Star-Spangled Laughs

A Conversation with Jon Stewart

Featuring a foreword by Thomas Jefferson, a Dress the Supreme Court layout, and, oddly enough, a profile of George "The Iceman" Gervin, America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, from Jon Stewart and the writers of the Emmy Award-winning The Daily Show , is by far the most irreverent and wittiest (and may we add smartest) political book you'll encounter this election year. A few days before the publication of America (The Book) , senior editor Brad Thomas Parsons had a telephone conversation with Stewart. His new book was then ranked at No. 5 on the site but would move to the No. 1 spot later that afternoon. Read on ( or listen in) as they discuss bald eagles, magical talking cats, Thor Heyerdahl, and much more. Okay, well, on to the questions.

So for America (The Book), did you guys consider any other concepts, or was it always conceived as a mock textbook?

Jon Stewart: I thought of South America (The Book) , but uh... I don't know, it just didn't have the same ring to it.

I mean the thing about it being a textbook is the interesting part.... So many books now are these polemics. And we wanted to sort of find the polar opposite, the emotional opposite of kind of the kick-in-the-groin political diatribe. And we thought the textbook would be the perfect unemotional structure to kind of examine the system as a whole.

Plus we wanted to put in one of those things where you get to write your name in--My Book, This Book Belongs To--that kind of thing. That's the best part. So what was the process like with the writers and the designers putting the whole package together?

Stewart: It was ridiculously harder than what we thought it was going to be. We figured this is going to be one of those, aah, we'll just transcribe a couple of fun bits we did on the show--ding, ding, ding--slap it together, cash the check, head out to a steak dinner.

But everybody really worked just unbelievably hard on it. And to Pentagram's credit, oftentimes melding design with comedy content is really hard because they had to understand how to use the images and context to further the comedy, as opposed to often that stuff can overwhelm it. But they did an unbelievable job of taking the comedic content into account. They really did. So how do you even go about then balancing your Daily Show commitments with working on the book?

Stewart: We pretty much just started phoning the show in. Really dropping the ball. Coming in late, not preparing, being incredibly unprofessional.

I think what everybody decided was, you know what? Here's the deal. From now until Election Day our lives are going to be annoyingly myopic. And we just... everybody focused and did a pretty incredible job of kind of a marathon sprint, to a certain extent, just working.... The past nine months have been sort of hellacious. Was there anything that didn't make the final version of the book that you wish you could have kept in?

Stewart: I gotta say we were really... yeah... no. This wasn't one of those where we were like, jeez, we've got 500 pages of material, we've got to hone it down.

I think that more particularly what it was, is we kind of threw everything onto the plate like that Devil's Tower of mashed potatoes that was in Close Encounters, and then just kind of started whittling it down. So it wasn't so much that there was stuff ultimately that didn't get in, as much as things that were in that got sort of siphoned out and fine-tuned.

We left in a lot of prepositions that we could have pulled, too. There's a lot of very, very, very stuff, just to pad it. Now you have the poster. We have a lot of books with CDs and DVDs that come bundled, but how did the poster come about?

Stewart: We wanted... here's what we figured. What if this book sucks? Why not throw a poster in it? That way, even if it sucks, they'll get a poster. That's a pretty good deal. Sort of the Ron Popeil's approach to selling books, to authorship.

By the way, I think a lot of people--Salinger would do well to throw a poster in, I think he could really bang out a few more copies of Esme and those books. Was there any concern that posing with the bald eagle that he was going to peck your eyes out, or did they Photoshop him in?

Stewart: Well here's the interesting thing about the bald eagle, he's actually a golden eagle because apparently it's illegal to pose with a bald one, and he's actually wearing a bald eagle wig.

There was concern that he would peck my eyes out. He was very big. And seemingly disinterested in not poking my eyes out. They're serious. Well this isn't really a question, but I have to say, under the section on Presidential Nicknames, you claim that Millard Fillmore possessed "a pair of magical talking cats." I just want to tell you that I enjoyed that immensely.

Stewart: Listen, this isn't us claiming that! This is historical! This is a textbook! I believe you said one was named Denise.

Stewart: I believe one of them was. We may have gotten the name of his second magical cat wrong. I think my favorite one is Martin Van Goldfish. So do you think America (The Book) is going to have any impact on voters?

Stewart: Yes. I think that many voters will--I mean this is a serious book--will maybe throw a disc. I think that if a lot of people buy this book, it could really suppress voter turnout. Have you had a chance to read any of the abundant politically themed books coming out this season? Or do you just avoid those?

Stewart: Yeah, I mean unless somebody is coming on the show, I tend to avoid them. Do you read much fiction?

Stewart: No, if I am going to read it's going to be nonfiction, and chances are it's going to be an exposé on one organization or another. But in general I don't have much time to read fiction.

And also, I lost my imagination in 1987. I believe at the Port Authority. But if I could find it again I think I'd go back there.

"I just think politicians are more interesting to talk to. Not that I'm not fascinated with the exact date a movie is coming out--chances are it's Friday. But in general, I think it's slightly more interesting probably to talk to somebody who does something completely different from what I do." --Jon Stewart OK. Well on The Daily Show are you more comfortable playing off of politicians or pop-culture personalities?

Stewart: I just think politicians are more interesting to talk to. Not that I'm not fascinated with the exact date a movie is coming out--chances are it's Friday. But in general, I think it's slightly more interesting probably to talk to somebody who does something completely different from what I do. And so you've had former President Clinton, Ralph Nader, John Kerry recently, is there any chance President Bush will be dropping by?

Stewart: Hold on, let me take a wild stab at this one. No. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, no. So who's your dream guest then?

Stewart: You know, I gotta say I really do hope that my dreams are somewhat... I don't know... maybe higher-minded than what guest I might get on the show. I would hope that at some point I would be able to say, well there's probably some people that would be nice to have on the show in fun, but dreams? Man, if that ever happens I think it's time for me to get out of the business. So what's it like at the writer's room there?

Stewart: Um, it's pretty vicious. I think conditions are a little rough. I think sanitary conditions could be improved. I think certainly the spread of disease is a concern. I think we're doing the best we can, but... this is what happens when you hire... you know, obviously child labor, [for] many of whom English is a second language. So do you have any pre-show rituals?

Stewart: Do I ? Yes.

Stewart: What have you heard? I'd like to hear.

Stewart: Uh... I don't think I do. I'm not... there isn't any kind of, I must eat a chicken wing and then hop three times and head downstairs. Nothing like that?

Stewart: None of that stuff.

"What's happening with Amazon? When did Amazon get so spooky? Have you guys already written my epitaph? Is that something, if I click on the site it'll say, 'Jon Stewart, here's something you didn't know! Here are other books you checked out, here's other things that you might like, and here's where you're going to die !'" --Jon Stewart Very good.

Well finally, this is the Inside the Actor's Studio portion of the interview, a little thing we call "Amazon Asks... the Significant Seven."

Stewart: Wait! Are you Amazon? I didn't know it was a person! By the way, do you guys have to sell everything ? We're getting there.

Stewart: I'd like to buy the Earth's core. I don't know what tab that's under.

Stewart: All right. So what book has had the most significant impact on your life?

Stewart: (Pause) Excellent question. Uhhhh... I'm going to say Without Feathers. OK, very good.

Stewart: Oh wait, I meant the Bible! Did I say Without Feathers ? What I mean to say was, uh... the story of... oh boy-- We can loop that in.

Stewart: I blew that one. So you're on a desert island with only one book, one CD, and one DVD. What are they?

Stewart: Uh, the book is an instructional manual on getting off desert islands. It has in it ways you can make things on the desert island that could help you get off of it. Maybe perhaps a surviving-a-desert-island-stranding book. All right, and the CD?

Stewart: Do they have those? Very good.

Stewart: Like, Boat Building . Uh, the CD? Yes.

Stewart: Uh, some nice, uh... I guess just the song " Hey Ya!" On a loop...

Stewart: Just over and over again, so that I could feel like I'm back in civilization. And the DVD?

Stewart: Probably Thor Heyerdahl. Again, I'd have to go with boat-building. Very good.

Stewart: I just feel like I'd be pretty focused on getting off. What is the worst lie you've ever told?

Stewart: The worst lie... Man, you know, I try so hard to expunge those from my memory, and this could bring up a whole repressed, in eighth grade I was touched by a... I like to bury 'em. We'll do that. Describe your perfect writing environment.

Stewart: I get up around seven. I have half a melon. I Jazzercise for about 45 minutes and then I sit down at my wicker table, and I begin to tap away at my 1944 Selectric. The one without the superscript, by the way. I don't forge documents.

I'm trying to think.... I don't have... There's no particular... I'm very not particular about my environment.

I think in my perfect writing environment I've just cleared enough space on my desk so that after I'm done writing I don't lose whatever I wrote. I think there's a certain... I need sort of... uh, uh, organized clutter. And if you could write your own epitaph, what would it say?

Stewart: Not Dead Yet. It would have something to do with not being dead! Why would I write my own epitaph?

What's happening with Amazon? When did Amazon get so spooky? Have you guys already written my epitaph? Is that something, if I click on the site it'll say, "Jon Stewart, here's something you didn't know! Here are other books you checked out, here's other things that you might like, and here's where you're going to die !" On that note, who's the one person living or dead that you would like to have dinner with?

Stewart: Well I don't think I'd like to have dinner with someone dead, and I'll tell you why. I just think the smell would make it very uncomfortable. So... I kinda rule them out. So living then?

Stewart: I would go with someone living, wouldn't you?! I probably would.

Stewart: I mean it just seems like... have you talked to people where they're like, "I'd like to eat with a dead guy! I would like to see what that's like." I mean you might as well eat alone at that point. It could get ugly.

Stewart: Uhhh... who would I like to eat with? Or a cocktail.

Stewart: Oh, have a drink with, too? Yeah.

Stewart: I don't know, man. I wish I had a richer fantasy life!

Here's what I've realized from talking to I have set the bar incredibly low for my life. I have no dreams, I have no aspirations, I have no inspirations. I have no one that I desperately would like to have a cocktail or a meal with. But your book's at No. 5, though.

Stewart: Oh, No. 5! That's awesome. And now, finally, if you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Stewart: Wow. I get a superpower? Yeah.

Stewart: You know, I could game the system and say I want the superpower that allows you to create new superpowers. But I'm not going to game the system that way, because I know that's not the spirit of the game. We're having a parlor game here, am I right? Yes.

Stewart: By the way, if the next whole line of questioning is Pictionary, I'm hanging up.

Worst parlor game interview ever .

Now we're going to play Spin the Bottle.

Uh, I would like to have... I mean I guess you've got to go with fly. I mean I don't know many people that wouldn't go with fly. Well played.

Stewart: You know, I just think... super flexibility... how many times do you find yourself really having to bend over that extremely to get something? I think the flying thing.

X-ray vision is probably... you know, it's a neat parlor trick, but I don't think it's going to get you that far for that long. The fire thing, it's a little destructive. I mean I think flying. Very good. Well Jon, thank you so much for your time.

Stewart: Thank you. And I wish you continued success on the show and with the book.

Stewart: Oh, thank you very much, and thank you so much for, you know, supporting the book and everything. You got it.

Stewart: Cool. All right, take care.

Stewart: Bye-bye. Bye.