Jon Stewart on Embracing the Film Festival Circuit, Finding Humor in Drama

THR's awards analyst recently sat down with the 51-year-old host of Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show,' whose first feature film is now playing the fall fests
Wesley Mann
Jon Stewart

Over the past 15 years, through his hilarious and even-handed nightly presentation of current events on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart has become, against all odds, the Walter Cronkite of his generation: the most trusted man in news. But when a 2009 Daily Show interview with Maziar Bahari, a London-based journalist who was in Iran covering the Ahmadinejad-Mousavi election for Newsweek, resulted in that journalist's imprisonment, it was no laughing matter.

Fortunately, after spending 118 days behind bars, Bahari was released and, in 2011, he wrote about his ordeal in Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, which was co-authored by Aimee Molloy. At that point, the "real" journalist asked the "fake" journalist to help bring his story to the attention of Hollywood. Stewart, however, decided it would be easier to adapt and direct the film himself. And that is how he wound up at the Telluride Film Festival with the film Rosewater — and how I wound up sitting across from him.

Stewart's dark drama, which he managed to sporadically inflect with his incomparably dry humor, and which will next screen at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday, stars Gael Garcia Bernal and will be released theatrically by Open Road Films on Nov. 7. I asked Stewart about his first film festival experience; the roots of his interest in politics and comedy; his role models; why he felt compelled to tell Bahari's story as a film; how he feels knowing how many Americans count on him for their news; whether he'd ever consider running for elected office; and whether funny people are born that way or can learn to become that way.

Has the film festival experience been fun? I imagine it's a different sort of experience for you.

It's different. It's been a wonderful experience. It's a bit of a retreat, this festival, so there's a sense of shared purpose and ethos. It feels like a very embracing environment, which, for somebody coming into something like this for the first time, is awfully nice.

This is kind of a strange question—

Sagitarrius. Oh, not that?

Where does your interest in and passion for politics and world affairs come from? Did you grow up in a family where they were always discussed?

Not really. I was always, I think, just drawn to the complexity of it. I think what first drew me to it was realizing, when I was young, that history was not black and white, you know? There's a history that is taught in the books: this side was good, this side was bad — there's a clarity to it. But when you have that epiphany, which can come at any age — and, for me, I think it was probably ninth grade or eight grade — you realize that the stories are a lot more complex and a lot more nuanced than what you had originally been led to believe. And, as that dogma wiped away, it opened up this entirely more interesting world. And that, to me, was fascinating. I think maybe that's where it came from.

And was comedy something that preceded that?

I mean, unfortunately, I think that is a brain defect more than it is anything else. I liken it to — there are certain people that are able to think musically or artistically, and I think, for me, for as long as I can remember, I've always processed things through punch lines and pratfalls. It just feels like the natural mechanism through which my brain works.

Before you ended up doing what you now do, was there somebody whom you regarded as a role model or who had done the kind of thing that you wanted to do? I remember being at Brandeis University, and we had a kid whose thesis was that Jon Stewart is the successor to Will Rogers.

No. I'll be honest with you: I did not grow up aware that show business or that type of thing was a possibility. I think Kurt Vonnegut probably would be the closest thing to it. I loved these explorations of dystopia and humanism and [Aldous] Huxley and those authors. I think they're probably closer to what informed that worldview, more than a comedian. I mean, I loved Steve Martin and Woody Allen and Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. But I never took it as an idea: "That's something I could do." [New York Mets shortstop] Buddy Harrelson was probably closer to that for me, you know?

On The Daily Show, you deal with stories of social injustice on a nightly basis. Why is Maziar Bahari's the one that you decided to make a film about?

Well, obviously the connection between the show and Maziar, and then becoming friendly with Maziar, and his ability to maintain his grace and humor throughout it is just so compelling to me. And some of it was just happenstance of not understanding how the film business works and trying to get a script going [by someone else, as a favor for Maziar] faster than the way it was going. I ended up writing it myself based more on impatience than anything else.

Having not previously been through the process of making a film, how did you find it? Was it jarring? Was it pleasant?

I think I was very fortunate, in that the people that I was involved with were able to compensate for my inexperience. I could lean on them. I have a feeling that, with perspective on the industry, I would view this as a very fortunate and much easier process than is the norm — some based on the necessity of my schedule, but a lot based on [cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski and [film editor] Jay Rabinowitz and [production designer] Gerry Sullivan and Gael and Maziar and all of the people that were involved.

Was there a part of the filmmaking process that you enjoyed the most?

I gotta tell ya, craft services doesn't suck. A little table where you've got a basket of apples every day? C'mon! The film business ain't basic cable; it's pretty sweet. You know, there are challenges in topical comedy [i.e. The Daily Show], but it's also forgiven in its — I hate to say — disposability. Certainly you don't have time to wallow in pity over not being able to execute something the way you wanted to or in other things. And, by the same token, there's not much time to celebrate, either. For the most part, the process overwhelms everything else. But for this [filmmaking], there are moments of consideration that you don't necessarily get elsewhere, where you feel like you can arrive at something that feels more complete.

In Rosewater, despite dealing with a very dark story, you still manage to incorporate the sort of humor that people associate with you, including a few digs at New Jersey.

But a lot of that is because humor and dance and those types of things are sort of the essential building blocks of humanity. And Maziar's ability to retain that in his imprisonment is what drew me to it, so that's really a reflection of him, not me. I understand that people might think, "Oh, sure, you're The Daily Show, so you're gonna make some jokes!" But that's based much more on his ability to use absurdity as a tool for himself to alleviate the pressure. 

As the screenwriter, did you feel pressure about the amount of humor that you included — bout where the line was between incorporating enough humor to make a dark story bearable and incorporating so much humor that you lose focus of the seriousness of the story?

Well, yeah. Anytime you're — and films always do this — layering in a variety of emotions and actions and things like that, you're looking to balance it and make it flavorful without being discordant. You don't want people to be like, "Really? Enough with the fart jokes! We're in an Iranian prison!" So it's about finding it organically, as opposed to imposing it. You know, you try not to impose a falseness on any of those moments but allow them to exist.

I know that you've always been very humble about — and really pooh-poohed — the fact that so many Americans get their news from you, but we know that many do. So I wonder if now, when you're doing The Daily Show or working on a project like this, you feel a greater sense of responsibility or pressure than you did when you were first starting out and people were still discovering you.

I mean, I feel a responsibility to Maziar and his story — for me, that's paramount. I've always felt that you can control only your intentions and only your execution based on those intentions and based on the process that you've developed. Once you release it out there, how people digest it is entirely — it belongs to them, and I can't presuppose that, and I can't design something for that purpose, so I try and stick to those aspects that I have some modicum of control over.

This film looks at Iran, but that's just one of what someone recently referred to as the three big "I" issues at the moment — Iran, Israel and ISIS. As somebody who follows the world events very closely, what concerns you the most about the world today?

As emperor, I believe — [Laughs.] I think the world has always been in flux, and I think our focus should be on the pragmatic realities of it but without a loss of a feeling of optimism. Right now, it's about tensions — it's about existing tensions and pendulum swings between, right now, extremism and authoritarianism and the courage of the people on the street to forge a way beyond that. And that tension is going to have its volatility and its horrors and its triumphs, and there is no perfect end goal. But I've always believed that the types of oppression that occur there are not sustainable, and I think history bears that out, to some extent. Generally, we move toward something better. People want that.

You were just joking about "emperor," but, in all seriousness, would you — as a socially conscious, knowledgeable person — ever consider consider running for elected office?

Oh — no. No. I have great respect for people that are able to navigate that world and to accomplish things within that world, but it's utterly alien to what I think I might be decent at, and I think I would more than likely cause a lot of problems and don't want to do that.

Well, Bill O'Reilly, whom I know you have a sort of friendship with, in a way, answers that question by saying that he feels he has more influence from the seat that he currently holds. Do you feel the same way?

I honestly don't think, for me, the equation is, "Where do I have the most influence?" but "What do I feel most comfortable doing?" I like to challenge myself creatively and do various things. It [what he currently does] is, in some ways, a relatively selfish pursuit; I really like writing jokes about things I care about or telling stories about things I care about.

Imagining your life five years from now, do you see yourself still telling those jokes and stories through The Daily Show or through more films or something else?

I'll be honest with you: For me, I generally tend to exist within the time frame that I'm in. If you want to know who was on the show Thursday, I'm probably not gonna be great at telling you that, and if you want to know who's on the show next Monday, I'm not gonna be too great at telling you about that. But I can tell you what we're doing today and how we're gonna get there. I'm not great at the big picture, unfortunately.

Just one last question, which I feel I have to ask you: Are people born funny, or can they learn to be funny?

Oh, like anything, hopefully I'm better at what I do now than I was. That being said, it's a form of language that makes sense to me. I could take years and years of musical training, and I'm sure I could approximate a music-like product, but I will never be a musician — I just don't have that ability. And so I think it goes along with that. You can learn competence, but I'm not sure you can learn inspiration.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg