Jon Stewart on 'Rosewater,' Springsteen and 'Sexual Tension' With Bill O'Reilly

The 'Daily Show' host on directing his first film, Colbert and the right-wing TV machine

Jon Stewart Credit: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty

Jon Stewart has a week off from The Daily Show, but as he walks into a tiny conference room at the show's midtown Manhattan headquarters late on a Monday afternoon, it's clear he's completely exhausted. He slumps in a chair and admits he's spent the entire day doing press for his new movie, Rosewater, and is beginning to grow hoarse. But he's determined to promote his passion project, and soon enough he perks up. Writing and directing Rosewater is unlike anything Stewart has attempted in his career. It's the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian Newsweek reporter, who was interviewed by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in 2009. During the show, Bahari joked around that he was a spy; the Iranian government didn't see the humor and believed Bahari was working for the CIA. He was detained and tortured for 118 days by the police in Iran.

After he was freed, Bahari came to New York and struck up a friendship with Stewart. "He told me he was going to write a book and then turn it into a movie," says Stewart. "He asked if I'd be interested in helping. Having never done that before, I said, 'Of course!'" 

Did you ever worry this was too big a project to helm by yourself?
Let's see, it was 100 degrees out, it was Ramadan and we were at a working Jordanian prison. I would say that overwhelmed is one of the nicer things I felt. I told the crew over and over, "I don't know what I don't know. Please raise your hand whenever you think I'm taking us over a cliff."

I read you got help on the screenplay from J.J. Abrams.
It was more when I was done I would send it to people and say, "So, you've made a movie. Is this a movie?" I didn't feel like I could impose on them in a notes kind of way. I couldn't be like, "Give me a way to end act one dynamically." It was more like, "Read this and tell me if it reminds you of a movie, a one-act play or a sketch." I just needed to get confidence in its viability.

Had you ever written a screenplay before this?
I wrote one 15 years ago, but I don't think I ever finished it. I'd certainly read that book about screenwriting, so that sort of counts as writing one. 

Did you feel any guilt when you learned what Bahari went through because of comments made on The Daily Show?
We didn't actually know that at the time. He was arrested and went to prison, but this was in the context of thousands of others being caught in these sweeps. It wasn't so much that we thought it had something to do with us. It was more a question of, "Was there something we can do?" We contacted the family of another gentleman we had interviewed who had been arrested. The question was really, "Should we continue to air these pieces? What would you like us to do?" Their response was, "We need to raise the profile." So we kept covering the election. We didn't think, "Oh, my God, the Iranian government has cracked down on people who talked to The Daily Show." We knew there was a much wider crackdown going on.

'Axis of Evil' is as reductive as 'Death to America.' It's all the same shit. It's ignorance-based.

In the film, you pull the curtain back on The Daily Show by showing how Jason Jones conducts the interview. Did you hesitate about revealing the show's secrets?
Maybe we should have, but I didn't even think about it. We don't consider it a state secret. Hopefully, people will get a little kick out of it. ​

Unlike most movies about these situations, you didn't portray the torturers as one-dimensional monsters.
We have a very sensationalized view of what constitutes torture. There's this idea that it's a ticking time bomb and someone yelling, "Tell me what you know!" and then you electrocute them and they finally tell you the bomb is in the school. But there's a banality, a bureaucracy, to it. And there are regimes that build these infrastructures for purposeless torture. They get confessions and broadcast them, but it's for no reason. It's an exercise in existential depravity. The film is set in Iran, but it's not unique to Iran. We put people in solitary all the time. 

Solitary confinement is torture.
I don't think there's any question of that. We have this whole discussion of "Well, as long as they aren't being waterboarded, then it's not torture." But removing stimulation from someone will drive them insane. 

I know you shot the movie in Jordan, but some of the shots really looked like Iran.
It was. 

How did you pull that off?
Uh . . . people on the set have certain connections with people who were maybe in the government there. So we were able to set something up and get that footage.

You happened to be in the Middle East at a time when much of the region started to go up in flames.
Was there a time when the region wasn't going up in flames? Did I miss something? 

Fair point, but it's been particularly bad the past year.
Yeah. We'd get notices under the door from the embassy saying, "We urge all Americans not to gather in large groups or make yourself noticeable." I learned a lot over there. We are, to them, one large bloc of truck-driving cowboy yahoos that like to drop bombs on people. It's two-dimensional on both sides. You know, "Axis of Evil" is as reductive as "Death to America." It's all the same shit. It's ignorance-based. What I will say is that the presence of evil is rare. Malevolence is a relatively rare occurrence. General ignorance is a widespread epidemic. 

Are you tempted to make more movies after this?
I’d like to do one where Maziar doesn't get out. I can just redo it, maybe like Eleanor Rigby where there's three different versions. I don't know. It's certainly not an alien art form to what I've done before. It's an extension of telling stories, and I never rule anything out.

You've been doing The Daily Show for the past fif—
Fifty-three years. We started on radio and then moved it into the television era.

Do you still want to be doing this during the 2020 elections?
Oh, God. I don't look ahead like that. If I did, I'd lose my mind. But there's obviously a shelf life for me. There's only so many times people can see me doing the same shit without going, "We want something fresh." That's just a natural progression. 

Would this show work on a major network?
Sure. I don't view networks being substantively different than cable, though I may have felt that 15 years ago. When people say, "How's he going to make a 12:30 show work at 11:30?" you're like, "Huh?" It's not like you can have a masturbating bear at 12:30, but at 11:30 the bear has to quietly play with itself. Real estate has become less important. What's important now is content.

Stephen Colbert is taking over for David Letterman – did any part of you want that job?Nope. Not for a moment.

I had done a show like that 20 years ago. The people spoke. They felt that was something I should not be doing. They felt, in fact, that I should be locked out of the building. I also wasn’t something that I felt necessarily comfortable doing. I don't think I'm particularly suited for it. 

How do you think Colbert will do taking over for Letterman?
He's going to be tremendous.

Will it work as well with him out of character?
People forget that character is kind of an invention. I'm accustomed to him out of character, so maybe I don't have as large a leap to go. I mean, the reason why the character worked is that underneath it's informed by his interests and his abilities. I think that untethered from his character he'll actually have more room and be able to really deliver in a way that's going to surprise people.

There's a lot of competition and hosting a nightly hour-long show is a tough job.
Let's not be crazy. He has to talk to Amanda Seyfried and then listen to a great band. It's a pretty good gig. Also, he's perfectly suited for it. He's got comedy chops, improv chops, song and dance chops, interview chops. He can elevate the form and bring oxygen to it.

It's amazing to think how long the talk show format has stuck around. It's not all that different than it was in the 1950s.
It's surprisingly relevant. What they are starting to learn is that the fuel of celebrity interviews has probably run a little dry. That's why you are seeing a lot of, "Well, what are we going to do with this guest?" That's because the actual sitting down and having a conversation with them. . .The promotion has become so encompassing that you're seeing these folks two or three times a year in 15 different places. 

That's why it's nice to see authors on your show, or at least not someone promoting a movie. I just enjoy that more.
We do as well. That's why we try to have that one, and I think Stephen will continue doing a lot of that. I think that he will have a very eclectic show.

What's the status of the Larry Wilmore show that you're producing in the 11:30 slot?
It's doing very well. We made some really good key hires. We're starting to build the structure of it, starting to get a sense of where Larry wants to take it and what we want with it. They are putting together a really nice team. 

Will the show focus on current events?
Yeah. It will be more reflective of that and more agile with that than we are.

Did NBC approach you about hosting Meet the Press?
My guess is that they were casting as wide and as weird a net as they could. I'm sure part of them was thinking, "Why don't we just make it a variety show?"

O'Reilly reminds me of everybody I grew up with. He's not evil. It's a mistake not to engage with people.

Did you have any interest?
Not really. I felt like that was one of those situations where someone says, "We like what you do. Why don't you come here and do something different? Maybe something you don't do as well, for us." It was strange, but I understand where it comes from. News and entertainment have melded, in a way. It's not an outlandish direction for that show, but I don't necessarily think that's the best direction for that.

You argued passionately with Bill O'Reilly about white privilege, but afterward you guys shook hands and smiled. Is there genuine affection between the two of you?
It's more sexual tension than anything else. He reminds me of everybody I grew up with. I have real affection for where I grew up, though I disagree with many of the people, and it helps me understand that I have to remain open to argument and contact. People say, "Why do you have him on? He's evil!" But I don't think he's evil. He has a viewpoint. It's pretty rigid. It's dogma. I don't think it's informed, but he argues it well. He has a sense of humor about it. I've certainly had hotter and weirder Thanksgiving conversations with the family where I was kinda like, "What are you? Genghis Khan?" It's a mistake not to engage people. 

Do you respect O'Reilly as a broadcaster?
I think he’s a great broadcaster. I think he understands his audience, though I think it's sometimes to the detriment of his audience.

There's a lot of money in keeping certain segments of the population in a state of perpetual anger and fear.
But they do it in a much more mainstream way than right wing radio. If you listen to right wing radio you feel like they’re going to end every broadcast with, "And so go out there tonight with a torch and a pitchfork and chase down these demons that are destroying this nation."

I think that Roger Ailes' great gift was mainstreaming that nativist, paranoid streak in American politics and putting it on television in a much prettier, shinier box. What they did was change the inflection point. AM talk radio is, "We are being robbed by communists and progressives that are destroying this country. They are a cancer and treasonous!" Fox News does it like, [sweet, cheery voice] "Are we being run by communists? Is it treason what they're doing? Let's have the discussion."

Sean Hannity is clearly just a partisan Republican, but it's not that simple with O’Reilly.
He's a populist with a nativist bent. There's that sort of grand nostalgia that a certain type of populist has for the country that used to exist in this magical state, but that's not actually real. He has this vision of Levittown and how it made him, but there was a bar of entry to that. The fact his family could get that house and build wealth there is a big deal. 

When people scream "I Want My Country Back!" at Tea Party rallies, I can't help but think many of them really mean, "I want my youth back. I want it to be 1955 again." It's almost like they're blaming Obama for the fact the world has changed a lot since they were kids. 
I don't disagree. They also blame Clinton and anybody who isn't a Republican. That's because their vision of the country is so simplistic. You want to say to them, "Yeah, things did seem nicer when you were eight."

Right, as if the 1950s was nothing but stickball and sock hops.
What they forget is that in the 1950s we had a 25 percent poverty rate. We had black servicemen coming back who couldn't get jobs and couldn't live in certain places because of their skin. You cannot divorce the realities of your idyllic Mayberry childhood from that type of injustice, but they do.

Do you think O'Reilly believes everything he says, or does he sometimes just say what he thinks his viewers want to hear?
I think he comes by his views honestly. I can't say I find him to be disingenuous. I just think that, in general, the right has moved so far out in that direction that O'Reilly appears to be almost a Kennedy Democrat by this point. Sean Hannity is probably the most loathsome dude over there. That's just pure cynicism, and it's horrible. Everything is presented in as devious a manner as it could be possibly be presented. 

Would you want to invite Hannity onto your show and engage with him?
Not really. That's probably a shortcoming, but I have no interest in that. I probably should. It would be interesting, I guess.

After all these years of mocking Fox News, what have you concluded about what makes it so popular?
They have a real sense of persecution. I've just figured that out recently. Their feeling of persecution is real. They truly feel the loss of absolute power is the same as persecution. Like, watch them do their "War on Christmas" stuff. It's real, man. There's no bullshit. They are in the middle of Rockefeller Center talking about "They won't let us put up a Christmas tree!" Meanwhile, they're next to a 60-foot Christmas tree in a place with so much Christmas stuff up it looks like Santa's balls just exploded.

And they crush everyone else on cable news in the ratings.
That’s because they're dealing with a very homogenous block of viewers. Ailes is a very good television producer. He's put together a network with a clear-cut point of view. But the audience on the left for something like that would be much more fractured, and not everyone would be as animated by that sense of grievance. It's so interesting to me how the right have a call to victim going, that they are the true victims of all these other groups claiming to be victims. 

They argue that the real victims of injustice are white Christian males.
That's right. That, to them, is the only group that is a victim. In their minds, Al Sharpton has done more damage to the black community than Jim Crow. "Jim Crow is over! Al Sharpton is still going!"

How much of the obsessive hatred of Obama do you think is due to his race?
Oh, I don't know. They had a pretty good obsessive hatred going for Clinton in the 1990s. I think there's a general sense that's run through politics for a long time, a nativist streak that considers the Democrats an arm of the communist party and alien to American values. To them, Obama is the latest iteration of that. But if you trace it back, it was as virulent in other times as it is now with him. People forget, but people would go on the floor of congress and accuse Clinton of having peopled killed and raped. 

In some ways, I think maybe there is a heightened resentment with this idea of, "Why are we event talking about race? The country elected a black president. We are even."

Since you took over The Daily Show, in 1999, public discourse in this country has somehow gotten even worse. Is it ever just too much for you?
It's never too much to bear, but it's annoying as fuck. The hope is that it gets to a certain point where it's such a cartoon that it corrects itself. I still believe in a sort of pendulum swing, that this will embarrass us and there will be a course correction. Fox was one course correction, and hopefully the antithesis of that will rear its head and course-correct in another way. 

Some critics have attacked you for creating what they see as a false equivalency, saying that both sides are equally to blame.
I don't think we've ever said that. Both political parties are corrupted by money. I don't think that's a false equivalence. The Republicans have been incredibly obstructionist, but the Democrats have been bureaucratic and incompetent. That's not a false equivalency. It's just pointing out the shortcomings on both sides. But there is a real reluctance on the left to allow an attack – any criticism is seen as a betrayal. And I reject that. I reject it in a way that you can criticize this country and still love it. You can criticize this country and still think there are things it can do better.

Lorne Michaels has said that Democrats are always more offended when they are spoofed on SNL than Republicans.
That's probably right. When Nancy Pelosi came on the show, we were talking about corruption and money in politics. She said it was only a problem for Republicans. I asked about the Democrats and she said, "Nah, the money doesn't corrupt us." Oh, I guess the money you get from Wall Street and energy companies doesn't corrupt you. When I point those things out, the left goes, "Why are you doing that? You're going to blow the election for everybody!"

Who is your dream guest for The Daily Show?
I've had Springsteen, so I'm pretty much OK. 

I remember sitting near you at MSG a few years ago when he did The River straight through. It definitely looked like you were enjoying yourself.
That was an incredible night. My wife and I brought my son. I’d forgotten how many barn-burners are on that album. When it began and it was really loud, my son – who was just three or four – just started wailing. She had to take him home, so I wound up sitting there all night watching it by myself. But it was a great night. He still manages to fucking bring it. It's crazy. 

What's your favorite Springsteen song?
It depends. When I was younger, it was "Blinded by the Light." Then you get older and start developing yearnings and it's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" or "Racing in the Street" or "Jungleland." Now it's probably "Glory Days." No, I'd say I'm in a little more of a "Lost in the Flood" zone. I'm probably bouncing between that and "The Rising" and "Land of Hope and Dreams." I'm stuck between optimism and stagnation.