Jon: Some people respond to wordplay, others to props. Everybody thinks they're funny or knows somebody who's funny, so people don't view comedy as a talent. They view it as a cry for help.
Oprah: I beg to differ. There are many people who realize you have a talent they don't have.
Jon: Do you mind if I put you on the phone with my father right now so you could repeat that last sentence to him?
Oprah: Oh, absolutely. You say what everybody else is thinking but can't articulate, in a way that makes people laugh. That's a gift. Chris Rock also has it.
Jon: Chris is unbelievable. I'm very able to appreciate it in other people.
Oprah: So who impresses you as a comedian?
Jon: Chris. David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Adam Sandler.
Oprah: What's a typical workday like for you?
Jon: We usually work ahead—being a fake news program is a huge advantage. On a weekday morning, we might think of the most visceral aspect of the Iraqi elections—like "Now that we've had an election, we can leave." What's the best way to express that through stand-up? Someone might throw out an idea: Could we have the correspondent stand in front of a green screen that's moving? And on the reveal, you'd see he's doing his commentary while running the heck out of Iraq. But then we figure out, okay, we can't do that. It's all about having an ear for the right idea.
Oprah: Did you know that when you took over the show?
Jon: No. I just knew I wanted to do something different.
Oprah: But I've heard the staff wasn't with you on that?
Jon: That's correct. Tracey can attest. Many times she'd find me in the living room at 4 in the morning, smoking and having arguments with myself.
Oprah: How did you convince them to go your way?
Jon: I didn't. Those who were with me stayed; others left.
Oprah: Was it a conscious decision to move to politics?
Jon: It was a conscious decision to move to relevance—to make the show something people care about. I had done a talk show where it was, "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we're doing three segments instead of two with Maria Conchita Alonso. Because it turns out the guy with the falcons is not going to come tonight." I thought, This can't be how I live my life. So I decided not to give a crap about what anybody else thought anymore. I did what I wanted to do, with like-minded people who'd bring passion, competence, and creativity to it.
Oprah: Did you feel that even when people started walking out?
Jon: I can't tell you how relieved I was when people started walking. I didn't have to fire them.
Oprah: I hate firing.
Jon: But anytime you can weed out crazy and bring in sane, it's worth it. A friend of mine used to say, "Why shouldn't a good person get the job? Why shouldn't competence be rewarded?" So I brought in Ben Karlin, a guy from The Onion [an online newspaper parody], and Stephen Colbert, and we developed a team that felt right. We got better at structuring the show. I always hear quarterbacks say the difference in the NFL now is the speed of the game. The difference in The Daily Show is the speed with which you have to digest material and turn it into a comedy-like pulp. When you look at Johnny Carson's old shows, you want to smoke a pipe, have a cup of tea, and relax. But our show moves. That's how TV is now.
Oprah: I've heard that the faster you tell a joke, the funnier it is. True?
Jon: I don't know, but I will definitely talk faster from now on.
Oprah: You really became part of the public's consciousness during "Indecision 2000." Do you deny that you are powerful?
Jon: Yes—I deny that I am powerful. Power implies an agenda that's being acted on.
Oprah: But more than anyone else, you have us thinking about politics differently.
Jon: Every generation has had its people who stand at the back and make fun of those in charge. When the Nazis came to power in the thirties, it created an incredible underground scene of satirical comedy. Peter Cook [a British comedian] once said with a straight face, "Yes, they really showed Hitler." That's how I see it. I'm not saying I'm powerless and in a vacuum. But if I really wanted to change things, I'd run for office. I haven't considered that, and I wouldn't—because this is what I do well. The more I move away from comedy, the less competent I become.
Oprah: I got that. People ask me all the time whether I'd run for office. What I do well is television. I wouldn't be effective sitting in an office trying to push legislation.
Jon: But if power were your aphrodisiac, you'd do it anyway. You could translate your influence into political power.
Oprah: I agree. I question your denial that you have a powerful effect on the way people think about politics.
Jon: Honestly, I'm not trying to be self-deprecating or even obtuse. What we're doing on the show is not original. If it weren't me, it would be somebody else. We set out to deconstruct the process [of politics] and give people a glimpse at what we think the reality is—and while we're doing that, we tell jokes. If I didn't do jokes, nobody would give a crap.
Oprah: When did the media become the be-all and end-all for influencing people's opinions?
Jon: When Gutenberg came up with that printing press. After that it was over. It's not about the media; it's that a means of communication will always be co-opted by people who want to use it for powerful purposes. And when we say "the media," do we mean me, Ted Koppel, or Rush Limbaugh? Those are very disparate voices. The media is really a bunch of feudal kingdoms that exist in a larger structure.
The Bush administration is actually doing something really smart: They're blurring the line between what's a voice of authority and what isn't. They've paid guys like Mike McManus and Armstrong Williams to go out and tout their programs and create news pieces. [Federal agencies allegedly paid several newspaper columnists to help promote the No Child Left Behind campaign and other initiatives.] These guys are government advocates working under the guise of "analysts." What's more confusing than that?
Oprah: Isn't that the ultimate in propaganda?
Jon: Yeah. The media started winning in 1960. That was the first time—when Nixon went up against Kennedy in the debate and said, "I don't need any makeup. I look freakin' great." Everybody watching went, "Oh my God. Who's Sweaty McSweatington?" They all voted for Kennedy. In the same way that Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the power of radio, politicians now recognize the power of TV—and power doesn't want scrutiny. Noise is an advantage. I'm not even making sense anymore, am I?
Oprah: I get it.
Jon: I've got to ask, or else we'll be sitting around like, "Don't you get it, man? It's the media, dude."