This story originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2008, issue of Entertainment Weekly.
In the midst of re-creating the controversial New Yorker cover illustration of Barack and Michelle Obama for the cover photo that graces this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly, Jon Stewart stops briefly to pose a taste question. As he stands by the catering table in ”secret Muslim” garb, he ponders, ”Would it be weird to be dressed like this and have a bagel, salmon, and a schmear?” Pseudo-blowhard Stephen Colbert has his own worries. Striking his best Michelle-as-Black-Panther pose, he glances at the original cartoon and realizes that he’s ”hippier” than the potential First Lady. Gesturing at his own waist, he moans, ”I could drop a baby like a peasant.”
Other than that, though, their worries are few. Both of their Comedy Central shows just received an Emmy (The Daily Show won best Variety, Music, or Comedy Series, while The Colbert Report took home a best writing trophy), and they have five more weeks of an election battle starring three men and an Alaskan moose-skinner that has given the satirists more fodder than an infinite number of Dick Cheneys shooting an infinite number of friends in the face. We sat down with the comedians for a provocative talk about the political landscape, the way they (and other, more traditional media outlets) cover it, and whether or not we’ll ever see the alleged ”change” we’ve been promised by every candidate. ”Do you mean change we need, or change we can believe in?” asks Stewart. ”Any change is as good as a vacation at this point,” says Colbert, who set his conservative TV pundit character aside for the chat. ”I don’t know if you’ve paid much attention to the past eight years, but it has been a s—burger supreme. If somebody gives me an empty burger, it’s better than eating s—.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Forget the two presidential candidates: The most prominent person in this election right now is Sarah Palin. With the attention she’s getting, you’d think she was running for president.
JON STEWART: Everyone likes new and shiny. We’re bored. What’s great about that is [Democratic VP candidate Joe] Biden is an absolutely eccentric character. That’s how powerful Palin’s story is — it has cast the first African-American presidential nominee, the oldest [non-incumbent] presidential nominee, and a really wild cork vice presidential candidate completely out of the picture. The press is 6-year-olds playing soccer; nobody has a position, it’s just ”Where’s the ball? Where’s the ball? Sarah Palin has the ball!” [Mimes a mob running after her.] Because they can only cover one thing.
Why do you think some people embraced her as a folk hero?
STEWART: I keep hearing that she’s ”like us.” There’s this idea that people who hunt and have ”good” values are somehow this mythological American; I don’t know who ”this” person is, I’ve never met them. She is no more typical ”us” than I am, than Obama is, than McCain is, than Mr. T is. If there is something quintessentially or authentically American about her, I sort of feel like, you know what? You ”good values people” have had the country for eight years, and done an unbelievably s—ty job. Let’s find some bad values people and give them a shot, maybe they’ll have a better take on it.
The easy and prevalent comedic take on John McCain has been that he’s old. Has one emerged on Obama yet?
STEPHEN COLBERT: He’s a hope-ronaut. He’s in a rarefied level of hope where the rest of us have to take tanks up with us.
Is that really a comedic take? Seems more like a compliment.
STEWART: But it’s not, in the same way that the take on Al Gore was “he’s too smart.” Even if you’re satirizing how wonderful they are, that hyperbole is setting them up for an expectation to fail, especially within the American political system now, where authenticity—and apparently mediocrity—are the manna that the populace feeds upon. To set somebody up as if they’re above us, and elitist…my God, you couldn’t do anything worse.
Jon, you’ve had McCain on your show 14 times and have spoken fondly of him. Do you think he’s changed as a candidate as the election has gotten closer?
STEWART: I think it’s somewhat inevitable. The most interesting moment to me was the difference in protocol when he came on the show in May, after he was the [presumptive] Republican nominee. The minute you are your party’s nominee, you are a museum piece that is shuffled around by guys in earpieces. You are spectacularly managed. And I just felt the difference. When you were walking down the hallway, you were now walking into history, as opposed to going and seeing this guy that comes on your show and is a senator and has a sharp sense of humor. So that inevitably changes a person. Once you are surrounded by people who have sworn to take a bullet for you even though they don’t know you, I think you’ve gotta be feeling pretty good about yourself at that moment.
COLBERT: Jon? If it comes down to it, I have a couple of interns I could toss in front of you.
The Colbert Report didn’t actually go to the conventions. If it did, would Stephen have been cheered, or tarred and feathered?
COLBERT: I offered to speak at the Democratic convention. And I had some expectation they might actually say yes. Because when I was running for president last year, they offered to let me speak to get me to drop out. Which is so weird. “Wait, what? Why are you treating me like a real person?”
STEWART: The closer you get to the reality of the elections, the more you see the ranks closing. Everything is in much more of a DEFCON 5 situation amongst the campaigns. Their ability to absorb a bad actor into their atmosphere has dissipated. They’re too fearful.
Many people saw the conventions as little more than a series of talking points.
STEWART: We’re all sort of complicit in forcing them to make those narratives in the first place.
COLBERT: You mean us, or the real press?
STEWART: Everything. The whole mechanism of dissecting their every waking moment has created somewhat of a paralysis. We have drained them of their ability to remain human. Because any human moment will be so fiercely dissected and digested and metastasized by the media.
COLBERT: People can be hung by anything they say. We’ve done it.
STEWART: We’ve done it too. You can kill people all the time for things that are absolutely human frailties.
COLBERT: You can even manufacture the frailty, and then hang them with it.
STEWART: That’s why I don’t excuse what I guess you’d call the satiro-industrial complex from culpability.
COLBERT:That’s funny: I absolve me. I could absolve you if you want.
STEWART: That’s the beauty of having a demagogue on right after your show—he can actually absolve our show, which is incredibly convenient.
COLBERT: One of the reasons I think politicians are very easy to interview is because you know what they’re going to say. I can write the entire interview before I even meet them.
STEWART: We write a lot of our convention coverage before we even go out there.
You guys regularly make a mockery of the 24-hour news networks. Do you see anything good about the format?
STEWART: It’s Muzak now. You ever walk into a clothing store in New York City and they’re not playing music? And you go, “What’s going on here? Did a virus hit? This doesn’t seem right.” Twenty-four-hour news now is this weird companion to my life.
COLBERT: There’s not more news now than there was when we were kids. There’s the same amount from when it was just Cronkite. And the easiest way to fill it is to have someone’s opinion on it. Then you have an opposite opinion, and then you have a mishmash of fact and opinion, and you leave it the least informed you can possibly be.
STEWART: We’ve got three financial networks on all day. The bottom falls out of the credit market, and they were all running around. On CNBC I saw a guy talking to eight people in [eight different onscreen] boxes, and they were all like, “I don’t know!” It’d be like if Hurricane Ike hit, and you put on the Weather Channel, and they were yelling, “I don’t know what the f— is going on! I’m getting wet and it’s windy and I don’t know why and it’s making me sad! Maybe the president could come down and put up some sort of windscreen?” By being on 24 hours a day, you begin to not be able to tell what’s salient anymore.
For years, studies have come out saying that many young people get their news from late-night comedy, and Jon has always pooh-poohed this idea. But your shows are some of the only ones out there actually digging into archival video to prove when politicians are lying or contradicting themselves. You might not want the responsibility, but haven’t you been given it by default?
COLBERT: I don’t know if responsibility is the right word.
STEWART: It’s more that we’re an emotional show, not a political show. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time in s—hole bars in New Jersey with old people yelling at the TV, but that’s what it is. It’s a guy going, “I never said that,” and in the back of the room Elbow Eddie looks up from his Pall Malls and his Budweiser and goes, “That’s f—in’ bulls—! I heard you say it two days ago!” That’s all that is. It’s not a journalistic gotcha, it’s just anger. It’s easy when you’re participating in the discussion to forget that people are watching and taping. Typically, politicians make you go back six months. But now…
COLBERT: I’ve got one for you. McCain said, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” and “Our economy is at risk.” One was at 9 a.m., the other was 11 a.m. Our joke was “You can be strong and at risk, too. Like, a muscleman who wouldn’t wear a condom. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Is this election any different from the last two you covered?
STEWART: I was convinced an Obama/McCain campaign would be measurably different on almost all standards. And to watch it become Bush/Kerry, Bush/Gore, has been one of the most dissatisfying experiences.
COLBERT: That means it’s not an Obama/McCain campaign. It’s a Guys Who Work for Bush/Guys Who Work for Kerry campaign. Both sides have people who are just smart enough to know “We need to tweak this dial right here,” so of course voters are divided 50/50 between the parties. When the 2000 election was down to 14 voters in Boca deciding the whole thing, I thought, “Wow, that’s great! It really is a political science! They’ve found a way to put electrodes in people’s hands, and a probe up their butt, show them images, and say ‘See how they respond!’”
STEWART: That’s why you think to yourself, “Hey, couldn’t you guys tie for $10 million, instead of a trillion? Does it really cost that much money to tie?”
You both have a heavy armor of irony. Does all this ever get to you?
STEWART: This job is the hardest when we are directly exposed to the process: When we go to the conventions, when we go up to New Hampshire—that’s the only time I ever feel like, “Oh, my God, are my glands swollen?”
COLBERT: After the 2006 Correspondents’ Dinner [in which Colbert gave a scathing satirical speech about Bush with the President right in front of him, earning some hardcore Beltway backlash], Jon said, “You touched it. You got close enough to touch it, and it got on you.” Then more than a year passed, and I got kicked off the ballot in South Carolina during my brief presidential run. I had actually been on the phone with people in South Carolina, telling me I was gonna be fine. People were on the phone lying to me. And I called Jon and said, “I touched it…again.” That was disappointing. I thought I could put myself all the way in it and not feel it, but I did. I realized, “I understand, maybe, why people end up not being so good.” Because they get lied to a lot.
Can anyone break through this mess?
STEWART: I worry that those people are there, but we won’t recognize them—or we’ll destroy them so thoroughly that their voice won’t be heard. I just imagine Lincoln out there, and people throwing the gay stuff at him. “And what about depression running in his family?”
Do you think anything will change if the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress?
STEWART: Look at what they promised when they took over Congress. I’ve never heard such hardcore rhetoric. “The era of the blank check is over! And we will send a sternly worded memorandum—nonbinding—to somebody at the White House. Not necessarily the inner executive circle, we certainly don’t want to offend, but…” And then they got in and were like, “Really, you want to eavesdrop? Okay, we’ll let this one go. But this is the last blank check! Unless you want another. But let me say this: The next one will not be blank, because we’ll just write in the memo line. Can we write in memo? Would you be bothered by that?”
COLBERT: One of the things I love about my character is I can make vast declarations and it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong. I love being wrong. So my character can tell you exactly what’s going to happen: The Democrats are going to change everything. We’re going to have gay parents marrying their own gay babies. Obama’s gonna be sworn in on a gay baby. The oath is gonna end “So help me, gay baby.”
STEWART: Then they’ll head right over to the abortion mixer. There’ll be a dance, and then there’ll be a little tent set up outside, just in case anybody wants an RU-486.
There are a lot of issues in this election. The biggest one right now is the economy.
STEWART: We were in this huge credit crisis, out of money. Then the Fed goes, We’ll give you a trillion dollars, and all of a sudden Wall Street is like, “I can’t believe we got away with it!” Can you imagine if someone said, “I shouldn’t have bought that sports car because it means I can’t have my house,” and the bank just said, “All right, you can have your house. And you know what? Keep the car.” [He throws up his arms joyfully and shouts] “Yeaaaaah, I get to keep the car! Wait, do I have to give the money back?” “No, it doesn’t matter.” “Yeah, I’m gonna get another car! I’m gonna do the same thing the same way, except twice as f—ed up!”
COLBERT: The idea that Lehman Brothers doesn’t get any money and AIG does reminds me very much of “Iran is a mortal enemy because they have not achieved a nuclear weapon. But North Korea is a country we can work with, because they have a nuclear weapon.” The idea is, Get big or go home. How big can you f— up? Can you f— up so bad that you would ruin the world economy? If it’s just 15,000 who are out of jobs, no. You have to actually be a global f—up to get any help.
So what do you think is the issue that people will end up voting on?
STEWART: Whatever happens that week. It all depends on when that Michelle Obama “I hate whitey” tape comes out. If it comes out now, it could dissipate by the election. But if it comes out a couple days before, that could be dangerous.
COLBERT: Jon? I have it.