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Jon Stewart: The SIN Interview

Jon Stewart: The SIN Interview
April 26, 2002
by Ben Domenech
SIN News Editor Ben Domenech interviewed Daily Show host and W&M Alum Jon Stewart, Class of 1984.

SIN: Do you have any especially crazy memories from the last week of classes?

Jon: Not particularly. Everyone went to Nags Head for a week at the end of school when I was there. Not really crazy William and Mary is not the kind of school that you end up throwing a couch out a window thats on fire, or something. I think maybe farting in Swem Library is the wildest we got, on the last day of classes, sadly. It was that sort of thing.

SIN: Every night on The Daily Show, you have lots of people that are college-age tune in

Jon: Theres nothing we can do about it. Believe me, we have tried.

SIN: and a lot of them say that youre their primary source for news. Do you think thats a good thing?

Jon: Probably not, because we make so much up. So thats probably a bad thing to base things on. But I also dont believe that.

SIN: Really?

Jon: Yeah. We live in such a media saturated age, I dont think you could have a primary source for news even if you wanted it. News at this point is osmosis, every time you go on the internet, every time you go anywhere.

And also, you probably couldnt really enjoy our show very much if you didnt have a basic grasp of the news, because were not that thorough in terms of filling people in on whats going on.

SIN: Though you did have H.W. Crocker on the other night, talking about the Catholic scandals.

Jon: But if youre unfamiliar with the scandal, that interview wasnt probably fulfilling enough if you didnt know that much about it.

SIN: They wouldnt get the wafer joke.

Jon: Yeah, exactly. If you didnt know a little bit about what was going down, you probably wouldve thought that interview was pretty horrific. And even if you did know, you mightve thought it was pretty horrific.

SIN: I dont know, I liked it.

Jon: Hey, it aint the chick from Felicity, but we do the best we can!

SIN: I dont know if youre aware of this, but there are all sorts of stories, myths, and legends about your experiences here at William & Mary. I dont know how many of them are really just

Jon: Out and out lies?

SIN: Basically. But I did wonder if you knew about the award we give out thats named after you.

Jon: I just found out about it! Somebody just told me about it. Its for the soccer team, right?

SIN: Yes, it is. The Leibo.

Jon: And its the award for the guy whos not very good, but sorta fun to have around? Is that what it is?

SIN: Its given to the soccer player who best affects teams attitude and morale.

Jon: There you go. In my day, that was the guy with the best pot. But you know, that was a different day, a different time.

SIN: One of the rumors that we have that sort of trickles around here is that

Jon: I once killed a hobo! With my bare hands! You are correct sir!

SIN: Something like that Basically, the rumor is that you hate us. You hate William & Mary, and you didnt like your time here, and you would never consider saying anything good about the school.

Jon: Oh no no no, thats not the case. I didnt necessarily have the greatest time there. But that wasnt necessarily their fault.

SIN: Im sure that could be said of students here today as well.

Jon: Yeah. I was also an idiot. I went to college, I was 17, I didnt know anything. And it is a conservative place, coming from where I come from. You know Im from Berlin in the 20s.

And I did have a sense down there of not fitting in. But when youre that age, I think you have that sense. Id had that sense in my own family, so I cant imagine that I wouldnt have had it down there. But I also made some great friends, and loved playing soccer.

SIN: Well, thats good.

Jon: But it was, for a guy like me who didnt know what he was going to do, it was probably the wrong place to go.

But I enjoy the Hot Holly. And always will.

SIN: Do you think that its strange then that the fact that you came here is one of the things that stands out to students today?

Jon: Well, I remember when I was there, we loved Steely Dan, because he said the words William and Mary in his song. So yeah, of course its going to stand out, at some level.

SIN: They draw this whole line of continuum from Thomas Jefferson to Jon Stewart.

Jon: It aint the Kevin Bacon game, but itll do.

SIN: Do you have any particular advice to the kids who are going crazy outside right now

Jon: Going crazy outside?

SIN: Yeah, well Im in Ludwell, so its over on campus.

Jon: Ludwell! Sadly, youre in Ludwell. Hey, I lived in the one thats right next to there. What's that ones name? Chandler!

SIN: Thats right next to Landrum.

Jon: I lived in Chandler. Landrum was all ladies when I was there.

SIN: Ludwell isn't. Theyve done a lot of renovations.

Jon: Thats right next to that field. The hell is the name of that field?

SIN: Barksdale? Where everyone goes out and sits and suns themselves?

Jon: Yeah, and then the one jackass always has to bring a guitar.

SIN: Youre coming to do standup at the Warner Theatre, in D.C., in May.

Jon: Yes. Yes, I am.

SIN: Do you have any advice for us about how maybe someday the kids here can help in the creation of funny?

Jon: Help in the creation of funny? I thought you were going to say something that had a little moreyou know, help in society. But no, "Do you have any, uh, jokes?"

SIN: You have to have your priorities straight.

Jon: No, youre right, you do. Its the same advice as probably there is for everything you do, which would be dont think about what the result will be, just concentrate on getting good.

SIN: Well, thats pretty good advice.

Jon: It is? For gods sakes. And stay in school. And dont smoke.

But you get what Im saying. Too much of what people do is concerned with the result of what the action will be, as opposed to concentrating on performing the act and doing it well.

That kind of thing. Of course, if you call Linda Lavin youll get different advice. Thats the beauty of William and Mary. It's that you have five people that were in show business. Each one of them will give you a different response. Glenn Close? Shes got a whole different answer.

SIN: Really?

Jon: Her answer is, dont worry about getting good. Just fucking go for the money.

SIN: What would we have to do get a Jon Stewart appearance on campus?

Jon: Ive been to campus!

SIN: Would we have to start fundraising now, or would you come here for like an honorary Ph. D. in Getting Down With It or something like that?

Jon: You know what, heres my fear of coming down there for the Ph. D., is that its actually just a ruse, and it turns out that theyre actually just taking away my regular degree.

Can they do that? Can they take away your degree, your Bachelors, or make it an honorary Bachelor so its worthless?

SIN: I dont think they can. Theyd have to dig up your old final exams and give them an F.

Jon: I think they already took care of that.

I think maybe the perception is that I dont go there for a reason. And that really isnt the case.

SIN: Really?

Jon: Yeah. Im just lazy.

You gotta understand, this was twenty years ago that I was there, so its not like Im going to go hang out at a frat house and say, Damn, beer tastes just as good now as it did then. Im just not much of a nostalgia guy.

But its not based on, you know, any prejudiced hatred of William & Mary. I just found it unbearable, whats wrong with that!

SIN: Maybe part of it is that a lot of people who watch you on TV here can see you at those frat parties, and doing stuff like that.

Jon: Yes. Sadly, that is true.

SIN: I dont know about sadly.

Jon: But you know, there were times... I just remember the social life there being a really conservative place, in terms of social life, not just like politically.

SIN: Im sure its relaxed socially and politically since you were here.

Jon: You know, I can remember crossing the bridge where youre supposed to kiss somebody, and there on the other side of it was one of those street teacher type dudes, saying Youre going to hell! and youre like No, Im just going to chemistry. There was a guy that would just stand around and proselytize.

SIN: Well, he definitely isnt here anymore. Did you finish the triathlon while you were here?

Jon: Now what is the triathlon?

SIN: I dont know if its from after you were here, post-Jon, but its three things youre supposed to do on campus before you leave. Its jumping the wall at the Governors Palace

Jon: Done it.

SIN: Swimming the Crim Dell

Jon: Uh

SIN: ...and streaking the Sunken Gardens.

Jon: Okay, no. "A," nobody needed to see me naked.

"B," The Crim Dell, no. All I did was once was break in the gym at night and go swimming at the pool. But I dont even know if that gym is still there.

SIN: Was it near William and Mary Hall?

Jon: No.

SIN: Was it across from the Chemistry Buildings?

Jon: Yes, that was it. Because when I lived in Chandler, that was nearby.

Good times. You know, now that I recount it, what a time I had! What was I thinking? I loved it there!

But listen. I loved playing ball, there were some really nice guys there. But I also just didnt know what the fuck I was doing with myself. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, let alone being with kids who were not. So that in itself was probably annoying.

SIN: So does that explain the degree in psychology?

Jon: The psychology degree is simply that I was a chemistry major, and they kept wanting the correct answer, whereas in psychology you basically write whatever you want, and chances are you get a B.

SIN: You can get away with it.

Jon: As long as you write long enough.

SIN: The latest version of the Princeton Review calls William & Mary the "bootcamp of academia," and calls the workload "obscene."

Jon: Really? Huh.

SIN: Do you think it was like that when you were here?

Jon: The nice thing about college is that you can be as motivated as you want to be. But yeah, it was definitely UVA without the Fun.

I do think that the academics are what the school was known for. It sure as hell wasnt athletics, and it sure as hell wasnt the social life. But it was also academics in a very conservative sense. There wasnt any Black culture as it relates to, oh, Bob Dylans poetry. It was all -ologies.

SIN: Weve got a Black Studies Department here now.

Jon: Thats what I mean by it was conservative. Not politically, but also academically.

SIN: In their teaching methods, etc.

Jon: Exactly. So, right or wrong, your experience there was more limited. Mine was. Especially for someone like me, who clearly sucked, the fact that it was set up that way was clearly a drag on me.

SIN: Well, Im glad to hear that you dont hate us.

Jon: Oh no, not at all. I have great empathy for you, if anything. And for the kids that go there, you will always have a weird connection with the people who went to the same school as you. It doesnt matter where you are. Im sure that when people run into each other who both went to the Sorbonne, its the same thing.

Theres just nothing like the Go Tribe! Plastic beer cup.

SIN: Youre right. Nothing like it.

Jon: Its just too damn good.

SIN: So far, you have avoided the whole prospect of Suddenly Stewart by staying away from sitcoms, and network TV, stuff like that.

Jon: It helps being a very poor actor. You really do save yourself quite a bit.

SIN: Hey, I liked Death to Smoochy.

Jon: [laughs] You stand alone, sir.

SIN: But you told Larry King that if a network offered you a late night deal, you would take it. Either way, will we be seeing you any time soon on a non-"Battle Bots" network?

Jon: Chances are, no. The other thing Ive learned in my years in this business is, dont look a gift horse in the mouth. And Ive got a pretty rare gig. Creatively, Im left alone, I can do my own thing, theres very little network interference, other than sometimes, you know, You really shouldnt say that about the advertisers on the show.

I get to live in New York, where I love living. I get to see my family. There are certain jobs here, you dont get to see your wife. Im paid a stupid amount of money to write jokes about cardinals flying to the Vatican. This is a very easy business to get lost in, to be satiated. And thats not how I feel. I feel very fortunate about the whole thing.

SIN: So do you consider yourself lucky? Or blessed?

Jon: Well, I dobut are you trying to make me go the Jesus route? I just want to thank God for

SIN: No, though I always wonder why they dont offer thanks when they

Jon: Fuck up?

SIN: You know, like Thank you for making me throw that interception.

Jon: Jesus made me fumble!

Do I feel fortunate? Yes, absolutely. But Ill also say this: anybody that I know who works hard at what they do and is reasonably sane ultimately does okay. And I know that isnt something youll see in a Jack Welch book necessarily, or "Seven Habits of Highly Successful" people, but I do believe its a reasonable recipe for not driving yourself nuts.

SIN: It makes sense.

Jon: If I wanted to be a bitter old fuck, I couldve stayed in Trenton. I couldve stayed sitting at the bar going I couldve done this, or I couldve done that. The truth is, until you go out there and do it, you cant really open your mouth.

So if I think about it in terms of what anything great Ive done, the one great thing Ive done is try. Other than that, you have no real control of the outcome.

SIN: Thats good.

Jon: By the way, thats all in my book, Sayings you can sew on a pillow. Its really lovely.

SIN: Are we going to see another book anytime soon?

Jon: The problem with the book is that they take forever to write.

SIN: Yeah, and you have to use actual spelling.

Jon: Youve gotta actually sit and do them. So Im not sure Ill have the chance to do that for a while. I like to write though, and I enjoyed writing the book. My wife probably didnt enjoy being woken up at three in the morning to see if something was funny.

SIN: Is she a pretty good laugh meter?

Jon: It depends. When shes high, yes.

You find in those kinds of relationships, youre not looking for someone who just will laugh, you want someone who will tell you the truth.

SIN: Like: That really isnt funny.

Jon: Or "you have no ability." Or "youve failed everyone that ever loved you."

But at least you can believe her. But its a very subjective value to begin with, humor; and one mans meat is another mans Carrot Top.

SIN: A lot of people, myself included, feel that The Daily Show in general, and you in particular

Jon: Youre about to fire me, arent you?

SIN: [laughs] Nothat youve taken a comedic direction, post-September 11, that can really be measured as success against everything else.

Jon: In some respects, you function in this idea that theres this post-September 11th reality and pre-September 11th reality. When really, its all one reality. And I think that we wont know thats a delineation point until many years down the line. You can argue that the most important event of the past millennia has been the birth of Christ, but the day after he was born they didnt start calling it A.D.

I think that its a mistake that we make to try to figure out who we are in an era that we dont understand. All you can do is what youve been doing all along, using your intuition comedically. In a weird sense--and this is gonna sound retarded--comedy is a lot like music to some extent.

SIN: That doesnt sound retarded.

Jon: You use your ear, you hear the flat notes, and do your best to try to avoid them. Its an intuitive process, and your barometer is internal. And due to the volume of what we do, you hit a lot of flat notes, but its your gut that tells you what to proceed with, and theres no way to define that in a pre and post September 11th scenario.

SIN: So you just have really good gut checks.

Jon: One of the things that we did when I got here was take outyou know, theres no real edge in gratuitous slamming of people. Theres a certain school of comedy that mistakes edge for the obnoxious. I find that the best comedy, the most edgy stuff is rooted in a way of thinking about something that other people havent come to yet.

To me, thats edgy. Edgy isnt calling Carol Channing a coke whore.

Stepping over the line just to step over the line isnt anything any more. The truth is, in a society like ours, there really isnt much of a line any more. Theres not much you cant do, thats not allowed.

SIN: Especially on Comedy Central.

Jon: Right! But the existence of HBO, as raunchy and wild as someone wants to get, you can always turn that on and see something a lot more. Thats all Im saying.

Im bringing the funk to my old school! Im breaking it down old school! Kickin it real at...what was that place? At the Whig!

SIN: The Whig?

Jon: Thats what they called the cafeteria near Barrett. They had names for them. The Hoi Palloi, the Whig

SIN: Its still there, but they renamed it. We have three cafeterias now.

Jon: Three? You kids today, you have no idea what it was like...

SIN: We have The Commons, the Marketplace, and the University Center.

Jon: The University Center is the new one, I dont know that one.

SIN: Its right next door to the stadium.

Jon: Ah, the stadium. Do they still have those little huts next door to the stadium? Where everyone wants to live?

SIN: Yes, theyre still there.

Jon: Its hard in the lottery, though.

SIN: Yeah, everyone gets screwed in lottery.

Jon: Everybody? Hmm.

SIN: Did you live there at some point? Or did you have off campus hangouts?

Jon: I lived off campus, on Matoaka Court one year. It was a bunch of soccer players in a house. That was pretty much it. Again, if youre looking to hang out, thats not the place to go.

Still, there were some awfully good experiences there. I think.

SIN: As much as you can remember. Well, thanks for talking to us.

Jon: My pleasure.

SIN: And hopefully at some point in the future you can come down here

Jon: Maybe I can come down and be your commencement speaker.

SIN: We would love that. Would you be willing to?

Jon: Sure Id do that! You kidding me?

SIN: How about this year? They havent announced anyone yet.

Jon: Mine was Elizabeth Dole, I think.

SIN: So are there any words of wisdom youd like to bestow on us on the last week of classes?

Jon: Okay, so if youre gonna go to Nags Head, and youre gonna get high... Just wait til you get there. There are a lot of cops on Yorktown Pike. And from a man who had to go to the Court House and explain himself, in front of the judge... Take it from me. Just wait.