10 Questions for Jon Stewart

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He was just supposed to be a mildly funny talking head on basic cable. Instead, Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, taught a new generation of voters how to laugh at politicians. Stewart has a new contract (through 2008), a new baby and a new book: America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. He chatted with TIME's Lev Grossman.

WRITING A BOOK IS SO RETRO. SHOULDN'T YOU BE BLOGGING OR SOMETHING? I can't. It's too hip. Then I'd have to get a BlackBerry, and I'm wired in, and next thing you know, I'm at a Black-Eyed Peas concert with a crack problem. I just can't go down that road.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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WHAT IS IT ABOUT POLITICIANS AND POLITICS THAT MAKES THEM SO ENDLESSLY MOCKABLE? I think it's power. It's power plus visibility. Plus unreality. They always say politics is show business for ugly people. But I think a much more appropriate saying would be that Washington is Hollywood that actually matters. These are people who, for all their apparent insanity, control nearly every aspect of our lives.

KERRY WAS JUST ON THE SHOW. HAVE YOU INVITED BUSH? Absolutely! But I'm not waiting. We'll leave the light on for him. And by the way, good for him. If I were him, I wouldn't do it. If I were Kerry, I wouldn't have done it.

YOU THINK THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE SMART PLAY? I think that when he came on our show, it was supposed to be the product of this new nexus of young news media and presidential politics, and something really interesting and unusual was going to come out of it. And it turned out to be just the same old crappy comedian talking to a presidential candidate who was trying not to make himself look stupid.

SO YOU DON'T THINK THE DAILY SHOW IS INFLUENTIAL? I would recommend that you look at the state of the world and you look at the state it would seem that we would like it to be in. And then you tell me if we have any influence.

YOU'RE ON YOUR SECOND ELECTION AS A FAKE NEWS ANCHOR. DOES THIS ONE FEEL DIFFERENT FROM 2000? The emotions are heightened on both sides, obviously, because of the stakes. So, yeah, it feels more visceral. If the last election was those little subcompact-car horns — you know, meep meep — this year's election, man, they're on the 18-wheeler, and they're pulling down hard.

SOMETIMES IT FEELS AS IF WHEN THE STAKES GET HIGHER, THE QUALITY OF DEBATE GETS LOWER. Oh, I don't think there's any question about that. Now it's gone Malcolm X. It's gone "by any means necessary." I mean, how many campaigns do you remember where Hitler has come up a lot? If I were the Hitler people, I'd be raising a stink. I think he's gotta protect his legacy. He's gotta come out and go, Look, all right, you guys have your flaws but, hey, I was evil, baby!

CAN I ASK WHO YOU'RE GOING TO VOTE FOR IN NOVEMBER? I'm really concerned about this Administration. Now, does that mean that they've completely lost any chance? Not really. Things could change drastically. But let me put it this way: they've put themselves in a giant hole, as far as I'm concerned. And as far as I'm concerned, their best argument for election is, Yes, I drove us into a brick wall. But I didn't blink!

DOES IT WEIRD YOU OUT THAT PEOPLE TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY AS A POLITICAL PUNDIT? Well, I don't know that that's the case. But I will tell you this: I don't put any stock in political commentating. Political commentators at this point are mostly rewarded by the extremity of their viewpoint. Most of the analysis you see on television doesn't reflect the general sense that the public feels about a situation. It's two sides advocating, with no arbitration.

SO YOU'D LIKE TO SEE MORE ARBITRATION? That's the change I would like to see — that the news media take a more active role in arbitrating, in mediating, in credibility. The way I've always looked at it is, politicians are — When you go to a zoo and you see a monkey throwing its s___, you can't get mad. That's what monkeys do. But you want the media at some point to go, "No! Bad monkey!" And that's really the direction that it should be going in. Not for Republican desires or Democrat desires but for truth.