Unfortunately, there are more than a few countries in the world where making a pointed political joke can lead to less-than-funny consequences. In light of that, we thought it would be interesting to talk to one of the United States' preeminent humorists about the role of political satire in a free society. Jon Stewart entertains millions of viewers of "The Daily Show" by poking fun at the high and mighty. Stewart downplays the program's social impact, but a study last year by the Pew Research Center listed the comedian as the fourth most-trusted American journalist. A while back, Stewart sat down with RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs and talked about his craft.
RFE/RL: You've said many times that you work for a "fake news" show. You do make a lot of things up, but a lot of things you say are true or based on real things, real people.
Stewart: We're reacting to the real news with, perhaps, false impressions, but that's probably the most fake thing. But we're not making stories up.
RFE/RL: But when you say false impressions, people are taking something very real away from that. What do you think that is? What real information are they taking away?
Stewart: What I tend to think is that people have always liked jokes, and they like them very much when they have nothing to do with politics and they like them less when they have something to do with politics. But they still like jokes.
So our goal really -- if they take anything away, I would imagine it would be that you can have a view of the world that is informed by absurdity or humor that still allows you to feel like you are connected to it. But I don't know that there would be much more than that. Do you know what I mean?
I don't think that they are watching it and thinking that that is -- that what they are taking away from it is a feeling of empowerment or something else that people would maybe think that it is.
'Personal Not Political'
RFE/RL: But is your goal really just to be funny, that's the bottom line, or is there something else in there?
Stewart: Well, the "something else" is -- let's put it this way: It's personal, not political.... What matters in a lot of this dialogue, that I've seen at least -- from the political parties and the Internet and liberal and conservative and this and that -- is whether or not your team is getting the upper hand and how world events can be viewed through the prism of your team's goals and success and things.
We are not on a team. Our goal is to have as much fun as we can with things that are interesting to us. Unfortunately, I wish I had a larger platform and agenda that I could suggest that we were working toward, because then it would, at least, give us a focal point.
But the truth is, there isn't and probably can't be because then you move into the realm of activism or politicking or other things that have nothing to do with putting on a comedy show about, hopefully, issues people are interested in. But that is really all it is.
RFE/RL: You seem to express a sense of outrage sometimes. Where does that come from? Or is it outrage?
Stewart: Ah, I get that from the home office [laughter]. No, it's a show that, I think, is like how you would feel watching the news with people that are, hopefully, good at writing jokes. You know, a sense of outrage in that even when you are doing a funny show, that doesn't mean that your emotional range has to be purely disengaged.
You know, just because we are doing comedy doesn't mean we don't care about the things we are making jokes about. But if they are not jokes, it's all -- boy, I wish I knew, if you were from Hungary, I could say it is a goulash. But unfortunately, in Prague, I don't know the local name for the stew. What is the stew?
RFE/RL: Goulash. (laughter)
Stewart: D'ahhh! Son of a gun! I knew it! Why didn't I realize that? If it is all meat and no vegetables and things, [then there is] a balance to create a tasty, hopefully, 22-minute program that has surprises, interest, but is humor-based. If it is not humor-based, then we got nothing.
'They Are Powerful'
RFE/RL: Political satire aims for laughs, but it also does something in society. It is a form of free speech, it takes points of view. An editorial cartoon may have a political position.
Stewart: That's probably the most analogous form: an editorial cartoon, a 22-minute editorial cartoon, often times without the editorial part. A cartoon. But you know what I am saying. It is creating something. It is parasitic to some extent. We are feeding upon the flesh of something else for our own [purposes], to create our own, sort of picture.
RFE/RL: Well, it's material. Every comedian is looking for material.
Stewart: It is reactive. It is almost purely reactive.
RFE/RL: OK, the United States is governed by some of the most powerful people in the world.
Stewart: That's right.
RFE/RL: What's so funny about them? What makes them funny?
Stewart: Uh, they, in and of themselves, are not funny in any way shape or form. That's what this show is. The show isn't about how funny they are. If they were funny, they'd have their own show.
They are powerful. Therefore, you know, people say sometimes, "Boy, the government, you know, do they ever get mad at you guys?"
They have uranium-tipped bunker-busters; I have puns and the occasional goofy montage. You know, I think that they would probably win.
I think one of the things that goes without saying here is that what we do, if it had an agenda, would be considered a failure because it has no efficacy; it has no effect in the world, other than giving certain people a catharsis or a chuckle or some distraction or some pleasure.
And I am not saying that that is worthless. I'm saying that that's satisfying to us if people react that way. But the idea that it is moving things in a direction, politically, socially, I think is, you know...
'Your Own Reality'
RFE/RL: You do make jokes about both ends of the political spectrum.
Stewart: Sure. And [about] the media. You know, within the world of Washington and Los Angeles, it is flattery. You know: "Ooh! They're talking about us." And that's, I think, why it gets more attention than it A) should, and B) deserves. So in that sense, you guys are coming at it from a perspective where dissent really is still a lot more precious and a lot more useful.
Here, I mean, you could make the case that we humanize people [who] shouldn't be humanized. You could make the case that we are trivializing things that shouldn't be trivial, you know, but our society doesn't function as much with the idea that dissent is such a precious commodity.
Although, in more authoritarian times, I guess it may be more so.
RFE/RL: Somebody could say you are trivializing it, but somebody could also say, "Well, you get to say things that nobody else gets to say." Journalists have all these rules, "Well, I can't say this. I have to balance that."
Stewart: Right, but those rules are self-imposed. I mean those are, like anything else, you know -- if there is anything [the Bush] administration taught us [it is that] you create your own reality.
And if journalists -- they are more than welcome to live in the false paradigm that they must consider global-warming debates by putting on a scientist who has studied it and one guy who believes it is not really that at all, and there is nothing we can do. And that's [supposed to represent] balance, you know, "Creationism and Evolution. OK, that's a balanced debate." It's not.
That's completely within [journalists'] own control. One of the most frustrating things we hear is, you know, you get a lot of people from the actual news media who will say to us, "Man! Boy, you guys say the stuff we'd love to say." And you go, "Oh! If you only had a TV show. Which you have. And have more credibility than anything."
RFE/RL: I doubt you've ever felt pressure or threatened because of a joke you did. But, at the same time...do you keep it in your mind, is it ever there that you might go too far, step on "land mine," show a Muhammad picture, a Bill Maher thing, where you just don't know where jokes can take you.
Stewart: No, because think about the penalty for, I mean, you used a great metaphor, "step on a land mine." [RFE/RL is] broadcasting to people who, when they do something wrong, step on a literal land mine.
Even bringing up the subject of Bill Maher. Yes, he was so punished by our society: He was forced to [work on] pay cable, and the most prestigious pay cable network we have, [HBO]. So, I think there are places in the world where there's real peril from government and from actual institutions of power [if you] speak out against them. I don't, particularly, think we are one of them.
RFE/RL: This is just a hypothetical, but say you did a bit on the show that caused shock among advertisers.
Stewart: Right. So what's the peril that I would face? I would, in a firestorm of publicity, maybe lose my job at Comedy Central and have to survive on unbelievably lucrative theater appearances.
What I'm saying is that I am living almost entirely as a beneficiary of, I think, a certain population's thirst for authenticity, not from its comedy, but from its actual institutions -- news and government. And if that was being satisfied for them -- but that role has always been there.
You know, the jester has always benefited from the ability to be a brat. But if people weren't feeling that they lived in times that were really inauthentic, it might not resonate. We might not have – but don't confuse our success with any real momentum. That's going to have to come from, unfortunately, somewhere else.
RFE/RL: There was a fantastic political satire show in Russia, which was done based on [the satirical British political puppet show] "Spitting Image." [The popular show "Kukly"] just mercilessly made fun of Putin. And one day, it appears he just had enough, and they are not on the air any more, and they were just driven out. And OK, these people are all doing other things now, too. But that's not on the air any more.
Stewart: No, but you are talking about two very different societies, and...that's what I mean by -- to do what they did in Russia took real courage. That's not what we are operating under.
I would love to be able to sit here and tell you what we do takes courage. Sadly, I don't have that privilege. You know what I mean? I think it takes some skill writing jokes. I don't downplay it in the world that it exists in. But it exists in the world of comedy and TV, not in the realm of social protest and dissent.
RFE/RL: What your show does is a benefit to society, and if your show didn't exist, then...
Stewart: Is it a benefit? But I don't think it is a detriment, and I think it is a benefit for people. I think there are certain people [who] get a cathartic or enjoyable [moment] and it helps them. It is a release valve in some respects. And for that, if that's what we can be for people at times, I am very pleased to be that. You know, I think there is honor in being that little thing on the tire that you unscrew.
'The Power Of Two'
RFE/RL: I don't know if you have a way to know this, but do you feel you are preaching to the choir?
Stewart: I think we don't feel like we are preaching. I think that is the key. I think we function on an internal barometer of what we think is funny. The "music" that we hear is the music of comedy, not the music of political or partisan rhetoric. So what I hear is not, “That does not appeal to our sense of social engineering when it comes to [something].” I hear, “That joke is too wordy. We gotta pull out some of that [stuff]. That B-roll [video] does not match with the thing.” People think that our process is different than what it actually is.
RFE/RL: But do you ever get the feeling you are opening eyes, changing minds, that kind of thing?
Stewart: [Long pause] Opening eyes, changing minds. Opening eyes, changing minds. Um, do I get that sense? Not particularly. I have to be honest. I think we are providing maybe safe haven for some people [who] feel, you know, like they just want to know...you know the power....
I always say that there is nothing more powerful than the power of two. If one person has an idea and you go, "This is what I think, but jeez, am I crazy? Everybody seems to be looking at it in a different way." And then you hear somebody else who says it sort of the way you were looking at it, and you go, "Hey! I'm not a crazy person, I'm just like that idiot on Comedy Central."
This interview was conducted in New York City in April 2006