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Jon Stewart On His 'Daily Show' Run: 'It So Far Exceeded My Expectations'

"The minute I say I'm not going to do [<em>The Daily Show</em>] anymore, I will miss it like crazy," Jon Stewart says.
Brad Barket
"The minute I say I'm not going to do [The Daily Show] anymore, I will miss it like crazy," Jon Stewart says.

Jon Stewart hosts his last episode of Comedy Central's The Daily Show on Thursday, wrapping up a 16-year run in which he turned the once-obscure fake news show into a cultural phenomenon.

The Daily Show eviscerated politicians and media elites with video montages and Stewart's biting commentary, but in 2010 Stewart told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the show made him more "emotional" than political.

"The [more] you spend time with the political and the media process, the less political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption," Stewart said.

The host was known for calling out politicians and media personalities who he felt were being disingenuous. In 2004, he appeared on CNN's Crossfire and implored the show's hosts to "stop hurting America."

Jon Stewart and Ben Karlin, executive producer of <em>The Daily Show</em> from 2004 to 2006, won Emmy Awards for their work on<em> </em>the show in 2005.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jon Stewart and Ben Karlin, executive producer of The Daily Show from 2004 to 2006, won Emmy Awards for their work on the show in 2005.

He told Gross that he was bothered less by politicians than by the media: "I feel like politicians, there's a certain inherent — the way I always explain it is when you go to the zoo and a monkey throws its feces, it's a monkey. But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn't say, 'Bad monkey!' — somebody's got to be the zookeeper. I tend to feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates."

When asked in a 2014 Fresh Air interview about stepping down from The Daily Show, Stewart said, "I don't know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well-suited for as this show. I hate to even get maudlin or weepy about it, but it so far exceeded my expectations of what this business would be like for me."

Fresh Air pays tribute to Stewart's tenure on The Daily Show with pieces from four different interviews since 2000, including a 2006 conversation with former Daily Show executive producer Ben Karlin, which you can listen to in the audio link above.

Interview Highlights

On what made him want to try stand-up

It really is a rhythm that either makes sense to you or doesn't. I think it's similar — I would watch someone who is a musician and just go, "Wow. That just looks like magic to me," but I'd watch a comedian and go, "Huh, alright. I could see why he thinks that." So it's a rhythm that makes sense to you that is whatever your thought process is. To get up onstage for the first time, obviously, you're doing more of an impression of a comedian than you are yourself. You're writing jokes that you think are supposedly funny and that sort of thing, and then it takes a long time to sort of discover your own rhythm, but the rhythm itself made sense to me.

On how The Daily Show is put together every day

You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized. People always think, "The Daily Show, you guys probably just sit around and make jokes," and we've instituted — to be able to sort of ween through all of this material and synthesize it and try to come up with things to do — we have a very strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise. I'm a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think, you don't know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.

On why he doesn't think of the show as journalism

The reason why I don't think it's journalism, the reason why I think it's analysis, is that we don't do anything but make the connections. We're just going off our own instinct of: What are the connections to this that might make sense? ... We don't fact-check and we don't look at context because of any journalistic criterion that we feel has to be met; we do that because jokes don't work when they're lies. So we fact-check so that when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a guttural level — it's not because we have a journalistic integrity. Hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate.

On a Daily Show experience that stands out to him

There was a congressional bill where they were going to get money for first responders for Sept. 11 for chronic health issues. And it's a no-brainer — the people that went into the towers, that were down there searching — to have their health bills taken care of. And ... the Democrats wouldn't bring it [for an] up ... or down vote, because if they did that the Republicans would be allowed to insert amendments and one of the amendments that they could insert was you couldn't give any money to illegal aliens. So the Democrats were afraid that they would have a commercial that would be made that would say, "You voted to give money to ..." So rather than standing up and being moral for the people that risked everything for us down there, they decided to try a legislative maneuver that made it so that two-thirds had to pass the bill so that no amendments could be put in it.

Well, the Republicans obviously shot it down — their own moral failing. So we did a segment on the show called "I Give Up." ... Like, we came in that morning just really despairing as we watched this go down, and we walked out that night feeling like ... we put it through the prism and the synthesis and the digestive process ... and we made ourselves feel better. We didn't make ourselves feel better by ignoring it, by dismissing it, by not dealing with it; we made ourselves feel better by expressing our utter rage at the ineptness and lack of courage from our legislators.

On Stewart's angry monologue in response to "latte-gate," the controversy that sprung up after President Obama saluted marines with a coffee cup in his hand

We have to do a show every day and there are certain days that you bring things to the fore that you don't have the same outrage or passion for, and then there are certain things that happen that truly ignite, that truly get to the crux of the dysfunction in our system — and that's one of those. It's wildly upsetting to watch that go down, for them to be so relentless in their attack on the president for something that they not only didn't care about with the president previous to this, but the president previous to this would salute the troops with a dog in his arms, with a Scottie. They don't care about the reality of it; they care about symbolism, they care about wearing a flag pin as opposed to coming up with actual strategies that don't put soldiers in unnecessary danger for poor planning. So as long as they want to attack symbolism, we'll try to attack the reality that surrounds it.

On deciding to leave the show

The minute I say I'm not going to do it anymore I will miss it like crazy and I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I've just made and I will want to grab it back.

I think there's a tendency when something has been on the air for a really long time to dismiss it only because of its familiarity, and it's hard to retain that first blush of love that you have when you first find something that takes you. ... But I'm still really proud of the work we do day-in and day-out. ...

You can't just stay in the same place because it feels like you've built a nice house there. And that's really the thing that I struggle with and it is unclear to me. The minute I say I'm not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy and I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I've just made and I will want to grab it back. ... I cannot tell you how fortunate I've been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen [Colbert] and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show and all the opportunities that I have. And I consider it gravy, everything.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.