Once the king of late-night political comedy, Jon Stewart has kept a relatively low profile since handing The Daily Show hosting-duties over to Trevor Noah in 2015.
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Outside of continuing to advocate for 9/11 first responders and the occasional guest stint on his former colleague Stephen Colbert’s CBS late-night show, Stewart has been relatively silent during the Trump era when America arguably needed his satiric insight the most.
Stewart hasn’t only been playing with his kids and helping raise the animals on his farm, however. He’s spent much of the last few months putting the finishing touches on a new film, a political satire that he wrote and directed called Irresistible.
Now that it’s time for him to hit the promotional circuit for his latest endeavor, the former late-night guru is back in the public eye and ready to share his thoughts about the current political era, Donald Trump, and the state of the union from his own unique perspective.
A new interview with Stewart in The New York Times Magazine reveals that he has been watching the political landscape carefully from the sidelines since his departure from The Daily Show.
His new film was inspired, in fact, by the 2017 special congressional election in Georgia that had Democrat Jon Ossoff facing off against Republican Karen Handel in a race that was been at the time as the first proxy referendum on the Trump presidency and, as such, attracted outsized attention on the national stage.
Stewart changed the location to Wisconsin for his own story inspired by the Ossoff race and made the election in his film an even smaller local race that gains outsized significance at a national level purely for symbolic partisan reasons.
Asked about his reaction to returning to the public stage at this particularly fraught moment in history, Stewart acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation.
“It’s like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar. There’s tragedy everywhere, and you’re like, ‘‘Uh, does anybody want chocolate?’’ It feels ridiculous. But what doesn’t feel ridiculous is to continue to fight for nuance and precision and solutions,” he told The Times.
Stewart takes stabs at both sides of the political spectrum in his film and is resigned to being criticized from both quarters.
“You’re going to have people on the left who go, ‘In the time of Trump, all you should be doing is a Fahrenheit 11/9; there is no purpose other than to destroy the mother ship,’’’ Stewart explained. Meanwhile, ‘‘There are people on the right predisposed to say, ‘[expletive] that guy,’” he continued.
Of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, Stewart had lots to say about how our problems go beyond just the police and the justice system.
“The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community,” Stewart opined.
“They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.”
Stewart expanded his analysis of the potential results of the current civil rights struggle with a larger historical view of how change is accomplished in America.
“Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing,” he said.
“There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don’t even want to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing,” he stated.
“You know, we’re in a bizarre time of quarantine. White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building with rifles, shouting: ‘Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I’m not going to wear a mask, because that’s tyranny!’ That’s six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people. The policing is an issue, but it’s the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them,” Stewart pointed out.
Asked what surprised him the most about the political events of the past few months, the multi-talented writer/director/comedian had a ready answer that spoke to his surprise at Donald Trump’s lack of agility in dealing with the crises he’s been presented with.
“That the Trump administration has not changed its practices. You would have thought that somebody would have mentioned to Trump the idea of rising to greatness. Instead it’s: ‘Why don’t I tweet out that Joe Scarborough killed people? Would that be good in a pandemic?’ I guess his behavior is understandable, because what’s he going to run on, his record? He’s just going to pick at scabs,” Stewart dismissively said of Trump’s re-election ground game.
You can read the rest of The New York Times Magazine‘s interview with Jon Stewart, including more about his new film and about his opinion of Joe Biden’s campaign on the newspaper’s pay-wall protected website here.
Original reporting by David Marchese at The New York Times Magazine.
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