America’s most trusted newscaster works in a Manhattan studio near the Hustler Club. Indeed, Jon Stewart’s house of newsy satire, The Daily Show, is on the same block as Larry Flynt’s emporium of naughty skin. ”We’re kissing cousins,” says Stewart, 47, ”which was also the name of a great pictorial Larry Flynt ran in 1988.” Yes, the fake news anchor does sometimes play the role of quip-proffering comedy ”monkey” — but who can forget how famously he declined it during his contentious 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire? When considering the foibles of his ”real” news counterparts, the two-time Oscar host works up a genuine outrage that, during his decade-long stint at The Daily Show, has turned it into far more than just a ”Weekend Update”-style yukfest. Stewart’s righteous anger has also helped win him that Most Trusted Newscaster title, according to a recent online poll. ”That’s a protest vote,” he says of the accolade. ”I am the ‘f— you’ choice. You could do another poll — ‘The Most Annoying Man on Television’ — for people who completely disagree with our philosophy. I’m more Walter Mitty than Cronkite.”
EW: Do you think the 24-hour news networks that The Daily Show so often skewers have gotten better or worse over the last 10 years?
Jon Stewart Worse. They are now driving, almost entirely, the narrative. It’s a narrative driven by filling time and not looking back. And politicians have gotten wise to it. I thought the Bush administration did a great job of understanding that: ”We just have to sit here and play possum for a while, and something else shiny will happen and they’ll run over there.”
So, has The Daily Show had any impact at all?
JS [Laughs] Wow, when you sum it up like that, these 10 years appear to have been kind of an empty exercise. Son of a bitch! For me, it’s about cathartic expression. I know there’s supposedly this idea of ”To ridicule them is to reduce them.” Yeah, sure, all the fun we made of Hitler: That shut him up!
But your criticism of Crossfire during your appearance on that show [Stewart pleaded with hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to ”stop hurting America” with their politico-bickering] did help get it canceled, according to the president of CNN.
JS That show was on its last legs. By the time I got there, it was already lying in bed with the tubes up its nose.
Did you plan what you were going to do ahead of time?
JS Oh God, no. I did dislike the show. It was false. It just felt like Kabuki. But I thought I would do a funny thing at the top that would kind of defuse the tension. I thought I would come on and be like, ”I just thought I would let you know, I really don’t like the show.” I was trying to be a little bit arch. And then I just kind of yelled at them.
One of my favorite Daily Show running gags involves you giving the name of some lengthily named organization and then saying ”…or NAMBLA,” which is the acronym of a pro-pedophile group. Has NAMBLA ever gotten in touch to say, ”Hey, you’re really confusing people with this bit”?
JS I feel NAMBLA is one of those organizations that doesn’t have to worry so much about branding. I don’t know that there are even competing organizations. They put all those other mom-and-pop pervert carriers out of business.
What’s been your biggest mistake of the last 10 years, other than agreeing to appear in Death to Smoochy?
JS [Laughs] No mistakes, baby. I’ve done horribly s—ty work. I’ve done good work. But they’re not mistakes. The mistakes are when you do something that you feel went against your own principles. You know, people say, ”Why would you host the Oscars?” Why wouldn’t you host the Oscars? You never know: It could turn out terrible, it could turn out great. But it’s only a mistake if you do it in a manner you feel ashamed of. The Death to Smoochy script was one of the funniest things I’d ever read. Really. And Danny DeVito’s a great director. And there’s not a person in there that I would look at and go, ”Oh, he’s going to ruin it.” Except Ed Norton. That kid couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
You’ve always been mentioned as someone who might wind up hosting his own network talk show.
JS The idea of doing that is not appealing to me.
JS Yeah. There was a time when I thought where you reside is indicative of the quality of the show that you can do. I have lost that feeling. That doesn’t also mean that when I’m done here, I’ll never do anything again. I’ll probably try to do something else, something different.
Back to the movies?
JS Exactly! [Laughs] I want to be entertainer of the decade one year, and then schmuck of the decade the very next!