Bill Carter on Jon Stewart's Next Move: It Won't Be What You'd Guess
No running for office or joining CNN or taking Brian Williams' job at NBC — the Stewart that friends know will seek a better balance of work and family and, at just 52, he's not nearly done yet.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Within 48 hours of Jon Stewart's Feb. 10 reveal that he was putting up a closing notice on his 16-year career as host of The Daily Show, Stewart's manager, James "Baby Doll" Dixon, was deluged with calls from what he describes as the top executives of every sort of interested organization he could have possibly imagined.
That's hardly a surprise: How often does a Jon Stewart, who reshaped late-night comedy and a lot of the American political landscape at the same time, suddenly become "available"? But among the slavering pursuers, only the entertainment outlets stand much of a chance of attracting Jon's attention as he contemplates his next act. Stewart almost certainly will perform in some way in the future, at a decent interval after this summer, when he likely will step out from behind the anchor desk at Daily Show. (His contract expires in September.) Whatever he does, the odds are heavy there are going to be laughs in it.
That means Stewart will not be replacing Brian Williams as anchor of NBC Nightly News, nor taking Jeff Zucker up on the offer to find Stewart a slot on CNN. Nor will he host Meet the Press, as was floated by NBC. That much is clear from my conversations with people close to Stewart.
It also means Jon won't be pondering a run for some obscure congressional district or one of the Senate seats from his home state of New Jersey. Or even replacing Chris Christie in Trenton, when that favorite Daily Show target rumbles noisily off to his own next destination.
Jon himself consistently describes what he has been doing as "fake news," but clearly that did not stop a significant segment of the viewing audience from taking his bravura performances so seriously that speculation about his future now includes discussion of network anchor positions and big-time politics. There is, however, an enormous gulf between what Stewart could do and what he will do. One close friend of long standing calls the speculation that Jon would consider a dive into politics "literally insane," adding: "This is the last guy I have ever met who would run for an office. He is diametrically opposed to that world."
The network news suggestions might seem to make more sense because Stewart has strong views about the failings of the news media: He has pounded them like a personal pinata, skewering every folly and grotesquerie they have perpetrated. And, of course, he has looked completely professional behind that anchor desk, even when firing off four-letter bon mots. More impressively, he has proved often to be a skilled interviewer, always prepared (he reads the books) and frequently more on point than most tenured network newspersons.
Ask Kathleen Sebelius how she felt after he carved her up over Obamacare: "I'm going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you're going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we'll see which happens first." Or, on the other side of the spectrum, ask Mike Huckabee where it hurts after Stewart sliced him open for the hypocrisy of playing bass for Ted Nugent while criticizing the performances of Beyonce: "You can't single out a corrosive culture and ignore the one that you live in because you're used to it."
That type of bare-knuckled interviewing sounds like an inspired form of journalism to a lot of people, including me. It doesn't to Jon. He will all but wrestle you to the ground if you try to advance the argument that what he has done on Daily Show is a form of journalism.
I experienced that conviction close up. A few months after the devastation that Superstorm Sandy wrecked upon his beloved Jersey Shore, Jon asked me to moderate a fundraising event at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. He was going to appear onstage with his friend Williams, another Jersey Shore-ite, and they needed someone to ask questions. The evening came across mostly as entertainment, though not entirely. (I do not remember if Brian veered into any of the now-infamous helicopter stories, but he was distracted and concerned that night because NBC's Richard Engel had just been captured in Syria.)
Jon was funny, of course, but I pressed him on one point: Couldn't what he has done on Daily Show be described as a form of journalism? It certainly seemed to be a direct descendant of the great tradition of editorial cartooning: using humor to satirize public life.
Jon agreed that such a connection was legitimate. He recalled the standout historical example: Thomas Nast, whose cartoons brought down the corrupt Tammany Hall political organization. But Jon was adamant: He was not a journalist, nor would he ever be. "I am a comic," he said, repeatedly.
Of course he is. Throughout the run of Daily Show, Stewart has continued to perform occasional stand-up gigs, maintaining his "act." But he also took time off last year to direct a movie he had written. That assignment surely stretched muscles Stewart enjoyed exercising — for a time. Colleagues say the actual shooting process on Rosewater was a gas for Jon. But the postproduction grind of editing, scoring and all the rest left him gassed to the point of exhaustion, chiefly because it had to be done while on his demanding schedule for Daily Show.
That grueling chore did not put him off filmmaking, however. One longtime colleague says Stewart would surely consider writing and directing another movie but adds the caution that the toe-dip into the movie world definitely was not the inspiration for stepping aside from Daily Show at this point in his career. The answer to that lies in exactly what Jon said on the air: He is restless.
With that acknowledgement, Stewart is establishing a precedent of sorts for late-night hosts. Jerry Seinfeld famously called getting a big late-night gig "a pope job" because it has tended to be a lifetime appointment — in terms of a career, anyway. Hosts do not often walk away from these jobs because they want to do something else. They stay. Seinfeld once told me it was one of the essential points of show business: "Hang around. Just stay there, just be there. You never leave."
Jon Stewart is only 52. He presumably had a long run on Daily Show still left in him had he chosen to "just stay there." He is making more than $20 million a year, and Comedy Central would have set up an IV bag filled with liquid gold to get him to extend his stay. He is the signature star of the network as well as a supplier of comedy riches (Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, etc.).
But he had reasons, creative and personal. In his rationale for heading for the exit, Stewart said that he wanted to experience having regular dinners with his wife and two children. "Spend more time with my family" is the oldest cliche in the history of sudden unemployment. But I found no reason to doubt Stewart's sincerity. When he was hosting the Oscars for the second time in 2008, I went to Los Angeles to interview him. We talked in his dressing room in the afternoon after a rehearsal. Around 5 p.m. L.A. time, Jon suddenly looked at his watch and said he had to excuse himself for a few minutes. I then heard him call home so he could be in time to say good night to his two little ones and tell them a sweet bedtime story.
Whatever the next act is for Stewart, it likely will have to leave him more time for that part of his life. A smart once-a-week show for an HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon might appeal. His would-be employers would be wise to pitch a job for a hugely talented comedian who can write, direct, perform and land some powerhouse satiric punches. And make sure he can get home around six.
Bill Carter has covered TV for more than 40 years, including from 1989 to 2014 for The New York Times.