Why Jon Stewart’s next show should be on public radio

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Jon Stewart conducts an interview on The Daily Show. (Photo: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

Jon Stewart conducts an interview on The Daily Show. (Photo: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

This commentary was originally published by North Country Public Radio and is republished here with permission. 

Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way. Pound for pound, public radio is maybe the least funny media outlet in America. Public radio mostly sucks at humor when we’re trying to be funny.

But . . . but — and stay with me here — the one time that we’re sometimes really, really humorous and engaged and laugh-out-loud hilarious is when we’re trying to be deadly serious.

Listen to an episode of Radiolab or This American Life or The Moth or Scott Simon on a good weekend morning and you’ll find storytelling that captures that most American of art forms, mingling hard truth and satire with a morally grounded sense of humor.

Which brings me to Jon Stewart. Stewart winds up his culture-changing run as host of The Daily Show this August.

The truth is, the show has morphed dramatically over the years.  The show that’s ending this summer isn’t the show he took over in 1999. It started out with a whole lot of schtick, with Stewart happily playing the jester in the halls of American power. He seemed gleeful. He seemed truly amused by the antics that surrounded him.

But the last half-decade or so, not so much. The last half-decade, Stewart has oftened seemed angry, disgusted. He wanted laughs, sure, but he wanted answers more.  And really, Stewart has been the most engaging and the most hilarious as he’s dug deeper and deeper into the role of actual journalist, interviewing guests with the kind of probative, deeply researched questions that few American reporters can match.

Watching recently as Stewart dismantled former New York Times reporter Judith Miler — who helped build the case for the Iraq War — I found myself thinking over and over, “Why the hell is this interview happening on late-nite TV?”

The truth is that Stewart’s focus and his interests have moved him further and further along a path away from Johnny Carson and David Letterman (and even George Carlin) and closer and closer to Terry Gross and Ira Glass. In fact, there are times when Stewart’s imperative to act funny, to strive for yucks, seems more and more strained and awkward.

So here’s my humble invitation.

Why not come home to the place where grown-up, hard, civil conversations are happening every day about exactly the things that Jon Stewart thinks we need to be talking about? Here’s a reality. A lot of the audience that Stewart started out with in 1999 has already graduated to public radio.

The college kid who tuned in The Daily Show in 1999? She’s in her late thirties now. She has a mortgage and two kids and a divorce. And she’s listening to NPR on the drive to work every day. She’s here waiting for you, Jon, right here on the FM dial or on her smartphone podcast. And she’s willing to follow you and your line of curiosity, even when you’re doing a show where there doesn’t need to be a punch-line or a clown-gag.

In pragmatic terms, it’s also worth pointing out that hosting a daily interview show on public radio is a lot easier than hosting a nightly television show. You can come to work in your blue jeans. You can work from studios anywhere in the world. Hell, you can work from home a lot of days. Which means that doing a stint in our world would still allow Stewart tons of time to pursue the side projects — movies, stand-up, whatever — that seem certain to be a part of his creative future.

A regular public radio talk show would also maintain Stewart’s essential role in the national dialogue. It would allow him to shed some of the “I’m not a real journalist” song-and-dance and instead begin to explore, publicly in his inimitably self-revealing way, what it means to be the kind of journalist America needs.

The truth is that public radio is a much, much better fit for Jon Stewart than the Late Show will ever be for Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s decision to go the route of Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon still leaves me sort of breathless. How he packs all the rage and razor-blade humor into the avuncular, goof-ball move-down-the-couch realm that late-nite has always been — and why the hell Colbert would want to try — is a mystery.

By contrast, the idea of Stewart turning in a few years in public radio makes a lot more sense. Of course, our world pays a lot less than Comedy Central (or the Late Show) but I’m guessing Stewart didn’t leave The Daily Show in search of a bigger paycheck. He left because he was a little bored and a little restless and wanted to try something really, really different.

So, I say the right place for this great humorist and observer of the American story is right here.  Hell, why not take a trial run at it, piloting a radio show that launches next January and runs through the November elections? That would be an hour of daily NPR that a huge swath of America would tune in to hear.

Brian Mann is a news reporter and Adirondack Bureau Chief at North Country Public Radio.

  • Aaron Read

    Great idea, but how on earth could we afford him?? :)

  • Steve Jess

    Exactly, Aaron. Jon Stewart works four days a week, three weeks a month, and earns a reported $20 million a year, second only to Judge Judy among TV personalities. And even with that work schedule, he’s giving it up to spend more time with his family. Good luck recruiting him for a five-day-a-week talk show out of WNYC.

    On the other hand, maybe he could fill in for Diane Rehm sometime, Or even host a summer replacement show when Prairie Home Companion is on break. Guest-host “Wait, Wait” even. But a new career as a public radio host? Dream on.

    • Adam Ragusea

      Who said anything about five-day-a-week? I could see him doing a weekly, if the staff could do most of the work and he just steps in once a week to tape. Alec Baldwin is a pretty well paid guy too, and yet he finds the time. Part of the reason people make a lot of money is so that they can then go and do things that don’t make a lot of money.

      • Aaron Read

        Not sure we’d want to use “Here’s the Thing” as a template here. Baldwin was a remarkably good host (and I’m told he is REALLY into public radio…whereas Stewart is more ambivalent, I think).

        But Baldwin’s insistence on only interviewing guests face to face (no ISDN) was a HUGE limiting factor. (note: I have heard stories from more than one source that this was the case, but I have not heard it from any source directly involved with Baldwin or the show, so it’s possible that it’s apocryphal.)

        Plus Baldwin was still doing a lot of his regular acting work in addition to the show; that’s a really tough balancing act and I don’t think anyone would recommend it. And I don’t know that Stewart wants to let go of everything else to ONLY do something with NPR. Honestly, I would question that he should; as noble and “good” a gig at NPR might be, Stewart’s got talent, skills and power that could be put towards things a whole lot bigger and with more impact.

        Put it this way: if Stewart calls the White House out of the blue, it’s a good bet Obama would take the call. (or at least the Chief of Staff would) Don’t think too many people at NPR can claim that level of access! :)

  • Aaron Read

    Welllll, you’re confusing the broadcast schedule of The Daily Show with how much Stewart actually works. First off, on show days I believe he puts in 10-12 hours a day; according to his Fresh Air interview, they have a big “review the news” meeting at 9am, so figure they’re getting into the office at least at 8am. And the show tapes at 6pm. I haven’t attended TDS but I did get to see The Colbert Report and they are pretty close to “live to tape” when they do it; very few re-takes and not a lot of extraneous material. So figure taping is done by 6:45pm, and they probably have to stick around another hour…minimum…during the editing process. Even if it’s just to available to re-shoot something. That’s a pretty long, intense day.

    And that doesn’t account for however long his commute is, which unless he lives in Manhattan (and I don’t think he does) is going to be at least 30 minutes each way, and more like 60 or 90 minutes each way.

    Second, he’s also producing other shows besides just TDS. He was heavily involved with TCR, of course, and I assume he’s equally involved with The Nightly Show. Plus there’s other Comedy Central shows he helps produce, both formally and informally. And whatever other “personal” side projects he does, like that film he took a sabbatical to direct.

    Honestly, and not to take anything away from folks like Rehm, Ashbrook, etc, but a one- or two-hour a day, five days a week, NPR talk show would probably be a significant step DOWN in workload for Stewart.

  • Aaron Read

    Mind you, I claim no special inside knowledge to Stewart’s plans. And I’m sure he is very, very good about maintaining a public persona while guarding his privacy tightly. So for all I know he’d love to take a gig at NPR. Certainly I think it would be INCREDIBLY AWESOME if he did it. And I think he’d be very good at it, and overall it’d be a good fit for NPR, too.