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Ed Helms on Jon Stewart's Daily Show legacy and why the show doesn't have a 'political agenda': Interview

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Norman Jean Roy/Comedy Central

As one of the more successful correspondents to come out of The Daily Show , Ed Helms is able to look back on his tenure and his working relationship with Jon Stewart with a kind of thoughtful hindsight after so many years of post-Daily Show success in the industry.

In a chat with EW, Helms explains why The Daily Show — despite the criticisms lobbed against it from the political far right — does not have a “political agenda.” He also talks about the “meaningful shift” that took place when Stewart took over the news desk from Craig Kilborn, and why Stewart’s most incredible moments as a host weren’t when he was being a comedian, but when he was expressing vulnerability while reporting on 9/11 and other tragedies.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After meeting Jon, was he different than you expected him to be? What was it like working with him?

ED HELMS: As is my experience with most TV people, you don’t have as much data as you think you do. You kind of fill in an entire person based on this very narrow performance that they give on television, and I certainly did that in the case of Jon, who I just assumed was this kind of hilarious and really buoyant personality, and as I got to know him over the years, he’s extremely funny and sharp in person.

But he’s also quite serious. He’s serious about his work, and he’s serious about getting things done, and in other words, he’s a real person. He works really hard, and I think it’s easy to [create these assumptions] before you meet somebody. I encounter this all the time. People make all kinds of assumptions about who I am and what kind of person I am.

But I think it was a little bit of a wake-up call for me to really understand what goes on behind just what you see on TV on a show like that, and I really was kind of thrown right into the shark tank because I had never done anything like that before, and so it was just an awesome learning experience top to bottom. Right away, I just got this great boot camp on what it means to work hard and be successful and to have lots of discipline in something.

I put a lot of effort into it, but I don’t think I was a very disciplined comedian or a disciplined writer. It was something that I worked hard at, but also kind of just thought, hey, it’s comedy. Like, it’s got to be fun all the time, but on The Daily Show, I really learned and learned quickly that it just takes focus and hard work, and when you apply those things, the product is infinitely better, and you wind up having even more fun than you thought.

Do you have a favorite memory of Jon? Something that sticks out in your mind, or something you saw him do on the show?

I think the most incredible things that he’s done on the show are some of his most vulnerable moments, which weren’t particularly funny. Coming back from 9/11 was absolutely amazing, and of course just recently the Charleston shooting stuff, it was incredibly powerful, and I think it just …

Like, his willingness to do that speaks to his humanity above the sort of fracas of showbiz and comedy that we all revel in. There’s just an intelligence and sensitivity there that is extremely rare in big personalities like that. So that’s what makes him so extremely special, but I will say, on the personal front, like behind the scenes, we used to have these meetings before we went off to shoot the field segment.

We’d do all the prep work, and the correspondent, the producer, and a writer would hunker down and kind of get all our s— together, and then we’d have one last meeting with Jon, who would just effortlessly school us on the art of news satire with like, 15 new ideas better than anything that we had come up with after hours of hard work, and that was always sort of fun and exciting.

But one in particular I remember because I threw my back out. I had picked up a chair in my office and moved it, and I had this crazy back spasm, and I could not move. I was in agony, and I’d never had anything like that happen before, and someone was like, well, you have to lie on your back with your feet on a chair.

So I hobbled into the field piece meeting, and I was like, “Jon, I’m really sorry. I have to lie on the floor for this meeting,” and he was like, “It’s all right. We’ve got to get this done.” So we just went through. We had a by-the-book meeting, and got it all hammered out, and he didn’t skip a beat with me just like, lying on the floor on my back. Yeah. Consummate pro.

You were on the show for so many years as its tone and Jon’s voice developed. How would you describe the evolution of Jon Stewart during his Daily Show tenure?

I think that the show made a really meaningful shift when Jon took over, and it wasn’t immediate. It was gradual, but his mandate for the field department became much more about real, issue-based satire as opposed to making fun of weird people, which seemed to sort of be a default formula for the field pieces before Jon started.

When I started and then after maybe a year or so, the tone shifted, and it became way less mean-spirited. I think it was much more about the kind of integrity of the comedic game of a field piece instead of just who’s the biggest weirdo we can find and get laughs out of, poking fun at them. I don’t even think I understood that distinction very well.

I knew experientially at the time at least — I knew what felt better. The stuff where it felt like we were making fun of somebody never quite sat well, and the stuff where we really were just making a meaningful statement about hypocrisy somewhere felt really fun and exciting, and I really credit Jon with sort of steering the show in that direction.

And then as an overall trend just in his own voice, you could see that his personal curiosity made his interview segments so fascinating because he is probably one of the only talk-show hosts who reads the books of all the authors that come on his show, and he would engage with just very genuine curiosity. A lot of talk shows require extensive pre-interviews, where they want to kind of figure out what you’re going to talk about in advance.

But Jon largely eschewed that sort of thing and  trusted his own curiosity and instincts and got some really meaningful results, and there’s always going to be great comedy in the interviews, but where Jon really stands out is when he takes on real issues directly and respectfully.

People tend to assume that The Daily Show had a political agenda, but my experience there was less about a political agenda and more about finding places where people were being hypocritical or irrational in the political sphere and then satirizing that, and so I always thought was really elegant and cool.

Now that he’s leaving The Daily Show, what do you want to see him do next? What would your dream job for Jon Stewart be?

Speaker of the House.

Yeah? Run for office in New Jersey?

I think it would be cool if just everyone agreed that Jon should run Congress.

How do you see his role in comedy or his legacy now that he’ll be leaving this giant work of 16 years or so behind? What do you think he brought to comedy, to satire, and to culture in general?

I think that his impact can’t be overstated. He really has been an amazing mirror on our culture, and I’m insanely grateful to have played a tiny part in it, and I remain a fan, even after a lot of years there. It was hard to leave, and I think it’s just as exciting and important as ever, and I’m excited to see Jon follow his gut and see what happens next.

A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1375, available for immediate purchase here. For much, much more from Stewart’s former correspondents on his legacy, see below.

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