The Daily Show host on condescending to young people, leather, absurd comedy, and directing Rosewater. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.
It’s slightly surreal interviewing Jon Stewart, The Daily Show interviewer. His debut film Rosewater tells the story of Maziar Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal), imprisoned in solitary confinement for 107 days in Iran in 2009 after appearing on Stewart’s satirical news programme.
Though a touch weary, Stewart is smart, funny company. He wasn’t nervous directing. “I don’t mean to denigrate it—it’s still just a movie, you know? I’m doing a movie about torture, I’m not being tortured. So I think you have to retain that perspective, and I made sure we retained that on the set.”
At a Toronto hotel during the city’s film festival, I tell him Rosewater’s Daily Show-esque absurd comedy succeeds. “Right,” he replies emphatically. “Trying to make that organic to the story and not creating it in a way—so much of what we try to do is to not create any discordant distraction, so that the humour did not feel unmotivated.”
Mike Lerner, director of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the stirring documentary about the Russian performance artists, tells me going on The Daily Show is great. “Jon’s somebody who has no ideological position. He’s somebody that finds inconsistency funny, and hypocrisy funny, and that’s it.”
“Humour is the most damaging weapon we have,” Lerner says, and Stewart agrees, in that distinctive voice, albeit less caffeinated and intense than on TV.
The casually dressed, t-shirt wearing 52-year-old says he doesn’t believe Bahari’s long imprisonment suggests the importance of The Daily Show. “It speaks to the desperation of the regime. And the truth is he wasn’t arrested because of that, he was arrested because they panicked, because people took to the streets [during 2009’s Green Revolution] and, as authoritarian regimes do, and we see it throughout [the world]—not just the Middle East, and not just Iran, this is everywhere. Every government has its levers of pressure that it applies to withhold information that it feels it does not want to make transparent.”
When you contribute to someone getting arrested you feel “closer” to them, Stewart says. “I think there was a certain narcissistic response on our part. Maziar was arrested, another fellow that we’d interviewed, an old revolutionary named Ibrahim Yazdi and a cleric named Abdi, all were arrested and they were the three that we spoke to. So we immediately jumped to the conclusion that this entire Green Movement somehow revolved around us,” he recalls.
“That was happily disabused very, very quickly. But that is the American response, which is: ‘We did this? We will fix this! Who should I invade?’ After meeting Maziar [in person], he is a very warm and compelling individual. We became friendly and it [Rosewater] began.”
He chose the great Gael Garcia Bernal, probably today’s leading Latino actor since Amores Perros, to portray the way Bahari retained his humanity. “Because solitary confinement, you know, you are removing sense from people, and their ability to interact. And so if you do not have a very well developed inner-life from which to draw from, you are lost. Maziar was able to compartmentalise it in a way that he could still retain a sense of humour at the utter absurdity at what was happening to him.”
Stewart says that’s the fulcrum on which Rosewater turns. “He reclaims his humanity in the darkest moment. Not through confrontation, not through opposition, but through those higher forms of human endeavour: dance, humour, things that bring us to more of an understanding and expression, a high form of expression. So you needed to be in those very dark scenes while retaining a certain sense of light and mischief, you know? And Gael was able to capture that in a way that was rare.”
Bahari tells me Leonard Cohen maintained him through solitary confinement. Bernal replies with that infectious Bernal smile when I tell him his scenes set to ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ resonated. “I think when we listen to Leonard Cohen’s music there is something about the literary aspect that comes to life strongly, a little bit like Bob Dylan as well. From the English-speaking world he is one of the most versed baroque writers and composers and his songs are very contagious.
“I knew when all the songs that Maziar mentions in the book that came to mind—it’s what happens when we share cultural references. I mean, ‘So Long Marianne’—which is the name of your daughter,” he gestures towards Bahari. “It was a song that I dedicated to my first girlfriend; I thought that was my discovery, you know? It was like I discovered this author.”
Stewart’s original idea was a film in Farsi, with an all Persian cast. “Maziar was the one who said, ‘I really don’t want to do that. I want it to be in English, and I want it to be as universal as it can possibly be, because these are issues that need to be seen as universal issues and need to be placed in as wide a context as we can place it.’
“And I agree with him, after speaking with him about it… I am not [Asghar] Farhadi, I could not do a nuanced [Farhadi film like The Past or A Separation]. Somebody from that area is going to see this as a simplistic or reductive version of what their lives are, but hopefully for audiences that are less familiar, it will be more nuanced and layered than they’re used to, and that’s the balance that we try to capture.”
Recently Stewart was slammed for criticising Israel. “It turns out people feel very passionately about that. It really caught me off guard. Turns out the Middle East is somewhat of a hotbed,” he laughs.
It’s difficult to get into the mindset of those who abuse Jews for criticising Israel, he adds. “I think that you can’t divorce people’s passion from a people’s history, and I think any people that have felt suffering and difficulty are going to cling to certain things in a more passionate way. That being said, I think the goal is the same. I don’t live in that region so in some ways I’m not probably justified to speak of it, but if I had a goal it would be a safe and secure Israel and a safe and secure Palestine. So the criticism may come from believing, I think, differently. But I imagine we just disagree on how to achieve that goal most effectively.”
Accustomed to turning out television every day, Stewart found himself impatient with the cumbersome film process. “Filmmaking production is somewhat glacial in its development and I felt like this was a story whose urgency necessitated trying to accomplish it in a quicker fashion.” But, “I didn’t find it to be an alien process,” Stewart adds on the medium’s similarities.
He didn’t find it hard writing a dramatic script. “It’s much harder for me to have an earnest conversation and a sincere conversation without cracking wise than it is to write it.”
Stand-up comedy, his first form, is still the one he’s most comfortable with. “Stand-up comedy is expressing an instinct in a single line, you know? Then hopefully, as you evolve and as you learn more, as you absorb talents and abilities from very talented people around you you’re able to tell stories in a longer form and a more broad form, but still visually. And this felt like an extension of that. The real challenge was the vocabulary of basic cable television and the people that I’m around every day is quite different, but it’s a similar intention and feel.”
Whatever the work and audience, Stewart follows his intention, “a way of processing the often difficult issues that we all deal with, that bring a sort of universal sense to people… try not to think about it because what that will do is corrupt your process. Then you become someone who is working backwards. You’re creating something to achieve a goal that you’ve identified, rather than creating something because you think it’s good.”
Stewart says the key to engaging a younger audience is to not think about appealing to them. “I think so much is done with a contrivance to attract them.” He launches a very funny riff about ABC’s 20/20. “They decided they were going to do an edgier version because the kids, you know, they love edge. You can’t talk to kids without edge! It’s like when politicians do the youth debate in America for presidential debates they wear turtlenecks, because, man, if you wear a tie all the kids know that that’s bullshit! So the 20/20 youth version was called 20/20 Downtown, because, you know, kids live downtown. It was the exact same show, with the exact same anchors, but they wore leather jackets and stood outside.”
He disagrees young people are necessarily better at sussing out what’s phony. “They might have more time to. When your priorities change you have less time. Being young is a time of, in some ways, there is slightly more luxury to being able to philosophise in basements with bongs. People say to me, ‘Do you still smoke pot?’ and I go, ‘No, I quit because I got a job.’ You know, it’s a different mentality and I think that it’s an enjoyable part of—in the same way in the animal world young rams bang their heads against each other, it’s a way of discerning who you are and it’s a process that we all end up having to go through. And then you realise that that process doesn’t end, and it’s a constant evolution. That being said, when your kids are hungry, you really have to feed them.”
Over its long, storied run, the show is not without its middling moments. Bill Maher deftly took down Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Of the many notable spinoffs, Daily Show veteran John Oliver is killing it with his own show. Stewart’s still got fire. “If you want to feed me dogma as truth, go fuck yourself,” he said onstage with Jian Ghomeshi during the festival. But he also suggested he’s keen to move on from daily TV, tasting film. “Once you’ve got the ring it’s hard to go back to being a hobbit.”
Does Stewart consider himself a political activist? He slyly responds with a pointed yes, as in being nice to wait staff when he eats out.
Was there a defining moment where he realised The Daily Show’s political impact? “I think that part of it is that the bar for that is not high, because the machine is thirsty and insatiable and it needs content. And it digests it. Anybody that is producing content on a regular basis will be allowed to join the Borg that is constantly digesting itself.” He’s being humble? “No, I don’t mean that as humble, I mean it is a product of the necessity of 24-hour bullshit. And so you join that. But again, that part you can’t control. What you can control is the integrity of your contribution to that, and hope that that speaks for itself.”
Bernal tells me that the film is very Stewart. “I see his spirit. I see more or less what he’s been wanting to do all his life: pointing out the contradictions, the stupid contradictions—and by that creating a funny situation.”
Bahari chimes in that, though creative license was taken with his story in Rosewater, Stewart handles the truth. “Jon understood the truth and what he’s done is that he is talking about universal truth, not only about journalism and freedom of information and authoritarian regimes, but also truth about families and about love of families.”