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Jon Stewart: The president of American satire

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The Daily Show made him the comic conscience of the US, but now Jon Stewart is making films. Andrew Lowry talks to him about stepping out from the desk

In the 15 years Jon Stewart has hosted The Daily Show, he’s become the cool older brother to an entire generation. The show became essential viewing as the Bush administration reacted to the shock of 9/11 by becoming the most divisive US government since Richard Nixon’s – and Stewart was there every step of the way, pointing and laughing at the logical flaws, dodgy dealings and occasional idiocy of US leaders and their media allies.

He’s continued to lampoon the watery thinking in US politics right through the era of the Tea Party and Barack Obama, and these days his straightforward lack of BS has made him one of the most trusted men on TV. Now, though, he’s sticking his neck out in a different way. In 2009, Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist, was working in his homeland with a Daily Show team during the turbulent protests following that year’s controversial election when he was arrested by the regime. He spent 118 days in solitary confinement on charges of espionage in Tehran, and Stewart is repaying a debt of honour by making a film about Bahari’s time in jail, and his odd relationship with his interrogator.

As you might imagine given Stewart’s involvement, the Kafkaesque situation is mined for as many laughs as political points – the Westernised Bahari gets the giggles at the sheer weirdness of his first interrogation, at least until the beatings start, and there are belly-laughs in moments such as when the prisoner has to be reminded to dial nine for an outside line. ShortList sat down with the 52-year-old satirist to hear just how serious he is about his humour – and how it feels for one of the US’s most famous comedians to be leaving the show that made his name.

For a film about someone’s psychological and physical torture, Rosewater has plenty of laughs...
I tried to make as entertaining a torture film as I could possibly make. Laughs-a-plenty. It’s difficult when you make anything about a subject that is inherently dire that you don’t make the audience feel like they've been captured themselves. 
 
How much of the humour came from you, and how much from Maziar himself?
I didn't impose at all. He’s remarkable, because you just knew there was this guy who’s been through an incredible ordeal, and you meet him and the first thing he does is put you at ease with a joke. He’s an object lesson to regimes everywhere not to arrest journalists, because they remember sh*t. That’s kind of what they do. His ability to compartmentalise that experience and still maintain a sense of the absurdity of it all was amazing – as horrible as it was, it was also ridiculous. They were accusing him of being the central mastermind behind all these people taking to the streets in Iran. It’s patently absurd, but somehow he could sustain 
himself by recognising that.
 
But he does occasionally go too far, and then gets a beating for his trouble.
It’s that moment when you laugh, but then you realise you’re playing chess with a gorilla. What strategy do you use with a creature that is so volatile but so absurdly wrong? What do you do?
 
The film is as much about the nightmare of being trapped in a bureaucracy than in a cell. Were you deliberately trying to alter people’s perceptions when they hear ‘Iranian prison’? 
We have a very set vision of what it means to be in a Middle Eastern prison. There can’t be any lights, there’s nothing resembling 20th-century plumbing, and 
you are in a dank hole with a gentleman burning a shisha on you – but it’s not true. These regimes have institutionalised a certain bureaucratic form of torture that’s not normally strapping you to electrodes and yelling, “TELL ME WHERE THE BOMBS ARE.” The idea was to express torture through banality, through isolation – this is what’s ubiquitous, the other form is an anomaly. It’s not just Iran, in the US we have people in solitary confinement. In free and sophisticated societies, we torture people through isolation.
 
Let’s go back to the beginning of your career, long before The Daily Show. What are your memories of the New York comedy scene in the Eighties, when you were starting out?
The club I started at was called the Comedy Cellar, it’s the one you see in the opening credits of Louis CK’s show. I was the day bartender at a Mexican restaurant up the block, and for any of your readers who want to know how to make the least amount of money in the restaurant business, be a day bartender at a Mexican restaurant. You spend your entire time cutting fruit for the guy at night to come in and crush, and you come home with nothing more than two slices of quesadilla. What I loved about the comedy clubs back then was that they smelled of the night before. It was exactly who you were in showbusiness, which was the rung below stripping. It was in a basement underneath a Middle Eastern restaurant, and it was exactly where I thought I belonged.
 
Was it a hard-partying kind of lifestyle, being around lots of comics in their twenties?
Sure, and then some people died, so we stopped drinking. The romance of it grows a bit through the lens of nostalgia, and it’s something I certainly couldn’t go back to today, but I can tell you I would walk home at 4am drunk, having utterly eaten it in front of four sailors at whatever show I would have done, and thought I was the luckiest mother*cker in the world. 
 
Did you have confidence that you would make it? 
You have a vision of the future you prepare for, but you don’t think about that. You’re doing it because there’s not a whole lot else you can do. I’d had plenty of jobs, and just knew that wasn’t going to be it – I had to do this, and whatever that meant. If it meant I had to live with another person in my bedroom, then f*ck it, that’s what I would have to do. The other thing was, you weren’t alone – other people were going through it too. There were six or seven clubs, and you’d pass each other on the subway as you were going from club to club, and we’d all meet up at somebody’s house and get high and watch old Saturday Night Lives until 5am. It was a lovely time.
 
Did you have the political comedian’s urge to say, “No, this is how the world should be?”
I don’t know if it’s anger or the desire to express. There’s an arrogance to walking in a room and going, “Oh you’re all facing the same direction? Why don’t I go and stand where you’re all facing? Guys, make them dark, and make me light, and I know it’s a small room but could you amplify my voice? And while I’m here, could you like me?” There’s an arrogance to that. I think the difference is there were comedians who were thinking, “If I’m going to take your money for you to listen to me, I should say something interesting to you.” 
 
You’ve been the foremost satirist in the US for more than a decade – but do you think satire can change anything?
I just don’t know. If it was the most effective form of change, the history books would be filled with it. They would have sent 500 clowns with megaphones to storm the beaches of Normandy, and seen what that did for everybody. It is one of the tools of expression, like a song or film or art. Can it colour a discussion? Sure. In cultures where criticism of the higher-ups is unheard of, a comedian can sneak through the lines and land a few blows, but we don’t live in those societies. 
 
There’s the usual question for a satirist where it’s easy to criticise, but what are you actually for?
I think at its heart it’s an idealistic form. Pointing out that one thing is bullsh*t doesn’t mean you’re a nihilist. Part of what you’re for is a respect for a moral compass, that’s your divining rod for where your comedy is. I remember when I first got on the show it was nihilistic. We had a bit about the 40th anniversary of Barbie, and half the jokes were about how offensive the stereotype of Barbie was to women, and the other half was about how ugly the woman who waspresenting the doll was. I said, “I think we have to choose a side here.” What you’re for is what your comedy represents, your principles and ethics are embedded in it. It’s not about just snark or cynicism, it’s idealism – it’s naive at its essence. That’s what the majority of good comedy is – a frustration at our lack of ability to live up to the opportunity we’ve been given. It’s the quiet activism of living pleasantly. 

You’re also seen to have replaced mainstream journalism for young people. In the UK, the reputation of journalism has taken a kicking recently – do you think it can still be a force for good?
Was it you? Do you know the password to my voicemail?
 
Not guilty.
Some people just want to sell papers, and some people want to tell stories with integrity. That tension is what created some of the most brilliant journalists and some of the most scurrilous scumbags. That tension is the battle. There will always be incredible and brave individuals putting themselves at great risk to tell the stories of those in harm’s way, and there will always be assholes who exploit and distort and sensationalise purely in order to get clicks. Sometimes the lads are winning, and sometimes they’re not. And right now, the lads are getting their asses kicked.
 
Your show has unleashed our own John Oliver onto the US – do you feel like a proud parent?
Luckily, he looks older than he is. I look at him as a colleague I was impressed with from day one and a great partner to giggle with on and off camera. And as I’ve always said, everybody knew John could do this so well, except maybe John, and now he’s getting to understand that.
 
You will be handing over The Daily Show to Trevor Noah in August – did some of the very emotional reaction surprise you?
It was very strange, it was somewhat eulogy-oriented. The general tenor was either too hyperbolically nice, or too viciously terrible, so I don’t like to spend too much time looking at that. It’s like in figure skating, you throw out the best and the worst scores.
 
How long had you known you were going?
I don’t think there was an epiphany moment: the skies parting and saying it is time for me to go. Like any job, you do it for a long period of time, you start to feel like you’re maintaining it rather than evolving it. It wasn’t a case of me being like, “I’m fed up with the system, man, I can’t take it any more.” It’s just, I’d like to try different ways of skinning that cat. I told the network in late November, and we had to wait for a variety of reasons. Eventually, I was able to tell the staff and the crew, but I knew once we did it it would get out, so I told them the afternoon of the announcement. They’re the part that I’ll miss the most. I won’t miss being on television. I’ll still wear make-up, every day – at about 6pm I’ll throw on a suit and some make-up and go meet the kids for dinner in my Florida retirement community.
 
Is there anything you’re happy to leave behind?
That sense of routine is what I’ll miss the least. I’ll enjoy the flexibility. At this point, my biology is weirdly in tune with our production schedule. Every day 
at 4.30pm when I’ve just done the rehearsal, I’ll eat a bunch of chocolate and neck two espressos before we do the rewrite. Now even if I’m at home, at about 4.30pm, I’ll feel this crazy thing where the atmospheric pressure leaves the room and I’ll have to have my coffee and have a chocolate enema just to get up and walk the dog. I’m hoping I can recalibrate my biorhythm.
 
Your family must be pleased they’ll see more of you.
More time with my family will be tremendous. I can’t wait for them to hate me more – I only seem so nice in small doses. When I’m having dinner with them I stay in my suit and behind the desk. We’ll have an appetiser then I throw to commercial. 
 
You’ve achieved incredible success – how do you stay motivated now the dream has come true?
For me again, the dream is I like making things, and the idea I get to continue making things is exciting. That’s been what I wanted to do from the get go. The dream was that I wouldn’t have to do what I thought I would have to do when I was tending bar back in New Jersey. I got to be able to express myself. I got the dream way earlier than this.

Rosewater is at cinemas from 8 May

[Images: Rex]

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