Late night satire’s biggest secrets were revealed live on stage in Montclair, NJ Friday night as Stephen Colbert interviewed Jon Stewart at the Wellmont Theatre, a fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival.
While the two have discussed their work onstage together before, this was their first lengthy public one-on-one. And despite their 14-year professional relationship, each brought forth stories that surprised both each other and the sold-out audience.
It’s widely known that Stewart executed a shift in the Daily Show’s voice when he took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, changing from a local news magazine format to the issue-driven satire it is today. But that change almost didn’t happen, and Stewart almost backed out of the gig altogether.
“What I did not realize is, a lot of the people who worked there were assholes,” Stewart recalled.
“I had, before taking [the job], some conversations with the powers that be there about the direction I thought we could move the show…. I wanted it to be satirical in the classic sense of the word, not the Spy magazine sense of the word where you just add adjectives like ‘pepperpot’,” he said.
When said when he met with the writing staff the month prior to taking over the show, he “got the impression that that had been discussed,” and he was met with strong resistance.
“I walk in the door, into a room with the writers and producers, and the first thing they say is ‘this isn’t some MTV bullshit’…. And then I was told not to change the jokes or improvise,” he said.
He immediately phoned his agent, James Dixon, telling him to “get me the fuck out of this. These people are insane.”
“How close were you to saying that was it, you weren’t going to do it anymore?,” Colbert asked.
“I had to be talked down from a moderately high cliff,” Stewart said.
According to Stewart, it took about two and a half years for the “natural winnowing process” to leave him with a fully supportive staff.
Another notable insight related to Salman Rushdie’s criticism of Stewart for including Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) in the Rally to Restore Sanity festivities in 2010. The bit featured Stewart, Colbert, Yusuf, Ozzy Osborne, and The O’Jays engaging in a battle of train-themed songs.
In 1989, Yusuf publicly condoned the fatwa against Rushdie after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. After the Rally, Rushdie told Standpoint Magazine that “I spoke to Jon Stewart about Yusuf Islam’s appearance. He said he was sorry it upset me, but really, it was plain that he was fine with it. Depressing.”
On Friday night, Stewart relayed the exchange from his perspective. He said he did receive a phone call from Rushdie after the Rally, expressing his disappointment that they used a performer “who wanted to kill me.”
Stewart said that he didn’t know about Yusuf’s comments at the time.
“So I’m like, I’m sure he doesn’t believe that people should be put to death for apostasy,” Stewart recalled. “I said, ‘look, I’m sorry you’re upset, but I’m sure the guy isn’t really like that. Let me talk to him.”
Stewart called Yusuf, who characterized backing the fatwa as a “misunderstanding”, but immediately tempered that with “although why do you have to insult the Prophet?”
“We get into a whole conversation, and it becomes very clear to me that he is straddling two worlds in a very difficult way. And that he actually still – and it broke my heart a little bit. I wish I had known that. I wouldn’t have done [the bit], I don’t think. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have done it. Because that to me is a deal breaker. Death for free speech is a deal breaker,” Stewart said.
Colbert added that at the time, Yusuf was scheduled to be a guest on upcoming episodes of both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Those appearances didn’t happen.
Stewart and Colbert’s first meeting was at the press conference announcing Stewart as the new host of the Daily Show, where Colbert was already a correspondent. (Watch them tell that story on a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live.) The same night, Stewart had his first book release party for Naked Pictures of Famous People. Colbert picked up a copy, and Stewart signed it ‘To Stephen, please don’t hurt me, Jon Stewart’. “It’s on my shelf to this day,” Colbert said.
In a 2001 episode of the Daily Show, Colbert took on the role of Al Sharpton when the real Sharpton was a no-show for his scheduled interview. Colbert – a massive Lord of the Rings fan – had scored a pass for that night’s New York premiere of The The Fellowship of the Ring Fellowship of the Ring. He was on his way out (“my hand is literally on the door”) when he was called to the studio over the PA system. The instruction was simply, “Sharpton didn’t show up. Be Sharpton,” he said. Colbert assured the Wellmont audience that he was happy to stay behind and accept the task. “It was so fun,” he said.
During the audience question and answer portion, a man who had been in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 thanked Jon for the speech he made when the Daily Show returned and said how helpful it had been in his healing process. Stewart was gracious, but said “I don’t think I’ll ever in my life be able to watch that again,” admitting that he gets choked up just thinking about it.
Another audience member asked the duo for marriage advice. Colbert told a story about how he used to sleepwalk (which was news to Stewart). Two weeks into his marriage to his wife, Evie, he had a dream that she had a tracheotomy hole in her neck, and little blue ghosts kept floating in and out of it. He decided he needed to stop this, so he placed one hand over the hole. The ghosts kept getting through his fingers, so he used both hands. Evie woke up to her new husband with both hands in strangling position around her neck. She responded with a calm but terse “What… are you doing?” He replied earnestly, “I’m keeping the ghosts in.”
Also early in his marriage, Colbert made the conscious decision to no longer accept any unpaid acting jobs. This reached a stressful pinnacle when he forced himself to turn down a role that offered only the possibility of payment, with Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Evie arrived home at the end of the day to find Stephen pacing in circles around the living room sofa, having a bit of a breakdown. She asked him how his day was, and he replied mid-circle, “you’re lookin’ at it!”
Stewart’s least favourite guest of all time is Hugh Grant, “and we’ve had dictators on the show”. Grant spent his time at the studio complaining that he had other places to be. “He’s giving everyone shit the whole time, and he’s a big pain in the ass,” Stewart recalled. Grant also complained to the staff about the clip that was selected of the movie he was promoting, Did You Hear About the Morgans? – a clip that was obviously supplied by the film’s publicist. Stewart recalls Grant angrily asking “What is that clip? It’s a terrible clip.” “Well, then make a better fucking movie,” Stewart said, adding that he would “never” have Grant back.
Colbert said that to him, “the show” isn’t the performance in front of his audience. The “show” is really what he does all day with his staff. “There’s the joy in doing this hard thing,” he explained. “That hard work together IS the show…. I then have the responsibility and pleasure of SHARING what that joy was [with the audience].”
On deciding to pursue comedy, Stewart said “I finally found the plug for my socket. My brain always felt like the rhythm of it didn’t make sense to me in general work situations and school situations in conversation. But comedy, it was like oh, that’s what this thing is for,” comparing it to “The Shot” in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
In discussing how people want to ascribe importance to their work, Colbert said “it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Because laughing is vital, it’s like oxygen as far as I’m concerned.”
And finally, the bromance quote of the night, courtesy of Stewart: “I know Stephen lives here [in Montclair], so he’s being very languid, but I want you all to know… This is the most vulgar, profane, dirty, sick individual I have ever had the pleasure of laughing my ass off with.”