SAN FRANCISCO—Less than three years after he signed off for the last time as host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is back.
Not only is he closing out the Clusterfest comedy festival with his first West Coast stand-up gig in 15 years on Sunday night—before heading out on tour with Dave Chappelle—but during an onstage Q&A session with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub earlier in the afternoon, Stewart also announced his highly anticipated follow-up as a writer-director after 2014’s Rosewater.
Asked if he has plans to make any more movies, Stewart first joked that he’s working on getting another journalist arrested so he can write that story. Then he cracked a joke about making a film featuring cars that turn into fighting robots. Finally, he told the audience of fans what the movie will actually be about.
A bit cryptically, Stewart said he likes to write about the “climate” as opposed to the “weather,” adding, “So hopefully this movie is kind of my interpretation of our what our political process is right now.” He told the crowd that after he leaves San Francisco, he’ll be heading down to Los Angeles to start reading the script aloud with some friends and hopes people will be able to see the film sometime in the not too distant future.
Even as he has stepped away from the spotlight over the past couple of years, Stewart still has plenty to say about America’s political process. While he said there is nothing he misses about having a nightly platform on television, he is still clearly hyper-engaged in the machinations of the Trump era.
When the conversation turned to Stewart’s upcoming set at Clusterfest, the moderator suggested that some fans might be hoping that he will “slay the dragon,” so to speak, when he hits the main stage outside on Civic Center Plaza.
Asked if that’s something they should expect, Stewart deadpanned, “Yes. It ends here. Tonight,” to huge cheers from the audience. “I will say this,” he added. “It speaks to the yearning in America right now that this is a dragon that can be slayed. And I think that he will be defeated by better ideas.”
“Everybody’s looking for a shortcut,” Stewart continued. “It’s really quite simple. What is the opposition party? Oh yeah, the Democrats. If they could come with like, I don’t know what you would call it, a set of ideas. And then they would say them in a way that didn’t seem fucking weird. And then, like, the people would—understanding how the Electoral College works—vote and then I’m assuming at that point he has to leave.”
In other words: “It’s not going to be a comedian.”
Stewart’s primary message boiled down to these words: “We mistake cultural power for power.” He admitted that he feels “oddly culpable” for this phenomenon as host of The Daily Show for 16 years. While he took “great cathartic satisfaction” in the segments he did on that show, he also recognized that “there is a corrosive thing that happens to you when your life is based on impotent rage.”
When a clip of him or John Oliver or Samantha Bee “eviscerating” someone on the right “went viral,” Stewart would think, “Great. What happens next?” Meanwhile, the Tea Party was “off the highway by Stuckey’s taking over school boards.”
“To some extent, that is what will make America great again,” Stewart said. “What we’ll see is the transformative power that the fear that a leader like Trump puts into regular people, that they begin to take matters into their own hands at a local level. That will be the change.”
Samantha Bee, who was Stewart’s longest-serving correspondent on The Daily Show and has been in the news this week for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt,” came up again during an audience Q&A session that ended the hour-long event. Stewart told a story about the couple of times he met with President Obama in the Oval Office, a fact that was characterized as being “nefarious” in some way when it was reported in 2015.
“Please understand that a lot of what the right does, and it’s maybe their greatest genius, is they’ve created a code of conduct that they police, that they themselves don’t have to, in any way, abide,” Stewart said.
The right described him as a “tool of the Obama presidency,” because he made two visits to the White House. Meanwhile, Trump “spoke to the head of Fox [News] and strategized with him on a weekly basis and uses their on-air talent as advisers.” He told liberals, “Don’t get caught in a trap of thinking you can live up to a code of integrity that will be enough for the propagandist right. There isn’t. And so, create your own moral code to live by, but don’t be fooled into trying to make concessions that you think will mollify them.”
This brought him to Sam Bee, who was essentially forced to apologize for her remarks this past week after the White House called for TBS to cancel her show. “They don’t give a shit about the word ‘cunt,’” he said of the Trump administration. “That is probably—he says that instead of ‘please,’ I’m guessing.” (And it is true that there are numerous reports of Trump himself using the “c-word” word over the years, including one on camera.)
Seeming to imply that Bee shouldn’t have apologized, Stewart said there is nothing anyone can do to “make them give up this ‘We’re the real victims’ game,” because, “it’s a game, it’s a strategy, and it’s working.”
Despite all of this, Stewart at least attempted to end the talk on a positive note. After briefly entertaining the notion of running for president—“we’ve clearly lowered the bar,” so “why not me? I say crazy shit all the time”—he gave the audience some advice on how to stay hopeful in these dark times.
“Do you know what Xanax is?” he asked. “No, here’s what I’m going to say, and it’s going to sound bizarre. I’m incredibly optimistic.” After spending some time in “very conservative communities,” Stewart said he’s come to realize that “the divisions that occur are real, but the toxicity is not necessarily.”
The way our culture is built now, he said, “Disagreements become arguments, arguments become fights, fights harden into feuds. And feuds harden into battles and wars. And that’s where we are.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Stewart explained that he has close friends and family who voted for Trump. “Not only do I not try to avoid them, I love them,” he said. “Because they have other qualities that I think are exceptional.”