what we needed to do, but don’t be disingenuous.

Tell the truth.

Yeah! Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Too often the role of government and corporations is to obscure their real argument, and we feel like the role of media and the role of editorial authorship is to re-clarify those things. If there’s anything we think, it’s that we’re presenting it in what we believe to be the clearest position that we can in a satirical framework.

Without being activists or setting yourselves up as authorities on what the truth is, you’re trying to get some honesty and truth-telling.

Truth-telling is probably too strong a word. What we’re trying to do is square our reality with the reality of what we’re seeing. It’s just trying to line up worlds.

So where’s it all going? With Bush there were a lot of easy targets.

Their spin was really clear and blatant in the way that this administration has not revealed itself yet. [The Bush administration] wielded a hammer; this administration’s probably wielding more of a scalpel. The one area we felt more freedom to go at was the economic bailouts, but the main area we attack is the area between who [administrations] say they are and who we view them as. That has not necessarily revealed itself in as clear a matter.

President Obama is a lot of things, but one thing he’s not is particularly funny.

The other administration wasn’t funny, but they were so clear. In some respects, they were victims of their own branding. Because their branding was so strong, it was pretty easy to find the holes.

For us, the main thing is to feel like the conversation that [administrations are] having with us is an adult conversation. The one thing I hated most about the other administration is what they would say is, “We trust the American people.” Yet the conversation they were having with us was one you would have with a child—“We trust you; we’re just not going to talk to you about what our real motives are, what we’re really trying to gain.” If they had, I think they would’ve had a slightly more positive experience with the American public.

A lot of people enjoy the conversations they have with you every night, so keep up the good work. I think you are a little like a Hebrew prophet after all.

(laughing) You sure there’s not a little Borscht Belt in there somewhere?

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