Jon Stewart on Comedy in Times of Tragedy

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Does sharing bad news contribute to hopelessness? In this 2007 moment from Bill Moyers Journal, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart talks about his struggle to remain empathic in a world of concurrent tragedies, and the importance of delivering news with context.

Watch the entire 30-minute conversation between Bill Moyers and Jon Stewart.


BILL MOYERS: I watched the interview you did the other night with the former Iraqi official, Ali Allawi. And I was struck that you were doing this soon after the massacre at Virginia Tech. It wasn’t your usually Daily Show banter.


JON STEWART: On a more personal note… I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to broach it, but we in this country we have a very tragic situation occur at one of our universities and, it really has taken the country aback and there’s a real grieving process that we’re going through — and going through it mourning and learning about the victims and — learning about it and showing our support, you know, I hesitate to say, how does your country handle what is that type of carnage on a daily basis? Is there a way to grieve? Is there a numbness that sets in? How is that?

ALI ALLAWI: Well, I think the scale of violence in Iraq is really inconceivable in your terms…


ALI ALLAWI: We have, on a daily basis, what you had the other day in Virginia Tech. I mean massacres of that scale. Practically on a daily basis and it’s very hard to grieve. Most of the-most of the way that people do treat this is just to leave the country. We now have a very large external refugee problem. Nearly two million Iraqis have left the country and internal refugee problem also, too many people displaced.

But the scale of violence and its continuity is such that it really numbs you. And in my case for example I had 6 people whom I had appointed at various positions in the government killed, including my office manager. We had this suicide bomber walk in to my contingent of guards. It’s quite a-quite a serious psychological problem that’s going to be one of the legacies of this terrible crisis.

JON STEWART: Yes, and I truly, I cannot fathom it and I just recall, you know, there’s been so much information and I was becoming wrapped up in our grief and then I saw the headline today of literally 150 people killed and — it just sends an awful dagger to your heart — like I can’t imagine how they deal with it.


BILL MOYERS: I mean, watching it I said, “Something’s going on with Stewart there.” What was it?

JON STEWART: Well, first of all, there’s you know, the process that we that was put the show together is always going to be affected by the you know, the climate that we live in. And there was a pall cast over the country. But also you know, you’re fighting your own sadness during the day. Having nothing to do with that, we felt — we feel no obligation to follow the news cycle. In other words, I felt no obligation to cover this story in anyway, because we’re not like I said, we’re not journalists. And at that point, there’s nothing sort of funny or absurd or to say about it.

But, there is a sadness that you can’t escape, just within yourself. And I’m also interviewing a guy who’s just written a book about his experience living in Iraq, faced with the type of violence that we’re talking about on a, you know, as he said, an unimaginable scale. And I think that the combination of that is very hard to shake.

And I know that my job is to shake it, and to perform, that’s why it’s performing and not you know, it wouldn’t be a very interesting show if I just came out one day and said, “I’m going to sit here in a ball and rock back and forth. And won’t you join me for a half hour of sadness.” You know, they I– have to I have to

BILL MOYERS: People come expecting more. People come expect..but that wasn’t performance, when you were wrestling with the sadness you were feeling with him.

JON STEWART: With him. Well, it– I thought it was relevant to the conversation I was having with him. Which was a the reason that it– sort of occurred to me was you know, I was I was obviously following the Internet headlines all day. And there was you know, this enormous amount of space and coverage to Virginia Tech, as there should have been. And I happened to catch, sort of a headline lower down, which was 200 people killed in four bomb attacks in Iraq. And I think my focus on what was happening here versus sort of this peripheral vision thing that caught my eye about, “Oh, right, there are lives–” I think it was a moment of– I felt guilty.


JON STEWART: For not having the empathy for their suffering on a daily basis that I feel sometimes that I should.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever think that perhaps what I do in reporting documentaries about reality and what you do in poking some fun and putting some humor around the horrors of the world, feed into the sense of helplessness of people.

JON STEWART: No. I mean, again, I don’t know, because I don’t know how people feel. And you know, that’s the beauty of TV, is they can see us, but we can’t see them. I think that, if we do anything in a positive sense for the world, is provide one little bit of context, that’s very specifically focused, and hopefully people can add to their entire puzzle that gives them a larger picture of what it is that they see.

But, I don’t think, if anything, I don’t think it’s a feeling of hopelessness that people feel. I think if they feel — if they’re feeling what we’re feeling, it’s that this is how we fight back. I can only fight back in a way that I feel like I’m talented. And I feel like the only thing that I can do, and I’ve been fired from enough jobs, that I’m pretty confident in saying this, the only thing that I can do, even a little bit better than most people, is create that sort of that context with humor.

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  • Private Private

    While I attend school and study on a daily basis, I make time for three progams. The daily show, the colbert report, and Moyers. The intellectual stimulation recieved from these programs is like a blast of cool fresh water to the senses. My brain always wants more and yet feels curiously feed.

    Thank you for the interview. Just hoping you might get Jon back on for another one.

  • Alex

    I notice few blogs on this sight. Private, I feel the same as you and more about good acurrate dialog of any sort. It is a shame and a sham that we do not have access to better dialog or jounalism in general. The American citizen is being short changed tremendously. Now I have that off my chest, I would like to add one final thought. The soul renching, I cannot call dialog or jounalism, that seems so in vogue today. It will do more harm then good and for fact will undo us in the end.

  • David F., N.A.

    My DVR is set to record five programs: the three you mentioned, plus David Letterman and The Young Turks. Sometimes, when I think I know what I’m talking about and say something stupid, they are all literally there to set me straight. I would like to think that I am a better person because of them. This is why I invite them into my home everyday.

  • Anonymous

    I feel this way too, and now there is the end of all of them and it is so painful for me to think that there may be nobody who has the skill to replace them

    The Rally for Sanity changed my life. When I saw about 250,000 people all there together in peace I felt I wasn’t the only person in the world.

  • martina

    Thanks for this– I appreciated the word “numb”. I am very happy that today the PTSD and suicide prevention bill for veterans went through Congress, and passed. We are going to have an enormous task of reintegration after the prolonged violence we have witnessed, and they have experienced. It was revealing that 6 of his colleagues were killed in a suicide bomb attack. I thought about what that would mean in my daily life. I think I would be undone, unable to work, unable to function. That is what it means to live in a war zone.