Long before Jon Stewart would find himself behind the Daily Show desk for 16 years, and before Lewis Black would host the “Back in Black” segment on the Comedy Central staple, the comedians met on the comedy club circuit as they worked to launch their careers. As one of the few Daily Show correspondents who knew Stewart before he became their boss, Lewis Black has a unique perspective on the legacy that Stewart leaves behind. In a chat with EW, Black reveals his favorite memories of Stewart — namely, when the Daily Show host’s well of seemingly endless patience runs dry — and Stewart’s Walter Cronkite-like impact on the news cycle.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about when you first met Jon.
LEWIS BLACK: Well, he was just nice. He’s always been nice. He was funny, he was smart. To be honest, what amazed me at first was that I had never in the entire time I’ve worked in this business understood a lick of it. I don’t get it. I don’t know where these people come from who are in charge. I don’t know how to act around them. I’ve gotten better. I’ve learned to shut my mouth. But Jon literally kind of took off early and it impressed me. And he was good as opposed to many who took off early and you’re going, “Really? You’re going to take that schmuck? You could take me!” From the beginning I was impressed with him.
When you first started working on The Daily Show, what was his personality like at work?
Well, he was in charge. And immediately that irritates me. I think at first he was looking around and basically throwing things up and seeing what would stick, and I think it took him a few years to really figure it out. These shows were all kind of built around his vision and I think it took him a few years to really figure out how we wanted the show to arc and what he wanted the show to be.
Tell me something about Jon that most people wouldn’t know, or that they might find surprising.
He’s a hermaphrodite. It’s unbelievable. And that he’s kept it hidden for this long is beyond belief but I’m really glad you asked.
So you finally have a chance to out him.
Well, yeah. I mean, now that he’s leaving … f— him.
Do you have a favorite memory of Jon, either on or off camera? Something he’s done that jumps to your mind?
You know, basically my character snaps all the time and I — as a person — snap all the time. I always knew I couldn’t sit in that chair with some of the people he had to sit with. I mean, I just couldn’t do it without really losing my mind and not being able to think. But his ability to do that was really kind of exceptional. I just remember when he snapped at Tucker Carlson, when he just kind of let it rip, and then Judith Miller, as well. With Judith Miller, I happened to be around that whole day and just watching [Stewart] rev up for that interview was really something because I’d never seen him get that caught up in an interview. I was impressed because I found the whole concept of what she was doing offensive. I was really impressed that he went further than he normally would, you know? He didn’t treat it as a normal interview.
So your favorite Stewart memories are when he’s angry?
Not so much angry as when he finally just kind of snapped, really. Enough was enough. Because what’s amazing is the tenure he had without snapping. My other favorite thing is when I could get him to laugh when I was doing stuff, when I could break him up. That was when I knew I kind of nailed it. So that was always fun.
How would you describe his impact? Not just in comedy, but also in the political world.
Weirdly enough, he was, on a certain level, the Walter Cronkite of his generation. He was the trusted source. People trusted what came out of his mouth. What made Cronkite that and what makes Jon that is a certain kind of honesty that is related through that medium, and the one thing I learned from television is it doesn’t lie. If you see somebody on TV and they look like they’re f—ing nuts, they’re f—ing nuts. And if they really appear to be honest then they’re honest. I mean, Clinton said he didn’t get a b—job and you knew he got a b—job.
I think it also had to do with timing. It had a lot to do with the five cable networks or whatever, you know, 160 hours of news in a 24-hour day. Americans become familiar with news and its formatting and they knew it backward and forward. As a result of that, by being in the midst of that storm, I think that we he and we provided was insulation.
Have you given him advice about what to do in the future? What should he be doing after he retires from The Daily Show?
I’m not giving him any advice without a consulting fee. He would need to pay me a lot of money. I could give him a half-hour of my time.
No. My only advice to him is go do whatever it is you want to do next. I think he knows. You know, relax, enjoy, take some time off, enjoy your kids, enjoy your life. He always kept saying that I was the hardest-working man that he knew of in show business, and I believe he is. I think he really needs to give himself some time to enjoy himself, and then whatever he chooses to do he’s going to do well at it. I’ve said it about Colbert and I’ll say it about him: You ain’t seen nothing yet. They really are gifted. So whatever the next challenge he picks up I think he’ll be fine.
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.