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Jon Stewart On Political Satire In A Free And Democratic Society

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.



Rest of the article + an audio clip of Jon talking about goulash at the source.

ETA: The original interview is from April 2006. Oops.
Tags: jon stewart
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