Jon Stewart Talks Directing, Drumming, and How Trevor Noah Elevated ‘The Daily Show’ in a Way He Never Could

Comedian and cultural icon returns to the Stern Show ahead of his new political comedy “Irresistible”

June 24, 2020

Jon Stewart returned to the Stern Show on Wednesday, connecting with Howard from his New Jersey home ahead of the release of his political comedy “Irresistible.” The iconic TV star, stand-up comic, filmmaker, activist, and aspiring musician opened up about everything from the manure limitations of his animal sanctuary to why he decided to pick up drumming. He also reflected on his tenure at “The Daily Show” and revealed how Trevor Noah’s ascension to host elevated the show to brand-new heights. Though it’s been nearly five years since Stewart stepped away from the anchor chair, it’s clear he’s continued paying close attention to the world around him and still has plenty left to say.

“I’m like you, man. I like to work, but I was tired of that one grind,” Jon told Howard. “I just wanted to do different things.”

“It’s the art and work of creating,” he later added. “What I get joy from is making things, you know, whatever form that takes. Generally, I’m better at making things that are humorous than are not and sometimes the things I make disappoint, sometimes they don’t.”

The multitude of projects he’s embraced since leaving Comedy Central include not only directing feature films but also a successful stand-up tour with Dave Chappelle and a never-realized animated project at HBO. The latter concept involved parodying a 24-hour cable news network with CGI characters, but current events and high-quality animation proved difficult bedfellows.

“The technology for what we were trying to do wasn’t quite there yet,” Jon said, adding, “I tried to take a form of humor that’s topical and combine it with an art form that’s meticulous.”

He insisted the premise could still work, though, eventually. “It’s gonna happen,” he said. “Somebody smarter than me is going to figure out how to do it right and do it in a way that really makes sense.”

After missing on the HBO project, Jon returned to a pairing already proven to work: collaborating with Steve Carell. The “Daily Show” correspondent turned Hollywood funnyman is the star of “Irresistible,” which is just how Jon always envisioned it.

“He’s the one I wrote it for,” he told Howard. “I didn’t have anybody else involved until I sent it to Steve.”

Howard wondered what it was like to direct him. “Can I tell you something?” Jon replied. “That dude made my life so easy on set.”

Stewart spent about three months working on the script for “Irresistible,” which he described as a Frank Capra-esque story about cynical Washington insiders meddling in a small town election. He told Howard he’s proud of the film and thinks people will find it funny, but he realized it’s arriving at a difficult time when the world is consumed by a pandemic, civil unrest, and more.

“To some extent, Godzilla is destroying the city and I’ve made a charming movie about the perils of urban planning,” he said.

Even so, Jon believed his story about career politicians failing to connect with Americans will resonate now more than ever. “I was commenting on this system every day at ‘The Daily Show,’” he said. “It’s all about how the things you saw on television … was kind of an artifice and a manipulation.”

Indeed, Jon hosted “The Daily Show” four nights a week for over 15 years. During his tenure, he covered—in his own caustically hilarious way—everything from presidential elections to the tragedies and wake of 9/11 and became one of the most influential people in media. Considering how willing Jon was to lampoon the powerful on TV, Howard wondered if politicians ever threatened him behind the scenes.

“It’s somewhat of a media narcissism to believe cultural power is actual power,” Jon replied. “The truth is everything we railed against, you know, went forward, whether we were yelling at them or not. We couldn’t have been more against the Iraq War and somehow we didn’t stop it.”

Though he’s always been open about his left-leaning political viewpoints, Stewart’s skewering often reached both sides of the aisle. As a result, the Obama administration summoned him to the White House on multiple occasions to give him a piece of their mind. “Everything’s funny until it’s your guy,” Jon explained.

The staff of “The Daily Show” may not have made too many friends in Washington, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “We went to these places and saw what that glad-handed world was and realized that if we get that shit on us it’s going to change the way we do the show—and not for the good,” Jon said.

“What I used to say to the show always was, ‘Look around this room. When you leave this show these are going to be the only friends you have left,’” he continued.

While Trevor still doesn’t have as many “Daily Show” episodes under his belt, Jon insisted his successor has already elevated the show. “It’s not meant as a denigration of me. The evolution of show was also about opening our eyes to realities of business around us,” he said.

“When we started, it was—like pretty much everything in late-night comedy—that sort of Harvard Lampoon school of pasty white guys sitting in a room,” he continued. “Evolving the show past that took a really long time. It was a lot of work and often times it came with defensiveness.”

As Jon explained it, inclusivity is necessary to truly change the system. “The reason is when you hire people from this business you generally hire from the interns you had on the show, but any intern who could afford to take three months off on college and spend that time polishing your grapes is going to come from a wealthy background, so all the people you were hiring were all socioeconomically at a very high level,” he said.

That lesson isn’t one Trevor, born and raised in apartheid South Africa, ever needed to learn on the job. “It took 16 years to change at a glacial pace,” Jon told Howard. “For Trevor, it’s a part of him. It flows from him naturally … It makes it better. The show is better.”

Jon has many aspects of his own career since leaving “The Daily Show,” too. Howard marveled his guest had accomplished so in the few years since his departure, including teaming with Chappelle once again for a stand-up comedy tour.

“I love stand-up. That’s how I started,” Jon said.

Howard wondered if getting back into stand-up was difficult, considering how much energy many comics put into perfecting their sets.

Jon conceded joke-crafting required considerable focus, but he also believed it was important for comics to actually live their lives. “You’re always balancing that idea of how to kind of create material, just the mechanics of it, with inspiration,” he said. “If you lose inspiration, then it just becomes kind of workman like.”

When Chappelle is involved, however, the rules rarely apply. Jon likened Dave to a jazz master capable of improvising greatness on stage. “He exists on kind of a different plane. The thing I always say about Dave is ‘We’re all doing standup and he just embodies it,’” he said, later adding, “He’s honestly one of the most astonishing stand-up performers I’ve ever been around.”

Stand-up comedy has become difficult since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but being quarantined at home has actually helped Jon focus on another passion: learning to drum.

“What is this calling?” Howard wondered.

“When I left the show, I knew my brain is not the type of brain that should be left for very long,” Jon said. “I wanted to interact with music but I was not musical.”

So, why the drums? Jon simply thought he could learn it quicker than guitar. “To be able to pluck ‘Blackbird,’ maybe I could’ve done that in six to eight months,” he said. “But I thought, I know definitely how to bang on shit.”

Though inspired by the likes of late soul-funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who famously played with James Brown, Jon told Howard he still has a ways to go before anyone confuses him with a touring musician. “One of our neighbors came by and she was talking to my wife and she said, ‘You know, I hear your son practicing … and I do think he’s getting better,’” he recounted with a laugh.

Being stuck at home might give Jon more time to drum, but it also means he has to cut his own hair. “I took a thatching scissors … because I started to get Jew ‘fro like crazy,” he said, comparing his look to Christopher Lloyd’s “Back to the Future” character Doc Brown. “That’s what hats are for,” he said.

On a serious note, Stewart told Howard plenty scared him about COVID-19, more so after he read up on the 1918 pandemic and realized the technology behind stopping the spread of a virus hasn’t evolved much in over a century. “One-hundred-and-two years and it’s the same!” he said. “And that more than anything is what frightened me about this.”

Much like Howard and Tuesday’s guest Dr. David Agus, Jon has been dismayed to see Americans flatly refusing to protect those around them by wearing masks. “Somehow that got politicized in a way that is very surprising to me,” he said. “The way I look at it is, ‘I don’t know, but I’ve had operations before and the doctor wears a mask’ … So, you know, wearing a mask is tyranny? [They’re like,] ‘I’m not gonna wear it in a store,’ and you’re like, ‘You wear shoes.’”

“I’m not a particularly skilled bomb maker, but I’m still not allowed to go on plane with more than three ounces of liquid, which for someone with acid reflux means I’m throwing away a lot of acid reflux medication,” Stewart concluded.

Jon Stewart’s new film “Irresistible” arrives Friday, June 26 on demand and in select theaters.