This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jon Stewart arrives for breakfast in early August at a coffee shop near The Daily Show‘s 11th Avenue studios wearing his customary uniform: loose-fitting khakis, a lived-in T-shirt (gray but might have been black 10,000 washes ago) and a Mets cap (he’s a long-suffering fan). This is less a neighborhood than a postindustrial wasteland of warehouses and fortresslike offices, the rumble of UPS trucks broken up by the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages making their way to Central Park South. The stables are nearby, and as you get closer to the Daily Show studios, you occasionally can catch the unmistakable whiff of manure.
This January, Stewart, 51, will have been at Daily Show — the televised public square for legions of disaffected liberals — for 16 years. And so after nearly two hours, during which we discuss his upcoming film, Rosewater, growing up “divorce-poor” in suburban New Jersey and a couple of high-profile departures from Stewart’s fold (John Oliver, Stephen Colbert), I ask him how long he plans to keep doing it.
“Why? What did you hear?” he asks in a tone of mock seriousness. “Are you letting me go? Is that what this interview has all been leading up to? Do you have a note from my boss, I’m out?”
And then he shrugs: “Yeah, I don’t know.”
With the release Nov. 7 of Stewart’s feature directorial debut, Rosewater — which will premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and also will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8 — and the shifting landscape of late-night comedy, it’s natural to wonder whether America’s foremost political satirist might be ready to forge a new path.
Is he still happy doing The Daily Show? Another shrug: “Uh, yeah. I mean, like anything else, you do it long enough, you will take it for granted, or there will be aspects of it that are grinding. I can’t say that following the news cycle as closely as we do and trying to convert that into something either joyful or important to us doesn’t have its fraught moments. But there will come a point where I’m sure …”
He trails off.
The truth is, he was not planning to direct Rosewater or even write the screenplay, which is based on Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari‘s memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, about Bahari’s 118-day incarceration inside Iran’s notorious Evin prison. But their shared fate probably was cemented when Bahari — who ran afoul of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard while covering the Green Movement and the 2009 elections for Newsweek — was arrested days after appearing in one of Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones‘ field pieces from Tehran. Bahari’s interrogator used the clip — titled “Persians of Interest” and which featured Jones playing a belligerent “spy” interviewing Bahari and two prominent Iranian activists — as proof that Bahari was colluding with foreign meddlers and engaging in “media espionage.” (Freedom Movement leader Ebrahim Yazdi and pro-democracy activist Mohammad-Ali Abtahi were the others interviewed; they also were arrested, though both were released a short time later.)
“I don’t think that Jon felt responsible for my arrest,” says Bahari, who now lives in London with his wife and daughter, born eight days after he was freed from Evin on Oct. 17, 2009. “But I think he felt personally invested in the story because his name came up in a dark interrogation room in a prison in Iran.”
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And so Stewart agreed to look at the galleys for Bahari’s book about his ordeal; Bahari hoped that Stewart’s connections would open doors to a film adaptation. Stewart did reach out to several screenwriters, as did Bahari’s agent at ICM. But, as Bahari notes, his story “is not the usual Hollywood project. It was Jon Stewart going to people and saying, ‘I have a story about press freedom and an imprisoned Iranian journalist.’ I guess they gave him a funny look and said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you.’ There was a lot of procrastination and suspicion about the whole project.”
Stewart declined to say whom he attempted to enlist in writing the screenplay. But that obligatory Hollywood dance went on long enough — about six months, he says — to exhaust his patience. “I was unfamiliar with the filmmaking process, which can be very long,” he says diplomatically. “And I’m not built for that. Ultimately, I said to Maziar, ‘I feel like I know a path through this. I think I have a sense of what the individual story is but also what the larger thrust is. Let me just go f—ing write this and let’s be done.’ “
He wrote on the weekends and during dark weeks on The Daily Show, mapping out the structure with index cards on a board in his office.
“I was working from a brilliant book,” he says. But the book toggles back and forth between Bahari’s ordeal in Evin and the efforts of his fiancee and colleagues to secure his release. Once Bahari is arrested, Stewart confines the action to Evin. “The difficulty was just a structural one: How do you create a more dramatic narrative arc?” he explains. “As I said to Maziar, ‘I’m going to make you slightly more cowardly so I can make you more heroic at the end.’ ”
Stewart had written a few books but never a screenplay, so he sought out such Hollywood acquaintances as J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard as sounding boards, sending them his first draft.
“I read it, and it did not feel like it had first draft-itis at all,” says Howard. “It felt fluid and tight and beautifully realized.”
Once Stewart had written the screenplay, he says, directing became to him a “natural extension” of the creative process. “One of the things about being a stand-up and doing your own show is, you are accustomed to a certain level of material control,” he says. “And at that point in the process, I was loath to give that up.”
The five-week shoot in Amman, Jordan, during the summer of 2013 required a hiatus from Daily Show (his first — Oliver filled in as host) and considerable time away from his wife, Tracey, and two children, Nate, 10, and Maggie, 8. And so it was something of a cinema bootcamp for Stewart as well as for Jordan’s still-nascent film community. (Israel, despite its well-established production infrastructure, never was considered as a location, says Stewart; “You’ve already got a Jewish guy directing it. They’re already putting out seven-minute pieces, the Iranian press, that I’m a CIA and a Mossad agent. So the last thing we want to do is add fuel to that.”)
After its Telluride premiere (Stewart skipped the Emmys to prep for the fest), Rosewater will be shopped to the international market in Toronto — and likely will play in some Middle Eastern countries, though not Iran, with which the U.S. has no trade relations. Financed by Gigi Pritzker‘s OddLot Entertainment (with Scott Rudin producing), it was made on a tight budget of $5 million. So when they needed 800 extras for a riot scene at the pro-government Basij headquarters, they launched a tongue-in-cheek social media video campaign that had Stewart pledging hugs in exchange for an afternoon’s work. Stewart also relied heavily on the considerable experience of his crew and cast, especially Gael Garcia Bernal, who stars as Bahari and has himself directed a feature and several short films.
“I don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to articulate [my] intention in a film sense. My vocabulary is basic cable,” explains Stewart. “The thing that I tried to establish early on was, trust your discomfort. If I’m saying something, and in your head you’re going, ‘Oh really? Because that will f— us. That will ruin our schedule.’ Trust that discomfort and make sure you articulate that to me. Because one thing I am good at is making a new plan. That’s the nice thing about basic cable that is different than film: Everything we do is pretty disposable. If one avenue is blocked, it doesn’t feel like a defeat to go, ‘Well, let’s try it this way.’ I think in film they’re much more accustomed to, it’s not rigidity, but a depth of conviction of a particular way to do something.”
This especially is true among A-list directors, I point out. A smile creeps across Stewart’s face: “Of which I am not. So right there I had nothing to be confident about.”
The days were long — 14 hours, six days a week. “Every day was hard,” he says. There also were cultural considerations; filming commenced during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which is marked with a month of fasting.
“They’ve followed some idiot out into the desert,” says Stewart, referring to himself. “It’s 100 degrees out. We’re in an operating Jordanian prison. And half the crew is not eating. I just spent the first week apologizing to everyone.”
It was not until about 10 days into shooting — he began with the prison scenes so that Bernal could come to the set having lost weight and slowly put it back on for the pre-prison section that opens the film — that he realized “we had a movie.” That epiphany came with a pivotal scene during which the frustration of Bahari’s interrogator, played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, explodes in a torrent of rage that culminates, ironically, in the interrogator ordering Bahari to call his wife and tell her to stop campaigning for his release or, as he puts it, “talking shit.” It is the moment that Bahari’s despair and isolation finally lifts. The interrogator screams, he beats Bahari and then thrusts the phone at him and says, almost sheepishly, “And you have to dial 9 to get out.” It’s one of the many scenes that is punctuated by Stewart’s humor.
“The comedy comes from the contradictions and the ridiculousness of the situation,” observes Bernal. “That’s what he does on his TV show as well. He points out the most intense angle of the contradictions.”
The scene ends with Bahari learning that he is having a daughter; his then-fiancee, Paola Gourley, was pregnant when he was arrested. When Bahari is taken back to his cell, his joy pours forth in a languid samba to Leonard Cohen‘s “Dance Me to the End of Love” as his flummoxed guards watch on surveillance monitors. Cohen allowed the production to use his music, but Stewart’s original idea was to have Cohen himself in the cell with Bernal.
“That was the thing we could not get him to do,” says Stewart of Cohen. “Which, by the way, is a completely reasonable reaction: ‘Hey, Leonard, do you want to leave your tour, just for the day, fly to Jordan and sit in a solitary cell with a guy and play “Dance Me”? Would that be cool?’
“So I told Gael: ‘I’m going to stick [director of photography] Bobby [Bukowski] in there with an easy rig, and I’m going to play you this song. Knock yourself out.’ And he delivered that dance in one take. He and Bobby created a chemistry in that room that was just wonderful, man.”
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As the film hits the festival circuit, current events have put it into an extreme and gruesome new context. When members of the militant group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) beheaded American photojournalist James Foley in Syria in August and uploaded the video to YouTube, Stewart was devastated by the footage. But he rejects the notion that Foley’s death could render the Rosewater story less urgent for potential moviegoers. “I’m taken by the bravery of anybody who puts themselves in harm’s way to bear witness,” he says. “But it strikes me as a commerce question, not a real question: Do you think people aren’t going to like your movie or go see your movie because this man was beheaded? It’s the last thing anyone should be concerned about. Both of these people, all of these people in these situations, suffer greatly.”
Stewart is ready for the range of criticisms he will face for a film about such controversial issues — including for decisions like casting a Mexican actor to play an Iranian. “I saw some great Iranian actors,” he says, “but because I know Maziar, I felt like I was casting a person. The one thing that I was really having trouble finding was someone who was able to have that distance, who, within the horror of what was happening to them, maintained a certain light. And when Gael came in to read, it was kind of immediate.” (Well-regarded Iranian actors Shohreh Aghdashloo and Golshifteh Farahani play Bahari’s mother and sister, respectively.)
Iran’s state-run media already has started its campaign to discredit Rosewater, calling it “anti-Iranian,” “ultra-formulaic,” conceived by the “Zionist lobby” and commissioned by Stewart’s “masters,” among them the “Jewish family Pritzker.”
“The suggestion is that the CIA and Zionist lobby funded this … ” sighs Stewart. “I guess I’m still waiting for the money.”
Back at The Daily Show, Stewart returned to an altered landscape. Oliver mostly had held the show’s ratings and proved his own star quality: Three months after Stewart returned to the anchor chair, HBO executives announced they were giving Oliver his own show — Last Week Tonight, which premiered in April.
“[Jon] definitely believed in me more than I believe in myself,” says Oliver.
Then, on April 10, another shoe dropped. Colbert, who has spent nearly nine years perfecting his conservative blowhard pundit persona on The Colbert Report — the show that follows Daily Show on Comedy Central and also is produced by Stewart — was named to replace David Letterman on CBS’ Late Show.
“I had been on him for years for that,” says Stewart. “I’ve always thought that the long game for him was a show like [Late Show]. He brings elements of Parr and Carson and Kovacs and silliness and song and dance but also real intellectual curiosity that is a wonderful novel combination for that format. I think there’s been a beautiful arc to [Colbert Report]. But it was time.”
Colbert tells me that he talks to Stewart “about every major career decision.” He notes that their real parting was in 2005, when Colbert left to start his own show. “I wanted someone to give me the ball, but I didn’t want to not work with Jon,” he says. “And they gave me everything I wanted; they let me be my own man, but I got to still be with my friend and the guy whose work and example I admired. That was the real discussion; Late Show wasn’t much of a discussion.”
Colbert will depart in December; his 11:30 p.m. slot on Comedy Central will be filled by Larry Wilmore‘s Minority Report, which Stewart will executive produce, just as he has with Colbert. Of course, Stewart was courted for the Late Show job in 2002, when Letterman was considering leaving CBS for ABC. And in 2003 there were discussions with ABC executives for the slot that eventually went to Jimmy Kimmel. But he says he was cured of those aspirations by the dismal experience he had with his eponymous MTV show in 1993; it was moved to late-night syndication in season two, where it languished in 2 a.m. slots throughout much of the country before being canceled in 1995. Letterman was Stewart’s final guest.
“That tends to leave a mark between your eyebrow and your ear,” says Stewart. “I wish it were more like a Harry Potter lightning thing, a sign of surviving. Once your name is on a show and they lock the door on you, you tend to remember that. This is not meant to be self-deprecating, but in the same way I feel about my acting, I just don’t feel that I’m particularly well-suited for it, for all that you need to do.”
Stewart enjoys a tremendous amount of autonomy at Comedy Central, where his show is the linchpin in the network’s late-night business. And network executives have paid dearly to keep him; in July 2012, he signed a new contract worth a reported $25 million to $35 million annually that takes him into the middle of 2015. The Daily Show still is the top-rated late-night show among young men, outrating late-night leader Jimmy Fallon with that audience. But the show’s influence reaches far beyond the 2.2 million viewers tuning in each night. It’s a digital phenomenon and a coveted stop for politicians. The president has appeared six times, including after his disastrous 2012 debate in Denver. And Stewart has admirers across the political spectrum.
“He’s very quick,” says Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Stewart’s frequent sparring partner. “You don’t know where he’s going to go. It’s fun. It’s like walking a high wire. But he’s not mean-spirited. Some of the others on the left are looking to diminish you. He wants to beat you, he wants to play to his audience, but he doesn’t do it in a mean-spirited way.
“I’ve never understood why he wasn’t in the forefront of the late-night network guys because he actually listens to you when you talk,” O’Reilly adds. “He’s not thinking about what the next question is; he’s actually listening to you.”
Stewart may keep his ears open, but he also speaks out on topics that might be too risky for a late-night network show. Most recently, he stirred up trouble with a widely circulated July 14 segment that examined the “asymmetrical” nature of the Israel Defense Forces’ incursion into the Gaza Strip. Noting the Israeli military’s practice of warning “Gaza’s residents of imminent bombing with a smaller, warning bombing, an ‘amuse-boom,’ if you will,” he then asked incredulously: “And then at that point, what are Gazans supposed to do?! Evacuate to where? Have you f—ing seen Gaza?” he said, his voice rising as a map of the region appeared in a graphic next to his head. “Israel has blocked this border. Egypt blocked this border. What are they supposed to do? Swim for it!?”
The piece set off a flurry of counterattacks from neocons and Israel hawks; some resorted to that tiresome trope of the self-hating Jew.
“Look, there’s a lot of reasons why I hate myself — being Jewish isn’t one of them,” Stewart says. “So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you’re pro-terrorist, it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel. You cannot outsmart dogma, no matter what you do. If there is something constructive in what they’re saying, hopefully I’m still open enough … to take it in and let it further inform my position. But I’m pretty impermeable to yelling. As soon as they go to, ‘Your real name is Leibowitz!’ that’s when I change the channel.
“Ultimately, what is it?” he says, searching for that indelible Martin Luther King Jr. quote, ” ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ That possibility continues to push us in the direction of something positive, not negative. That doesn’t mean there are not ridiculous and horrendous tragedies. But I think this is a good time to be alive. I have hope for this country. I don’t lose that.”
Stewart also has little tolerance for the narcissism that pervades so much of the industry. His loyal and long-standing Daily Show team is made up of “people who have this ability but are human first,” he says. “We spend a lot of time over there, and we work very, very hard. And if you have to use a lot of your energy maintaining very problematic personalities, it affects your ability to do what you’ve got to do.”
It took him nearly five years after he moved from New Jersey to New York in 1986 — and countless 2 a.m. gigs at the Comedy Cellar — to feel like he knew what he was doing, like he had a grasp on the mechanics of comedy, the craft of writing a scene, the instincts for improvisation.
“That’s when I started to feel like, ‘I’m going to do this. It may take me a long time to figure out how to make something nice. But at least I know how to do this now,’ ” he says. “The feeling of competence, of Outward Bound, I’m in the woods, I’ve got a Clark bar and a pocket knife, but I know I can make it and survive. Because it was about survival, it was never about will I make it make it? It’s, ‘Can I do this and still eat?’
“People ask me, ‘What are you most proud of?’ ” continues Stewart. “I think I’m most proud of the fact that I moved here. I tried it. Nothing happens unless you set the wheels in motion. So to me, that was everything — whether those wheels squeaked a lot or didn’t move sometimes didn’t matter. I could walk home from a comedy club at three in the morning, no money, after I bombed in front of four Dutch sailors and was like, ‘Yes!’ I loved … every … minute … of it.”
If Stewart is not thinking about a successor for Daily Show, it seems important to him that it remain viable after he’s gone. “Look, there’s only so many ways that I know how to evolve it,” he says. “I’m sure even at this point I’ve overstayed my welcome to a good number of people.”
Stewart, explains his friend Jerry Seinfeld, who knows from well-timed exits, “is very pure in his motivations. Most people in my business have an artistic side and a business side. And Jon really seems to be much more focused on the artistic. As long as it feels right, he’s enjoying it and the audience is liking it, he doesn’t really think about, ‘Where’s my career going to go after this?’ I think it’s just the way he is. When he started doing stand-up, once he was onstage and performing, he didn’t really care what happened next. And when he decides someday to stop doing The Daily Show, he won’t care what happens next then either.”
That’s not to say that Daily Show doesn’t get to Stewart sometimes. It’s not easy to mine laughs out of depressing headlines, and following the news cycle is its own kind of hell.
“Every six months to a year, I would see Jon go through something where he’s just drained by the end of the show,” says Oliver — citing in particular the 2007 revelations of patient neglect at Walter Reed and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. But, he adds, “Jon is just so good at still being funny in the eye of a painful storm.”
Comedy, says Stewart, is his “coping mechanism.” And so I ask him whether he still gets that feeling of abject joy that he did from those early gigs, when he had first figured it all out.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I get to do something that gives me pleasure, makes me feel confident. I’m a lucky motherf—er.”