I think the mistake is thinking that speech was me saying, “And this is how we win.” That isn’t. There’s so many different ways to build positive culture.
Do you think “The Daily Show” made people more cynical?
I think people always thought “The Daily Show” was cynical and it never was, in my mind. Certainly this show isn’t. If anything, it’s overly idealistic and naïve. Cynical would be to pretend like the show is really doing something. It’s not and I don’t think any of us ever thought it actually was. But it felt good to us. It was a bear scratching his ass on a tree.
Is the goal of “The Problem With Jon Stewart” that you will give a platform to people who are directly affected by an issue, and to people with the power to do something about it, and then viewers will hopefully be encouraged to take action on this issue themselves?
No. [Laughs.] I don’t think we can ever lose sight of the fact that it’s still just TV. I’m not trying to denigrate the form that I’ve worked in for my adult life. But don’t be fooled that this momentary boost is somehow akin to change or effective activism. If it gives those individuals a quick boost and it helps them get over the hill, boy, that would be amazing but those hills — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, we’re all Sisyphus. I’d rather feel like the person pushing someone up than the person kicking them back down. Isn’t some small measure of comfort and support and entertainment and insight better than noise and exploitation?
When I visited the show, a member of your studio audience asked about your ’90s-era appearance on “The Nanny.” You told the crowd — humorously, but aptly — “I don’t necessarily want to be your personal time capsule.” Are you concerned, with this show or in general, that your viewers won’t ever let you evolve into something different than what they’ve already seen?
[Laughs.] I guess we’ll find out! I think very little about legacy and what people think I am. I’ve been hired and fired so many times, from working in bakeries to laboratories to bars. I never view myself through a singular lens. Another person in the audience said to me, you’ve been gone for six years and you’ve missed so much. And I was like, “I’ve actually been alive this whole time. I get what you’re saying, but I had to wear a mask and buy a bunch of toilet paper and water. I had the ups and downs of the previous administration and felt it deeply.” People perceive you, but if you allow their perception to define you, then you live in a hologram. And I’m just trying to embody the universe I actually live in.
If I let other people define who I was, I’d probably still be bartending underneath a liquor store in Trenton, N.J. You can’t live like that.