America's Anchors

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert faked it until they made it. Now they may truly be the most trusted names in news

By MAUREEN DOWD

Your show has thrived during the Bush administration. Will you miss it?

STEWART: I remember people used to say, "What are you gonna do when Clinton leaves?" And I'd say, "I'm really OK not having to make another intern blow-job joke in my life." And it'll be the same with these guys. I'd much prefer these guys to leave than to have to continue to make Lord Vader jokes about Cheney. I have great faith in institutional absurdity.

But wouldn't, say, a President Obama be harder to make fun of than these guys?

STEWART: Are you kidding?

COLBERT and STEWART in unison: His dad was a goat-herder!

STEWART: I'd rather make fun of somebody who is wearing their humble beginnings on their sleeve than somebody who has created a situation where casualties are involved. So the idea that somehow it's easier now -- it's not. Because right now it is a comic box lined with sadness.

Is there anything that's considered going too far now? The other night you were joking that Bush could woo CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux with a down-home combination of "wild flowers and date rape.'' And within seconds you did an imitation of W. calling himself "a dick."

COLBERT: Jon has Tourette's. It mostly gets edited out.

STEWART: Here's the way I look at it. President Bush has uranium-tipped bunker busters and I have puns. I think he'll be OK.

COLBERT: I don't know. The pen is mightier than the bunker buster.

STEWART: We rarely do ad hominem attacks. There's the occasional one -- Cheney, I guess we do a little bit. But in general it's based in frustration over reality. We almost never do the, you know, Bush is dumb.

COLBERT: Ashcroft is a douche bag.

STEWART: I think Novak is a douche bag.

COLBERT: I'm sorry. I apologize. It's Robert Novak who's a douche bag. That's just fact. I think it's his confirmation name.

STEWART: When he joined Opus Dei . . .

COLBERT: "You shall be Saint Douche Bag."

So it's impossible to go too far?

STEWART: No, too far is different for every person. I would hope that my sense of humanity prevents me from saying things that are exploitative or so denigrating and derogatory as to be offensive. But I don't understand how anyone can consider jokes about this stuff worse than the reality of it. We're not out to provoke. We're not out to shock. There is no joy in stepping over a line. I don't think there's any way to possibly offend in a comedic sense when reality has such a desperate foundation to it.

Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans or the Democrats were running it?

STEWART: I have no idea.

COLBERT: I wouldn't mind finding out what the options are.

STEWART: Yeah. It's sad that there are only those two choices. I think we'd be better off if you had a sense that people were making decisions based less on their future political considerations and more on what they believed were in the best interests of the country and the world.

Do you think anybody does that on the political scene?

STEWART: If they are, they're disguising it pretty well.

Your producer, Ben Karlin, said that doing fake news has given him a new appreciation for the Bush administration's skills in faking reality. Do you feel that way?

STEWART: Yeah. No matter what happens, rain, sleet or snow, they see whatever they want to see. People criticize our show for breeding cynicism, but there's nothing at all disingenuous about what we're doing. If anything is cynical, it's suggesting that your policy has never been "stay the course" when we have thousands of hours of tape showing you using "stay the course" as a talking point. I don't worry about this generation of young people. They seem to be far more sophisticated and interesting than I remember myself being at that age. I'm more worrying about my generation. We're digging such a hole for these cats, they will have to be exceptional just to get out of it.

Stephen, have you met Bill O'Reilly? He says you owe him a royalty check.

COLBERT: I met him at the Time 100 Dinner. I turned around and he was right behind my chair, and he said, "Oh, it had to happen sometime." He was very nice. He said, "I like you. You know why? You're not mean-spirited like most of 'em." And I said, "That's nice, I'm glad you like it." He said, "Can I give you some advice?" And I said, "I would love it.'' He said, "Watch your guests. You have an Olbermann on, you have a Franken on, that's a pattern. Your audience may not think about it, but they have a sense of it." And I said, "But you saw how I played with Olbermann. I didn't take him seriously." And he said, "Not everybody watches your show as closely as I do." And I thought, "Take me now, Jesus." I was so thrilled.

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