The publicist asks that when you speak to Jon Stewart, could you please keep the discussion focused on his new movie Irresistible, and could you please not lead him into a wide-ranging discussion of politics and the issues of the day.
Look, I tried.
But his movie is explicitly about politics and the issues of the day — it stars Steve Carell and Rose Byrne as cynical political operatives who turn a mayor’s race in small-town Wisconsin into a national political TV drama with all the features of the modern culture wars.
Also, you can’t really stop Stewart from talking about the president, or the economy, or the Black Lives Matter protests, and he seems to enjoy his status as wisecracking wise man, heightened because the former Daily Show host has recently emerged from a Yoda-like seclusion (he has a farm in New Jersey) to comment on the issues of the day, only he’s obscene and funny and able to put all words in their proper order.
His movie, by the way, is also obscene and funny — he wrote the screenplay and directed (backed and distributed by Comcast’s Focus Features unit), and did so with the eye and the ear of a fellow attuned to classic Hollywood political comedy.
I mention to Stewart that if Frank Capra had been more comfortable using off-color words used to describe parts of the human anatomy, he might have made a movie a lot like Irresistible.
“That’s about the highest compliment I could receive,” said Stewart, who said he borrowed eagerly and openly from movie templates established by Capra and Preston Sturges — Irresistible, which premieres Friday for viewing at home on demand, is about self-styled urban sophisticates who descend on small-town America, and underestimate the canny inhabitants at every turn.
Stewart even has his own Cooper — Chris subbing for Gary — as a cattle farmer and retired Marine whom Carell persuades to run as a Democrat, building around him a campaign meant to set an example for the national party about how to compete in the Rust/Bible/Farm Belts.
Stewart said Carell (a former correspondent on The Daily Show) was the first guy he hired for the movie, but that Cooper’s salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing everyman was essential to the premise — “what’s so important about it is that the movie you think you’re watching has to be believable. You have to believe that the national parties and the national media would come to see this contest as decisive.”
And, like Capra, Stewart uses his everyman yarn (think of it as Washington Goes to Mr. Smith) to show the audience something about the larger, corrupt system at work — in this case, a parasitic industry of political operatives and consultants (soon the dial-up town is full of tech dweebs and data analysts) who operate as cynical profiteers.
“It’s important to believe in [Cooper’s character] so that at some point you can step back and look at the system as a whole, and think about it. Why are we accepting that the narratives we are being fed are the right narratives?”
In the movie, Stewart defines these go-to Republican and Democratic story lines as fear versus shame — conservatives selling fear, liberals selling shame. That seems a prescient description of the presidential campaign ads already running during every commercial break in a battleground state like Pennsylvania.
I ask Stewart if he thinks these ads actually work, and if the money behind them makes a difference. Billionaires and primary presidential candidates like Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer didn’t get far, for instance, and one of Hillary Clinton’s perceived advantages was her massive campaign war chest.
Stewart said the point is, the money works for the people feeding at the ever-expanding trough of the electioneering industry, represented in the movie by Carell and Byrne. It’s an industry — he pegs it at $6 billion annually and counting — with its own self-sustaining incentives. In America, he said, a profit center like that becomes very hard to dismantle.
The question the movies asks, he said, is “Why do we accept this political media construct that really serves to enrich itself and isn’t in any way giving us the outcomes we want?”
Irresistible shows how campaign theater and fund-raising also become a massive time suck for candidates. As the campaign becomes nationalized, Cooper’s character goes to Manhattan to raise money from what Sturges might have called “the swells.”
“That’s why the money is so corrosive. How much of your time is spent on governance if you’re always chasing money? And what kind of influence does the money buy?” Stewart said.
The modern super-sized campaign industry was created by what he (and so many liberal and conservative voters) regard as the Supreme Court’s misbegotten Citizens United ruling, equating money with speech, which in Stewart’s mind is a philosophical successor to the managerial-class thinking that he traces all the way back to the Ronald Reagan 1980s.
“I really think that, in a sense, it’s a return to this trickle-down theory, when we all lost our minds in thinking that economies are built from the top down. This [modern campaign structure and spending] feels like a reflection of that system, built for the very few to profit from, with no accountability, and for some reason, the courts have decided that it’s all fine,” he said.
The rise of socialist-leaning candidates like Bernie Sanders (in the movie, Cooper is described as “like Bernie Sanders, with better bone density”), Stewart believes, is a reaction to money-dominated politics and its consequence: rising inequality that has resulted from decades of rules that favor capital over labor.
Stewart said he lost it recently when he heard a pundit say that “Donald Trump is the only thing standing between America and socialism.”
“The only thing standing between us and socialism will be the inability to effectively reform the worst aspects of capitalism,” he said. “There are people who may not want to go to that system, but you may force their hand as we continue to move toward a more extreme inequality that arises because we continue to confer to the investor class this massive advantage.”
Stewart recalled the time, in 2013, when he interviewed former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on The Daily Show, and asked Greenspan — the nation’s chief banking regulator — to defend his pre-collapse belief that Wall Street could regulate itself.
An autonomous zone, if you will. Greenspan conceded markets are subject to the vagaries of human behavior, and that people can be “screwy,” prompting the host to say: “You just learned this?”
Stewart said that exchange puts an ironic spin on conservative backlash to recent Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund police, because defunding the SEC — the Wall Street cop on the beat — has been a Republican strategy for decades.
That irony, he noted, was captured by a recent headline in the Onion: ”Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First.”
“When you think about what happened in this country in 2008 and 2009, and the damage that was done, and the foreclosures, and the fact that one guy went to jail, and that for the most part the perpetrators of the crimes were made whole, it’s beyond me how that didn’t fundamentally change the way we view our economy. And yet, everybody just kind of went back to work, and it was like, ‘How’s the Dow?‘ ”
At least that’s the way it was, for some, before the pandemic, before George Floyd and a massive public movement for change and justice that Stewart thinks is the real deal — likely to get citizens involved and registered and voting for reasons beyond the control and even the understanding of political pros.
If that happens, he said, you have the prospect of real change.