I’m adding my voice the chorus of people mourning Jon Stewart’s last day as host of The Daily Show.
I know I am not alone in my love of Jon Stewart. I love his incisive, biting comedy/insight/brilliance; I love his ability to cut through the political bullshit to say the things that need to be said in US politics. And I love the kindness and compassion that is woven into so much of what he does.
Of that last bit, I have first-hand experience…
…so I’m going to share a (slighted edited) story that started as a number of posts on my old blog: the story of a conversation I had with him back in 2006; a conversation that cemented my feelings, and the reason I double-adore him.
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Back in the mid-2000’s, I was doing a lot of freelance writing; one of my clients was a business and entertainment weekly that was published in Princeton, New Jersey. I wasn’t paid a lot, but I was adding to my portfolio while talking to and writing about some amazing people including Dr. Ruth (note to self: tell that story sometime), Tom and Jen Chapin, “plus size supermodel” Emme (size 14, really? plus-sized?) (but i digress). I also came this-close to interviewing Steve Martin, but had to settle for the chance to sit behind him at a talk he gave at Princeton University for their creative writing program.
All those were wonderful experiences,
but the time I talked to Jon Stewart
— for a story that never got published — tops ’em all.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In January of 2006, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that Jon Stewart was going to host the next Academy Awards. Though I enjoy watching the Oscars, I’m never really sure why. I’ve seen too many great movies get passed over for forgettable ones (hello? crash instead of brokeback mountain?), and the shows can be so boring — with long winded expositions (cinematography; what would a film be without the gifts of light and shadow that a cinematographer creates? blah, blah, blah…yes, yes, we appreciate it already…now give the bloody award!). But putting Stewart out front? I was already a huge fan of The Daily Show, and I figured he would make the pomp and circumstance that is the Academy Awards way more enjoyable.
A day or so after the news came out, I got a call from my editor/friend Jamie: “Did you hear that Jon Stewart was going to be hosting the Oscars?” she asked. (yes, i told her, i had …) “Did you know that he grew up in the Princeton area?” (no…) “Wouldn’t that be a cool local-angle story?” (well, yeah…) “…and would you want to do it?”
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Would I want to interview Jon Stewart?
Hell, yeah! I was so excited I was vibrating. How cool would that be?
(the only question was: could i interview him and not make a complete idiot of myself?)
Before I went batty with future-tripping, I remembered we had to snag the interview. (cause i had experience in this before: see the above re: losing out on an opportunity to interview steve martin.) Y’see, when dealing with celebrities of that stature, it wasn’t easy for our little weekly journal to push to the front of the line.
After a week of trying, we couldn’t even get in the door for the ask. We worked every contact we could think of. We tried the logical Comedy Central route; no go. I reached out to all my blog-buddies (this was back in the days of the dinosaurs: i.e.: pre-social media) to see if there were Six Degrees of Jon Stewart in my world. While I got a lot of support and good vibes, there were no connections. We tried every opening we could think of in Lawrenceville; no luck. We thought if he just knew that a hometown publication wanted to interview him, the odds were pretty good that he’d be willing to give us at least a few minutes. Still, we were nowhere.
We were almost ready to give up.
Then, after weeks of behind-the-scene’s wrangling, my editor/friend got an email from Jon Stewart’s publicist (at the almost-last-possible-minute before our deadline) saying: “Do you still want to interview Jon? Is there still time?”
Editor/friend was on the phone with me in seconds. Still time? I thought. Honey, even if I have to pull a writing all-nighter to make deadline! Hell yes, there’s still time.
I got off the call with editor/friend with a phone number and a time to call that same day…
(ohmygod, i’m thinking: i’m going to call jon stewart!).
My hands were shaking as I started jotting down some notes for the call, terrified that I would break into a thousand pieces of excitement.
At the appointed hour, I called the number Mr. Publicist had given us…
“Comedy Central; this is Beth.”
“Hi Beth; this is Deb Cooperman…I have an appointment to speak with Jon Stewart …” (ohmygod i have an appointment to speak with jon stewart!)
“Just a second Deb, I’ll put you through.”
So there I am, on hold with my heart beating in triple-time in my ears. (don’t be a stupid fangirl cooperman, you’re a professional; you have a story to write. breathe! you’ve worked with celebrities before; no big whoop. they’re just people. famous, talented people, sure, but people: chill-the-fuck-out.)
“Hello?” the voice says. (ohmygod, it’s jon stewart!)
“Hi Jon, this is Deb Cooperman…”
“Hi Deb; how’re you doing?” (he called me deb…ohmygod; jon stewart said my name…) (chill-the-fuck-out cooperman!)
“I’m fine, thanks,” I say. I congratulate him on his new baby – a daughter who’d been born just days before – he’s charming as hell; says he’s getting little sleep, but she’s amazing. I tell him I know he’s really busy, and I appreciate him taking the time to talk to me for this article.
“Glad to,” he says, actually sounding glad to.
A minute or two goes by, and it’s going pretty well, I think. My professionalism kicks in (read: i’m not acting like a butthead); I’m asking questions, taking notes, breathing, and the butterflies are calming down (wheew). I’ve asked a few questions, and he’s responded: gracious and funny, and it’s flowing nicely.
Then, about 5 minutes into the conversation he asks what the thrust of our story is. “Hometown boy makes fabulous,” I say (having relaxed by then, obviously), and he goes quiet for a second before saying: “Hm. That’s not what my publicist told me …”
As I was soon able to piece together (dancing as fast as i could): in pitching this story my editor/friend did an amazing job of researching and selling the hometown angle. She’d discovered that a teacher who Stewart loved had recently died of Parkinson’s, and he’d worked on a local benefit to raise money for research, so in one of her pitch letters, she mentioned that perhaps Mr. Stewart would like to talk a bit about her influence.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Mr. Publicist told Stewart that we would be focusing the entire story on the teacher rather than having her be a possible element in it.
After this came to light, Jon very pleasantly, but also very definitively, put the kabosh on “yet another article about me right now.”
I told him we would be happy to shift the focus of the piece; that it would be no problem (i was tap dancing then, big-time). It seemed that he was used to big publications where you actually have to get editorial OK for something like that (not so in our little weekly).
Still, he, very politely said: “Why don’t you just confirm that with your editor and then reschedule another call through Matt?” (aka: mr. publicist.)
Within seconds after hanging up I was on the phone with my editor/friend and she was, as I suspected, totally cool about changing the angle of the story. Easy enough, we thought, to do something like: “Hometown boy Jon Stewart is on a roll…he just had a new baby, is on the top rated Daily Show, and is about to host the Oscars. But when I talked to him, he didn’t want to talk Oscars or politics or comedy: he wanted to talk about Selma Litowitz, his beloved English teacher from his days at Lawrence High School.” Easy. No problema.
But nope. Not so easy.
Editor/friend emailed Mr. Publicist, and said there had been a misunderstanding, but we loved this even-more personal angle for our story. She closed with a request to reschedule.
Mr. Publicist quickly shot back a note where he wouldn’t cop to not giving his client the full story in the first place (it may well have been an innocent mistake on his part originally, but her request was in the frikkin emails; how could he miss that? why would he try to pass it off as if it were her mistake?).
In the end, the bottom line was this: Mr. Publicist refused to bring the request back to his client’s attention. He refused to reschedule. There would be no follow up call with Jon. End of the road; buh bye and sayonara. (grrr)
I was so bummed I began sending negative vibes hoping that Mr. Publicist Man would get a really bad hangnail that throbbed like crazy, hurt like hell and took over a week to heal. Maybe it would even get infected. (if i had been less evolved, i might’ve wished him worse, but clearly, i am WAY spiritual.)
After getting over the frustration and disappointment of not being able to talk to Stewart again, (getting over the anger of stubborn-dickhead publicist man), and not having enough interview juice to write the story for the paper – I came to admire Stewart even more.
Because he was busy…and his life was crazed, but he took time out of all of that to talk to a Princeton, NJ based business and entertainment weekly because he thought the story was going to focus on a teacher who’d meant so much to him.
He was right. Although he’s an intelligent, funny interesting local boy who made fabulous, we didn’t need yet another story about him. There were plenty of stories about the great work he was doing on The Daily Show, his New Jersey roots, his new daughter, and his upcoming hosting gig on the Oscars, among others. But he didn’t want that.
He wanted to talk about a teacher who made a huge difference in his life. And even though the fundraiser he’d hosted on behalf of her charity had been a year and a half before, he was still willing to take the time to talk about her and the cause to this relatively small business and entertainment weekly.
I was sorry I didn’t get to talk to him again so we could publish the story the way he wanted to tell in the weekly, but I will never tire of telling it in blog-land…telling people why I loved him even more after he cut short our interview.
I am definitely going to miss his awesomeness on The Daily Show. So much.
But with the humor, smarts and heart that he has, I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.
Addendum: When I decided to re-visit this story in honor of Stewart’s Daily Show sign off, I did a Google search to make sure I’d spelled Selma Litowitz’s name correctly, and I discovered this: a Stewart “super-fan” has spearheaded an online fundraiser for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation as a thank-you and tribute to Stewart, in honor of Litowitz. I have a feeling he’d like that.