Jon Stewart cautions against extreme changes in the Democratic Party: 'People won't stand for chaos'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

You can take Jon Stewart out of The Daily Show, but you can’t take The Daily Show out of Jon Stewart. Five years after handing over Comedy Central’s beloved late night talk show to Trevor Noah, the comedian once again takes aim at his two favorite topics — politics and the media — in the new political satire, Irresistible. Now available to rent via on demand services like Amazon and FandangoNOW, the movie stars former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell and Rose Byrne as competing Democratic and Republican party operatives who bring their big-money campaign strategies to a sleepy mayoral race in small-town Wisconsin. And even though Irresistible takes numerous digs at Trump-ified Republicans, Stewart is equally harsh in his portrayal of a Democratic establishment that pays lip service to progressive change while still cynically competing for votes and fundraising dollars.

In the real world, though, the Democratic Party is in the midst of some significant shake-ups. Recent election cycles have seen young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and, most recently, Jamaal Bowman win key Congressional seats over more established candidates. And Stewart is heartened by the way existing party gatekeepers are being challenged by new voices. “Anytime people bring an idealistic energy to it, it’s exciting to see,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. (Watch our video interview above.)

At the same time, he cautions emerging Democratic voters and politicians against pursuing a “Burn it all down” model as a means for real change. “There’s a spectrum on this that’s all the way from superficial reform to Arab spring, and you kind of what to land somewhere where the change is sustainable, but isn’t nihilistic,” Stewart explains. “People won’t stand for chaos; it won’t make the type of change you want sustainable. I love seeing people express their ideas and get a process that’s more closely tied to what they actually needed.”

Steve Carell, Jon Stewart and Rose Byrne on the set of Irresistible. (Photo: Daniel McFadden / Focus Features)

It’s certainly not lost on Stewart that even as younger Democratic candidates are winning local elections, the person at the top of the presidential ticket is Vice President Joe Biden, who hails from the party’s previous generation. On the campaign trail, Biden — who is enjoying a big lead over President Donald Trump in the majority of current polls — has talked about being a “transition candidate” who will oversee the party’s impending generational shift. While Stewart declines to say whether he thinks Biden will succeed in that goal, he hopes to see voters get off the sidelines and get involved in shaping what comes next. “I think that if we’re going to make America great again, to me that would be the key,” he says, in a knowing reference to Trump’s signature slogan.

Irresistible also takes a number of jabs at the news media, which is a willing participant in the political circus that Carell and Byrne create in Wisconsin. The media’s desire to play up inter-party tensions as a way to generate controversy and ratings is something that Stewart frequently criticized during his Daily Show tenure and, if anything, he thinks it’s gotten worse since he left. “It’s gotten more intense, and the money is larger,” he says of the current state of the news business. “There’s a connection to the media and the political operatives and the fact that campaigns never end. It’s become its own industrial complex. I certainly don’t blame the media for the moment, but boy would that be a great tool to get us out of it.”

Just like political gatekeepers, media gatekeepers have been falling in recent weeks following the ongoing demonstrations sweeping across the county in the wake of George Floyd’s death. For example, a prominent Opinion editor at The New York Times resigned after the paper printed a controversial editorial by Senator Tom Cotton which called for President Donald Trump to send in U.S. military troops to confront the protestors. “I think churn is an important thing,” Stewart says, while also adding that journalism still has a lot of work to do in the current climate. “Editorial authority is earned — it’s not just given, in the same way that American exceptionalism is earned, not given. From the media to political campaigns to the way Congress operates, I think stepping back and re-assessing how we got where we are is an important process.”

Jon Stewart on the set of the political satire, Irresistible, which he wrote and directed. (Photo: Daniel McFadden / Focus Features)

On that note, we asked Stewart to re-asses how Daily Show fans have responded to the challenge he posed to them on his last episode in 2015. “Bulls*** is everywhere,” he said at the top of his hilarious — and hilariously profane — farewell monologue in 2015. “The good news is this: bulls******* have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. Looking for it is a pleasant way to pass the time. I say to you tonight friends, the best defense against bulls*** is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”

So, five years later, do our olfactory nerves remain ever-vigilant? Stewart thinks so. “I think there are wonderful voices out there who call things out,” he says now. “Sometimes when you critique a system, it makes you think that you don’t think there’s anything of value within that system. But I don’t feel that way at all. I feel the gravitational force of the systems tends to blunt the better people and the good storytelling. It’s a spectrum of clarity to noise: The louder the noise gets, the harder it is for the clarity to break through.”

Irresistible is currently available to rent via on demand services including Amazon and FandangoNOW.

— Video produced by Jon San

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