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."
We Hear You!