Jon Stewart Is Here to Break Through the Cultural Fog
By Eleanor Laurence
Jon Stewart is no stranger to hosting gigs. Two years after he left his seat behind The Daily Show desk, he’s taking on ringmaster responsibilities for Saturday night’s Night of Too Many Stars, and like any good host, he has particular thoughts on food.
“So, the peanut M&M is unacceptable,” Stewart states matter of factly, recalling snacks found backstage at The Daily Show. It’s the candy’s lack of imagination that bothers him: “There’s no effort given to the thought behind sticking a peanut in there. It seems callous in some ways.” The peanut butter M&M, on the other hand, has his heart: “Now you’ve refined the process. Now you’ve got people going, ‘I’ve got an idea.’ What if we really make something that is additive, that elevates the M&M.”
Stewart is fresh off a Facebook Live in which he gamely stood amidst a swarm of puppies and reminded people to tune into Night of Too Many Stars, using the pups as stand-ins for comedians and actors set to participate in the upcoming benefit. He’s got a scratch on the nose, courtesy of an overly-curious hound, but he doesn’t seem to mind. It’s all worth it to break through what he calls the “cultural fog” and get eyes on a good cause. And because the fundraising benefits NEXT for Autism, the scratch is a small price to pay.
HBO: How do you prepare to host a live event?
Jon Stewart: That’s an excellent question. I get up at 4:30 a.m., I have half a grapefruit, and then, I do some silent meditation in my yurt. I have a yurt.
[Breaking character] It’s funny, the hosting part is always the thing I think about least, which is probably giving you too much information about me performing. It’s really about building the show the right way, coming up with good bits to fill it out and being a good editor. You’re so involved in the production, when it comes time to walk out and say hello to people, you’re like, “Oh right!” During the day, you really try to work stuff out, so by the time you get up on stage, you’re not thinking about it.
HBO: During your Daily Show interviews, you never seemed to need the pre-written questions.
Jon Stewart: I believe that’s a little thing called being unprepared. The funny part with those interviews was, you really weren’t looking for anything other than a human moment… You know, everybody’s out promoting their thing, and you’re trying to break through.
HBO: Generally, how do you break through?
Jon Stewart: The first answer is never the best answer. It’s always, “Let’s dig a little deeper, what if we try…” And then you come to things that really do break through the cultural fog, because it is a fog.
HBO: Why did it feel important to have Night of Too Many Stars be your first big return to television?
Jon Stewart: I left The Daily Show, but I never left this. Night of Too Many Stars is something I’ve been doing with Robert and Michelle [Smigel] for more than 10 years. It’s something I feel very close to and passionate about, especially because of how hard they work to develop the programs, to reach as many people as they can.
HBO: What have you missed the most about performing on a daily basis?
Jon Stewart: You miss the payoff of a notion. It’s nice to get into the rhythm of having a notion, having an idea in the middle of the night or in the morning, and being able to express it, to put it out into the room and let others elevate it. To let them come to the idea from different spaces and bring it forward.
HBO: You’ve used your platform in the past to promote causes you’re passionate about (the Zadroga Act, which provides healthcare to 9/11 first responders). How do you see comedy figuring in the civic space?
Jon Stewart: It’s drawing light to something that you think should be illuminated, as opposed to just drawing light because you like bathing in it. People are busy. And their lives are filled with great things, and challenges and obstacles. So, gathering together a bunch of people who normally draw attention makes a difference. I don’t think, generally, we self-reflect on our role. It’s really more, “This is a great cause, we gotta amplify it as best we can.”
HBO: Comedy can be effective in getting people’s attention.
Jon Stewart: I think that’s right. The problem is, once you get their attention, what will you do with it and what will they do with it? That’s the unknowable.
HBO: What do you hope for those who will benefit from the night’s fundraising?
Jon Stewart: When they call it a spectrum, they’re not kidding. There are people who are functioning at an incredibly high level all the way to people who are nonverbal and self-injurious. The syndrome sometimes closes people off, so it can give others the misapprehension a person with autism doesn’t have an inner life. I think NEXT for Autism’s programs seek to maximize people’s inner life, and their outer life, and bring those two things into harmony. In some respects, the goal of all this is to allow people to connect in the best way possible, not just to the outside world but to themselves.
HBO: How can Night of Too Many Stars further help the cause, creating space for a conversation about autism within popular culture?
Jon Stewart: Autism is really complex and difficult to manage, because it is so individualized. It manifests in so many different ways. By recognizing people with autism have an inner life, you start to realize the value of that inner life with autism.
Comedy is at it’s best when… there’s drinking involved.
The great thing about getting on stage is… the alchemy of the night. The feeling of electricity or non-electricity, but of being in that moment. That’s, I think, the best.
If I weren’t hosting Night of Too Many Stars on Saturday, I'd probably be… watching Night of Too Many Stars, on HBO at 8 p.m. live, and donating.
The green room better be stocked with… hmmm, let’s see. Water at around 56°F. It’s gotta be glacier. Himalayan licorice. The finest licorice in the world.