THE COM­EDY OF POL­I­TICS

STE­WART AND SMIGEL ON WHETHER IT’S POS­SI­BLE TO BE A CO­ME­DIAN WITH­OUT A PO­LIT­I­CAL PER­SPEC­TIVE

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Across their com­edy ca­reers, Jon Ste­wart and Robert Smigel have taken wildly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to top­i­cal hu­mour. Ste­wart, as the host of The Daily Show, honed a pointed, par­ti­san per­spec­tive that rooted out hypocrisy in cur­rent events. Smigel has de­vel­oped a glee­fully un­man­nered voice that he’s used to send up pol­i­tics and pop cul­ture on shows like Satur­day Night Live and as his trashtalk­ing pup­pet cre­ation, Tri­umph the In­sult Comic Dog.

The friends re­cently spoke about their views of the po­lit­i­cal mo­ment as they pre­pare for their an­nual com­edy con­cert, Night of Too Many Stars: Amer­ica Unites for Autism Pro­grams, to ben­e­fit Next for Autism, which cre­ates and sup­ports school pro­grams and ser­vices for peo­ple with autism. This year’s event will be Satur­day at the Theater at Madi­son Square Gar­den and broad­cast live on HBO, with a lineup that in­cludes Chris Rock, Stephen Col­bert, Adam San­dler, Abbi Ja­cob­son and Hasan Min­haj.

This in­ter­view oc­curred be­fore The New York Times pub­lished a re­port on the sex­ual mis­con­duct of Louis C. K., who was sched­uled to per­form at the ben­e­fit. HBO has since an­nounced that he has been dropped from the lineup. In a state­ment pro­vided af­ter the in­ter­view, Ste­wart and Smigel said: “It’s ob­vi­ously very up­set­ting, and we hope the vic­tims are find­ing some so­lace. We’re thank­ful that the cul­ture’s fi­nally chang­ing and al­low­ing them to feel safe enough to speak out.”

The show comes at a chal­leng­ing mo­ment for com­edy, which is hav­ing a hard time pre­serv­ing an in­clu­sive, big­tent spirit when per­form­ers feel com­pelled to ex­press their per­sonal pol­i­tics in their work. Ste­wart and Smigel talk about Night of Too Many Stars and how com­edy has been af­fected by in­ter­net cul­ture and po­lar­iza­tion. These are edited ex­cerpts from that con­ver­sa­tion. Q: When did you two first meet?

J ON STE­WART: He­brew school.

ROBERT SMIGEL: Sum­mer camp. We were in God­spell to­gether. I think I met you at an SNL party.

STE­WART: Those were al­ways the par­ties that you’d walk out­side and go, It’s light again.

SMIGEL: The first ben­e­fit my wife, Michelle, and I did for NBC was in 2003. Everybody who does the show, they’re happy to help and I’m very grate­ful. Jon was re­ally curi-

ous, and when I told him why this ex­ists, it was be­cause my son Daniel couldn’t get into any kind of school that could help him at that age.

STE­WART: When you see peo­ple that you ad­mire, you have this idea that they can solve any­thing that comes their way. To hear about what he was deal­ing with and how much they had to move heaven and earth, just to get ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties, it was shock­ing. Q: Are you con­cerned that the po­lit­i­cal lean­ings of some per­form­ers -- Jon, Stephen Col­bert, John Oliver -- might dis­cour­age some of the view­ers you’re try­ing to reach?

SMIGEL: Hope­fully peo­ple won’t take it out on peo­ple with autism.

STE­WART: “I didn’t like that joke, so this school goes un­funded.” SMIGEL: We’re go­ing to try not to be too di­vi­sive. Q: Is it harder now to put to­gether a com­edy event in­tended for a wide au­di­ence? Is it pos­si­ble to be a co­me­dian with­out a po­lit­i­cal point of view?

STE­WART (old man voice): “It was a sim­pler time. A movie was a nickel. A sand­wich, they paid you to eat.” Now ev­ery­thing is con­flict. Ev­ery­thing ex­ists now for clicks. You’re in­cen­tivized to pick not just the low­est- hang­ing fruit but the fruit that tastes the worst. Be­cause what you want is a re­ac­tion, whether it be in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive or in­cred­i­bly neg­a­tive. You can’t avoid that that is the world in which this is born, or even a world that we helped cre­ate. Q: Do you think you con­trib­uted to that en­vi­ron­ment? Do you feel re­spon­si­ble for ...

STE­WART: For the sad state of the world? I do, but not for that rea­son. I just as­sume I’m al­ways do­ing some­thing wrong. Some of it is that the news cy­cle is so re­lent­less and ubiq­ui­tous. Com­edy shows that are pro­mot­ing more day- and- date stuff have to keep up with that.

SMIGEL: Since Jon started, com­edy has had to deal with the in­stant re­ac­tion it gets on the web. What frus­trates me is see­ing com­edy suc­cumb­ing to that. A lot of times, jokes now are judged on the tar­get — on the point of view, rather than how funny they are.

Q: Has the in­ter­net made peo­ple quicker to take of­fence at jokes?

A: STE­WART: I don’t think they’re quicker to of­fence. I think it’s quicker that you know about it. The out­rage has al­ways been there — it just wasn’t on your feed.

SMIGEL: I did these Tri­umph spe­cials last year, and by the time the elec­tion ended I was just like, “Enough.” I was so dis­gusted by both sides. I was supporting Hil­lary, but all she would talk about in emails I would get is that Trump is a misog­y­nist. No pol­icy stuff. Just that urge to be di­vi­sive and to call the other side names. I was happy to sit it out.

STE­WART: Ex­actly. That’s our job, to call these peo­ple names! Their job is to take it! Q: Take an ex­am­ple like Larry David’s “SNL” mono­logue, where he joked about hit­ting on women at a con­cen­tra­tion camp.

SMIGEL: It fit right in with Larry’s way of mak­ing light of a se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion. He was the butt of the joke. It seemed like a joke that a lot of old Jews would laugh at.

STE­WART: I did laugh at it. I am an old Jew.

SMIGEL: On the web, a lot of peo­ple were de­fend­ing it. I thought, OK, this is good. Peo­ple are say­ing, you can draw a line here, at what you can be out­raged by. Q: What about when the out­rage over a mis­be­got­ten joke -- like what hap­pened with Kathy Griffin — ends up os­tra­ciz­ing a per­former?

STE­WART: In cer­tain mo­ments it leaves a mark. You see that it does leave per­ma­nent scars in its wake, in very rare i nstances. But there was that PR per­son, Jus­tine Sacco, who had tweeted out a bad joke about AIDS and trav­el­ling to South Africa. By the time she got off the plane, her life was over. And she was just a civil­ian in the cul­ture war, to a large ex­tent.

SMIGEL: You f or­get t hat this per­son who might have made a mis­take on Twit­ter was maybe not 100 per cent evil and wor­thy of los­ing ev­ery­thing.

STE­WART: I think that I con­trib­uted to that cul­ture. I took a long, hard look at that idea of un­fair­ness and con­text. I felt like we (“The Daily Show”) worked re­ally hard to main­tain that cred­i­bil­ity. But there’s no ques­tion that it in­flu­enced and par­took some­times in a de­hu­man­iz­ing process. No ques­tion. Even with sit­u­a­tions like An­thony Weiner. When the pile-on oc­curs, that per­son turns into a two- di­men­sional Flat Stan­ley, as everybody pounds on them. And then that per­son ends up, ac­tu­ally, turn­ing out to be hor­ri­ble and has to go to jail. (laugh­ter) Q: Know­ing this ca­pac­ity for out­rage ex­ists, are you more wary, as co­me­di­ans, about what you say in your per­for­mances?

STE­WART: We’re not vic­tims of this cul­ture, by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, and those com­ments are the price of do­ing busi­ness in the cul­tural sphere.

SMIGEL: What both­ers me is that temp­ta­tion to fuel your side’s fire; it’s on both sides, more than ever. I don’t want to be part of that prob­lem. There was a point where I was like, OK, this guy’s been elected. Now if I keep re­lent­lessly hit­ting him with my pup­pet, am I re­ally be­ing help­ful? Or am I just prof­it­ing? Q: For peo­ple who don’t share your pol­i­tics and feel alien­ated by what they see in TV com­edy — who wish we could go back to a more even­handed era of Johnny Car­son -- do they have a point?

STE­WART: Here’s what I would say: Tough shit. Hon­estly. The idea that you’ve lost the plea­sure of watch­ing Car­son? We all have lost that plea­sure. I used to like watch­ing Car­son, too. But I think that’s a cop- out. The peo­ple that say, “This cul­ture isn’t for me,” live in a nos­tal­gic world. Those are the peo­ple that are the first to tell mi­nori­ties, “Suck it up.” Those are the first peo­ple to say to in­di­vid­u­als that are be­ing re­lent­lessly ei­ther os­tra­cized or legally threat­ened, “Oh, snowflake, watch your­self.” But God for­bid some­body doesn’t say “merry Christ­mas.” It’s the empty rhetoric of griev­ance, and I don’t feel bad in any way, what­so­ever.

SMIGEL: Col­bert, e s pe­cially, is hi­lar­i­ous, night i n and night out. Sarah ( Sil­ver­man)’s try­ing re­ally hard. She’s do­ing a show on Hulu where she’s re­ally try­ing to en­gage with peo­ple, and face them as hu­man be­ings. I want Col­bert to keep do­ing what he’s do­ing, but I want to see more peo­ple make that ef­fort, too. Be­cause we need both.

NOW EV­ERY­THING IS CON­FLICT. EV­ERY­THING EX­ISTS NOW FOR CLICKS.

BRYAN DERBALLA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Jon Ste­wart, left, and Robert Smigel, co­me­di­ans and long­time friends, are pre­par­ing for their an­nual com­edy con­cert which raises money for autism ser­vices and pro­grams.

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