One of America’s Fiercest Media Critics Is Back With a Warning

Jon Stewart on his new satirical film, Irresistible, and the simplistic narratives that fuel the U.S. political system

Getty / The Atlantic

When Jon Stewart departed The Daily Show in 2015, he left viewers with a warning: “Bullshit is everywhere … and the best defense against bullshit is vigilance—so if you smell something, say something.” After 16 years of serving as one of America’s fiercest media critics, Stewart said he was stepping down from the job because “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” It was clear that satirizing the relentless fire hose of cable news was finally beginning to wear thin for him. In the intervening five years, he’s occasionally dropped by his pal Stephen Colbert’s show, but he’s otherwise kept out of the limelight. Yet Stewart’s new movie, Irresistible, is a pointed political satire with a stark message—the comedian smells something, and he wants to say something.

Irresistible is about an election, one with slightly lower stakes than November’s approaching presidential showdown. The film is set in a small Wisconsin town, where the retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (played by Chris Cooper) decides to run for mayor after a video of him speaking truth to power goes viral and draws the attention of the high-powered Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell). Gary sees Jack as a dream candidate to turn the American heartland blue again, a principled veteran who understands the value of helping his neighbors. But with Gary comes a whole party infrastructure, which in itself summons the Republican Party machinery (led by a ruthless strategist played by Rose Byrne), creating an electoral storm in a teacup.

The film is the second that Stewart has written and directed, after 2014’s Rosewater, a somber true-story drama about a journalist who was tortured by the Iranian government. Irresistible is more along the lines of what people might expect from the former host of The Daily Show, taking aim at the excesses of the American two-party system. But the story has a major twist, a Twilight Zone­–esque shift that drastically challenges the viewer’s perspective. Without revealing too much, it’s obvious that Stewart wants his audience to think about both the limitations of U.S. electoral politics and the media narratives that come with them.

I talked with Stewart about his conception of Irresistible, the strange but fortuitous timing of its release amid political turmoil, and what has changed about the media landscape since he left The Daily Show. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Irresistible is available for rental on video-on-demand services on June 26.)

Jon Stewart: What’s happening, man?

David Sims: Oh … you know …

Stewart: [Laughs] Just in a bunker, surrounded by cans of soup, like everyone else.

Sims: It’s shocking how many cans of soup I have. There were two weeks right at the start of the pandemic where you’d buy them on every shopping run.

Stewart: I always wonder about survivalists. Do they hope that shit goes down, because otherwise they’re just a crazy person with underground soup?

Sims: I guess you could just rebrand. “I don’t have a bunker; I have a soup basement.” Like a wine cellar.

Stewart: [Laughs] Sure, like a wine cellar. You’re seeing those now in a lot of the trendiest houses.

Sims: I’ll have to eat it someday. I guess I’m glad it didn’t come to that.

Stewart: Hey man, it ain’t over yet! I hate to tell you this, but do not get rid of the soup.

Sims: How do you feel about your movie coming out in this weird way, given how we’re watching movies right now?

Stewart: Look, I love movie theaters; I certainly would have preferred that kind of experience. But I also feel like, hey man, maybe it’ll bring [people] some comfort. Though it is a little like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar. People are really struggling, and I show up in the middle saying, “Does anybody want some Pez?” But maybe there will be a couple people who are like, “You know what? I would like some Pez! Thank you!”

Chris Cooper stars as Jack Hastings, Brent Sexton as Mayor Braun, and Steve Carell as
Gary Zimmer in Irresistible. (Daniel McFadden / Focus Features)

Sims: The first thing I thought of when watching Irresistible was John Kerry accepting the Democratic nomination in 2004, in the midst of the Iraq War. He took the stage and saluted, and said he was—

Stewart: “Reporting for duty!”

Sims: That imagery that they were trying to present, of a perfect candidate, a war hero for that moment—that quest for an image-friendly candidate for a moment hasn’t gone away.

Stewart: Yes. The conceit that you want people to think the movie’s about a cynical guy who sees something that might be useful to him, so he goes out there and it’s like Doc Hollywoodhe finds his heart in small-town America. The movie you think you’re watching has to be believable enough as a narrative that when it finally reveals itself and goes from portrait mode to landscape mode, you can step back and [realize] it’s about how easily led the political-industrial complex is by those narratives. And what is it about that system that’s not responsive to the needs of people.

Sims: Right. That mindset hasn’t really disappeared, even though American politics has changed quite a lot since 2004. This is more a movie about Democrats—do you think it’s a problem on either side, or as you’re conceiving this story, were you thinking of it more as a satire of the left?

Stewart: No, I was thinking of it more as a satire of the system, using what we are led to believe about the right and the left. As originally conceived, the film was about a Republican operative in the inner city who saw an opportunity to make a narrative with the black community. But as I was writing it, I just felt like I was clubbing a baby seal, so I pushed toward something that I felt might be a little less obvious. I’m trying to play on the idea that these narratives are all manufactured.

If we didn’t have a pandemic right now, the news media would be off and running on the “Bernie bros,” and their narrative would be all about how the progressive left won’t accept Biden. That would be the copy, 24 hours a day, not being put in any context or perspective. It has to live and breathe and feed itself, and to do that it needs to create its own fuel. When I started The Daily Show, we were still living in an analog political world. Now that it’s a digital world, it’s become bigger and faster, and the gravity of it is just harder to escape, and it’s farther removed from the real facts on the ground.

Sims: There also need to be new narratives all the time.

Stewart: The internet doesn’t help, because it amplifies the 24-hour network’s worst tendencies. Everybody needs engagement. In the early days of the internet, sideboob could get you a tremendous amount of views. Now, as the internet has divided more into sectors because the algorithm is created for engagement, people are driven farther down more extreme rabbit holes.

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in 2012 (Comedy Central / Everett Collection)

Sims: On The Daily Show, you were dealing with that more through the perspective of cable news, where people would watch their channel and live in that channel’s reality. Things have gotten even more fragmented since you left the show.

Stewart: The world that cable news lived in was always more sensational and provocative, which has always been true, even on your local news—the old trope of, “You won’t believe what’s growing in your bathroom, and could it harm your children?” But there’s this competition for eyeballs, and you guys probably experience it in the written world too, with the hot take. Everyone’s trying to stand out, and the aggregate weight of that creates a system that tilts to noise, and not clarity.

There’s so many good, talented people who work on clarity who are consumed by the deluge. This film plays into that—you think it’s a straight-up satire on those narratives, so when it shifts, you can take a step back from them. I remember thinking when I was still in it, This is so fucking redundant. The longer we did the show, we’d pull those “war on Christmas” clips from the news every year, and it’d come earlier every year.

Sims: Like summer-movie season.

Stewart: Right! And you just watch that cycle become more and more redundant and more extreme as it rolled on. It reminded me of a cyclonic weather pattern—like, what if we just stood back and looked at that pattern and how it forms? If you could diagnose that, maybe you can see how you break that pattern. Because I think that if you can’t break it, you don’t have a chance to really get the clarity that we probably need. Not that clarity is going to lead to a wholly improved structure, but I feel like our problem-solving mechanism has broken down.

Sims: When you’re approaching the narrative of the film, to what extent do you want to address the Trump presidency’s role in all that? The emphasis on noise does feel outsize there.

Stewart: Yeah, I could see him as the apogee of that, but when he goes away, that doesn’t go away. He is, I think, the most talented rider of that wave, but that wave is 60 years in the making. The right in the country decided 60 years ago that the institutions considered credible were no longer serving their purpose, whether it was colleges or media or science. So what they did is built parallel structures—their own colleges, their own media. People say to me, “This current fight against political correctness, that’s because The Daily Show made fun of conservatives.”

Do you have an AM radio? For 50 years, there has been a steady drumbeat under the surface, on AM radio, that the problem in America is liberals and Democrats, that they’re actually not Americans. A lot of Republican presidents rode that wave, but they rode it cynically; they didn’t believe it. Donald Trump is the first fan [of AM radio]. He’s a fan! He listens to that shit and goes, “Yeah!” He’s providing, all over the country, the message that AM radio is right, that we live among enemies, that they must be stopped. To me, [conservative-AM-radio culture] sowed the seeds for this, and that’s not going away until that fever breaks or it no longer works electorally.

Sims: And in the film, you’re talking about that fervent desire to find the right message, the right candidate to do battle with it. But you’re saying it’s more difficult to confront that kind of shamelessness.

Stewart: That’s right. Not only do you have this corrosive mindset going through, but we’ve created a system that amplifies it and makes money off it. And it’s really hard to dismantle. The courts have decided corruption doesn’t exist, corporations are people, and money is speech! It’s bizarro land! We can’t get out of the gravitational pull of that. For me, I just feel like people need a fucking break. It never ends.

Sims: I do think part of the appeal of the Biden candidacy for some people is that they don’t want to think about this 24 hours a day; there’s this exhaustion over politics being the only news. That’s kind of the appeal of the town in Irresistible—a place where the news isn’t on everyone’s mind all the time.

Stewart: You want to make sure you don’t caricature it; you want to make sure you don’t fetishize it. In some ways, the movie is a play on Hollywood narratives too. Like, are we really going to make Mackenzie Davis Steve Carell’s love interest? Is that what we’re doing? Then there’s that moment where she’s like, “Hey man, I’m 28! Like, what the fuck?” That’s kind of the premise of the whole movie: We just accept certain things as they are, even though they’re wildly corrupt.

Sims: When you think back on The Daily Show, or big moments like your appearance on Crossfire, does any of it feel quaint now? Or is it all just part of that narrative, that systemic wave that you’re talking about?

Stewart: I think it feels quaint, in a lot of ways. Like, “Oh, that’s cute, remember when there were only a thousand websites?” It was like a snowball rolling down a hill, and now we’re much farther down the hill. When I was on Crossfire, I didn’t like the theater of it, but I think debate is amazing when it feels authentic; right now it just doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of good-faith debate. It’s all performative; it’s all fake roles. The irony being, everything is that now. I objected to this one thing, and it was like, “Oh, you don’t like that? What if we make it our business model? How ’bout we just do it with everything?”

Sims: And now there’s also a pandemic. So, you know!

Stewart: [Laughs] Good times. All right, enjoy your soup!