Television

The Jon Stewart Question

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Jacob asks whether Jon Stewart is becoming less funny and more partisan, citing his ass-kissing interview last night with John Kerry. I'd say that Stewart lost his edge as an interviewer a year or two ago, when he started rolling out that fake laugh whenever he wants to reassure a guest. The problem isn't partisanship (though there's no question who he's going to vote for): He sucks up not just to Kerry and Clinton but to Dole and McCain, and for that matter to Tom Cruise. The problem is the fact that—in the interview segments—he's become yet another witty but amiable late-night host a la David Letterman or Conan O'Brien. Which is fine as far as it goes, but the boy is not, as my teachers used to say, reaching his full potential.

He still sometimes shows the old fire, as when he ripped apart Rep. Harry Bonilla. But the interviews just aren't a high point of the program anymore. Fortunately, the rest of the show remains brilliant.

Update: A reader points me to Stewart's terrific, scathing interview with The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes. In exchanges like this one—and the confrontation with Bonilla—the host is at his best. I only wish, perhaps a little selfishly, that he'd give us such gems more often.

NEXT: Show Us the Funny

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  1. I find his interviews with politicans to be mildly interesting, and sometimes slightly informative. It’s his interviews with actors that I cannot watch. How odd, that professional entertainers are so boring in person. I suppose that they’re not paid to have personalities of their own.

    I agree that it’s Corddry and Colbert and Bee and Carrel that make the show work. Stewart is also good, when he’s anchoring.

    It says something when a fake news show is more genuine than the so-called real news shows.

  2. I find his interviews with politicans to be mildly interesting, and sometimes slightly informative. It’s his interviews with actors that I cannot watch. How odd, that professional entertainers are so boring in person. I suppose that they’re not paid to have personalities of their own.

    I agree that it’s Corddry and Colbert and Bee and Carrel that make the show work. Stewart is also good, when he’s anchoring.

    It says something when a fake news show is more genuine than the so-called real news shows.

  3. I like that Stewart throws softballs in the interviews. Too many interviewers ask either horse-race questions or “gotcha” questions. Stewart often asks straight-forward how-does-this-work or what-does-this-mean questions.

    The man is an experienced stand-up comic. Those guys have tough skins and their verbal fencing can be brutal. (See Tough Crowd for an example.) If Jon unleashed it, his guests couldn’t stand it.

    However, I would like to see a smart guest knock him down on a few things.

  4. I third anonymous coward’s comments. The Daily Show has to do interviews, but they have never been the high point of the show. The exceptions — the Spice Girls interview, weird Matthew McConaughey (sp?), probably some others I can’t recall right now — have been celebrity interviews where Stewart really doesn’t care about what he’s saying or what the celebrity’s saying. When you’re just looking to fill an obligatory four minutes and you know the celebrity is just out there to shill, some great things can happen. But it’s always going to bit or miss. (Try to catch a rerun of the recent Burt Reynolds interview to see how conducive this atmosphere is to an old style Hollywood raconteur.)

    But political interviews are the worst, becauee politicians are ridiculously guarded. They are mostly boring, and Stewart often struggles just to keep things moving. Sometimes things perk up when Stewart feels strongly about something — as with Rep. Bonilla and the rapid response teams. But I think the same thing would have happened with a Democrat from such a team. For the most part, I think the more significant the newsmaker on the show, the more solicitous Stewart is, because he’s amazed they’re on the show. Would it be better (i.e. funnier and potentially more informative) if he treated everyone like he did Bonilla? Sure. But for god’s sake, that takes work, and he’s just the anchor of a fake news show on basic cable. He can leave the hard lifting to guys like Bill Maher and Dennis Miller, on pay cable.

    As a result, I believe that any politician appearing on the Daily Show is probably bad for the Daily Show. While the appearances of John Kerry and Bill Clinton are near the top of proving this point, I believe exhibit one is surely Henry Kissinger. _Henry Kissinger_ appeared on the Daily Show. Why didn’t anyone at Reason complain about the kid gloves treatment then?

    Anon

  5. I agree Mr. Hellerstein, ‘the fake news show is more genuine than the so-called real news shows’.

    Comdey Central isn’t in bed with the same people FOX et. al. is. Unfortunately, before we know it, the ‘ones-who-want-it-their-way’ will sit on Comedy Central’s face too. And sadly, most folks will never notice the difference.

  6. I actually like the interviews.

    It is nice to see some of these people in a more relaxed setting. The one with the Dem Sentor during the convention (I forget his name) was hysterical. It was great when the Sen said “I don’t know sh4t.”.

    The politician interviews are better than the star ones. Although Burt Reynolds had a great story to tell during his.

  7. The best interview by Jon Stewart was, oddly, Jennifer Love Hewitt.

    He was brutal. It was almost embarrassing to watch because he didn’t disguise his hatred of her or his hatred for Garfield, the Movie.

    But Stewart is a partisan hack.

    His RIDICULOUS interview of Stephen Hayes — attacking him ad hominem instead of addressing the issues in Hayes’ book — made me realize he’s a partisan pansy.

    The fellatinterview (I’m looking for a word that combines the two concepts) last night was just ridiculous.

  8. The one with the Dem Sentor during the convention (I forget his name) was hysterical.

    That was Joe Biden. It was very funny, not because Stewart was hard-hitting (he wasn’t) but because the interviewee was willing to get into the spirit of the show. Same goes for Reynolds.

    I missed Stewart attacking Stephen Hayes, but I would have loved to have seen it. Maybe there’s some life in the boy after all.

  9. Is there a transcript of the Bonilla interview, or what did they talk about?

  10. Jesse,

    The Stephen Hayes interview is great stuff. And if you ask for it, the internet will provide:

    http://www.onlisareinsradar.com/archives/002151.php

    A perfect example of Stewart’s capacity to be dangerous when angered. (The celebrity interview corollary is Stewart’s capacity to be dangerous when he thinks your movie sucks — For example, the Jennifer Love Hewitt interview regarding Garfield.)

    Anon

  11. I echo the remarks that it has more to do with the “quality” of the person being interviewed versus actual Jon Stewart bias. Jon doesn’t want to keep big names from appearing by tearing them apart or earning their hatred (ala the high-larious Spice Girls interview).

    The fact that he threw softballs at Kissinger shows that it’s the wattage not the politics that determines who Jon is nice to.

    i also miss the old 5 questions (but not Kilborn) and Carrell and Mo Rocca.

  12. Thanks, Anon — that was a great interview. I wish he’d do more like that.

  13. Jesse,

    I’ll be honest. I would, perhaps, pay to see “Douchebag for liberty” Robert Novak appear on the Daily Show. I bet it would put Stephen Hayes to shame.

    Then again, I would also pay to have Steve Carrell come back to do just one more Even Ste(ph)ven with Stephen Colbert. So perhaps I have a problem.

    Anon

  14. Stewart is, despite everything, an entertainer and not a satirist. He’s not about to totally make an ass of anyone. If you want that kind of thing, I’d suggest the Ali G show. That guy crosses some boundaries. It’s a miracle he hasn’t been beaten senseless by someone yet.

  15. Comparing Stewart to O’Brien and Letterman is a bit of a stretch. If giving partisan guests a hard time is what you want to see, Stewart is at least some of the way up a road that those two never even stepped foot on.

    Considering the ground Stewart and TDS helped break and the fact that there’s still nothing remotely like them, it’s going to take a lot more than a few boring interviews to consider the guy washed up.

    There’s something to be said about “wattage” of the guests going a long way in determining Stewart’s level of deference. I picked up on this a while ago and didn’t really make it a point to tune into interviews with political heavy hitters.

  16. Anyone have the Spice Girls interview?

  17. Whatever one may think of Hayes and his book, it’s quite clear that Stewart came out on top of that exchange. If you agree with Hayes, then you can say that Hayes was incapable of making his righteous case in the face of Stewart’s debating skills and control of the forum. If you disagree with Hayes, you can say that Stewart thoroughly debunked him.

    Either way, Stewart made mincemeat of the guy.

  18. Seriously. Has no one sympathy for what politicians are doing to The Daily Show? Before politicians decided they needed to be _on_ The Daily Show, it was easy for the writers to shot jokes in all directions, and it was simple for Stewart to mouth off.
    But what do you do when Henry Kissinger asks to be on your show? How can you say no? At the same time, how can you possibly really “roast” the guy? The writes of TDS are not policy wonks or real political hacks, and, more importantly, _they do not want to be_. Politicians give TDS legitimacy, _which is not what it wants_.
    They want to sit in the back of the classroom and lob spitballs. They want to make fun of Peter “Canadian sympathizer” Jennings and Tom “This Generation Sucks” Brokaw. And they’ll give you an interview with folks like Eva Mendes, just to show you how stupid those types of interviews can be.
    But now Stewart’s got to be up to the task to interviewing Henry Kissinger, Madeline ALbright, Bill Clinton, Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, and Good Old Mayor Bloomberg. He has to sit there and pretend their jokes are funny. He has to try to make them interesting for four minutes. But if he isn’t sufficiently “critical,” well, the blogosphere will set him right.
    Pity the poor TDS. Politicians have destroyed a fine institution lacking in all credibility by putting it in a suit and making it lead the class discussion.
    I’m sure they’d be happy letting Wolf Blitzer handle crap like that.

    Anon

  19. I don’t really think Stewart’s become less funny for partisan reasons. Rather, I think he stopped being funny once he tried to start educating the audience instead of just being a smartass. Even though Kilborn’s late show is bland, I always tried to watch it when he was the host. Now, it’s just something I flip on if nothing else is on.

  20. Wait. There was a point where the interviews were worth watching? You gotta be kidding me. I’ve been watching for years, I’ve never been able to stomach the interviews.

  21. Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Steve Carrel, and all the other correspondents make the Daily Show, not John Stewart.

  22. Two separate, but equally whiny John Stewart (or simply, “comedian” as Matt Drudge refers to him…) posts in the same morning? Is this what passes for news at Hit & Run now a days?

    Maybe you guys should turn off the TV and hit the covers early so you’ll be fresh in the mornings.

  23. Wait. There was a point where the interviews were worth watching?

    Did you see Stewart interview two of the Spice Girls, one of whom openly despised him? Still one of the peaks of the show.

  24. anonymous coward, you took the words right out of my mouth. i usually flip over to howard stern during the interview, then come back afterwards.

  25. Is it because as he lands more high profile guests he throws softer balls?

  26. Ass Kissing?

    Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar, Stewart was smoking the White Owl in that interview.

  27. The interviews were never my favorite part of the Stewart-era show, although I did like the Kilborn-era “5 questions.” THe interviews have, sadly, gotten worse lately.

    Still, despite Stewart’s bias, if he could somehow land an interview with W he’d lob feather-covered softballs.

  28. Actually I think bias is part of the problem. The hard-hitting interviews that you praise are essentially him taking on Republicans and their sympathizers, while the lamest (and least funny) interviews are with Democratic Party bigwigs like Kerry and Clinton.

    Even worse, I think “The Daily Show Factor” is starting to influence campaigns.

  29. Yup, I love the Daily Show, I do think Stewart is funnier than hell, but the lameness of Kerry and Clinton clearly showed through. Hell, that’spart of the reason I am not voting for the loser, he’s lame to the point that even France looks like it has a stronger back-bone.

  30. Strange. I thought Stewart seemed rather hurt and taken aback when Mrs. Beckham told him he wasn’t remotely witty.

    I rather enjoyed the interview with Mike Myers, who tackled Stewart, pinned him to the couch and started dry humping him. But then, I am a latent homosexual.

  31. I really want to like TDS with Jon Stewart. I really really do. I love social and political satire. But Jon Stewart’s (and apparently the entire writing staff of TDS) super-left politics and obvious dislike of most everything the Bush Administration does ruins it for me. I avoid the opening ten minutes, because for the last three years it’s pretty much been the same tired worn out cliches over and over again: Bush is “dumb”. Iraq is a “quagmire”. Tax cuts for the rich. Only mean homophobes don’t support gay marriage. On and on and on. And if you don’t have any fresh ideas, just cynically throw the word “Halliburton” somewhere in the joke. Also, Jon is a terrible interviewer. He comes across as too eager to kiss up or too eager to interrupt a guest he doesn’t like (Republican usually) with smart-assy comments. Look, I’m not saying that TDS shouldn’t be allowed to make fun of Pres. Bush, he is fair game. But Jon and TDS still tout themselves as “nonpartisan” and not on anyone’s side. Yeah right. If Al Gore ever gets his liberal cable network up, this show would fit right in. But I DO think the other people on TDS (Rob Coudrey, Samantha Bee, et al) are histerical and always worth watching.

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