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On Thursday, Sanford welcomed comedy icon Jon Stewart as a guest speaker in Eric Deggans’ “Race & Media” course. Stewart, host of The Daily Show, 22-time Emmy Award winner, five-time Peabody Award winner, and recipient of the 2022 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, charmed the audience with his signature mixture of wit and wisdom.

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Man with hands in the air gesturing as he talks to classroom.
Stewart speaking to the Race & Media students.

Stewart's visit to Sanford began with a personal touch as he interacted with Deggans’ class. He shared his firsthand experiences in media and journalism and even delved into his acting career when a student mentioned his role in the 1998 cult classic The Faculty.

The lecture then transitioned into a fireside chat as The DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy coordinated the conversation for an audience of students, staff, and faculty in the Ahmadieh Family Auditorium in Gross Hall.

Stewart's unique ability to seamlessly transition between profound insights and playful humor was on full display. The evening was a testament to the power of comedy to provoke contemplation, sparking uproarious laughter and eliciting thoughtful responses.

Looking Back on a Career Highlight in Political Discourse

To set the stage for a deep dive into media and democracy, Deggan reminded Stewart of one of his most viral moments: his 2004 CNN Crossfire interview. Stewart famously mocked the hosts (including Tucker Carlson) for their rigid adherence to partisan debate. Three months later, in early 2005, Crossfire was canceled.

Stewart explained his theories about the cancellation and why his objections were the final straw for an already struggling show. “First, I wasn’t objecting to loud arguments or angry arguments. I was objecting to theater… nothing you saw on that show was real anymore. It was made for theatrical conflicts, like pro wrestling. The second point is that the show’s ratings were in the tank.”

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Capacity crowd listens to two men speak at front of auditorium.
The Ahmadieh Family Auditorium in Gross Hall

The Return to The Daily Show Provides Advice for Students

Most famous for his 17-year stint as host of The Daily Show, Stewart recently returned to the host’s chair for the first time since 2015. Deggans pointed to the seeming ease of the return.

“There’s so much muscle memory involved,” replied Stewart. “Remember, I was there for 17 years, and we evolved not just the kinds of topics that we dealt with but the process by which we created the show. So stepping back into it wasn’t so much effortless as it was a return to a circadian rhythm and a reflex that is almost reptilian. The process of this show is so married to how I think.”

He continued with poignant advice for the public policy audience. “If you do anything for 16 or 17 years, no matter how creative you are, it has to be routinized. One of the difficulties of anything you do in policy is creating a system of resilience. If you are looking for an outcome, just creating a machine to get that outcome once isn’t really meaningful; you have to design a machine that will repeat that outcome. The challenge in the creative field is, ‘How do I design a machine that’s resilient but still has space for inspiration and creativity? With this you will be surprised at how infrastructure, how rigidity, how repetition frees you up for creativity. It’s paradoxical, but it’s true. The more structure you give yourself, the more comfortable you are that you can return to safe ground, the more freedom you will feel like you have to take risks and make choices.”

The Process of Creating and Executing Ideas

The discussion continued with exploring the issues Stewart chose upon his return. During his first show in February, Stewart drew anger and annoyance from pundits and politicians alike, criticizing both Donald Trump and Joe Biden as presidential candidates. He walked through the decision-making process when landing on that topic. He defended the choice specifically but shared more wisdom on the fundamentals of creative decision-making.

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Audience members listening.
Stewart entertained the mix of staff, faculty and students with his improvised humor. 

“The most important thing in any creative or ideating endeavor is to have a clarity of vision, but a flexibility of process and collaboration. Really be clear about what your vision is, and really be open to constructive criticism and the manner in which you are going to receive it.”

Once again addressing the students, Stewart compared the process of making The Daily Show to public policy. “Policy is no different. It’s a refinery, and you're taking broad ideas, trying to think through the context, and trying to think through the ramifications and the render times.”

With direct experience in policy, Stewart referenced the Pact Act, a law that was recently passed to provide additional healthcare to U.S. military veterans exposed to the effects of burn pits. Stewart was a vocal advocate and is credited for successfully passing the law in Congress in 2023.

Diversity in The Daily Show and Entertainment at Large

Delving into his expertise in media representation, Deggans asked further questions about the recruitment process for The Daily Show writing staff. Deggans cited recent attacks on diversity efforts in education and business as a concern.

In response, Stewart told a story about the show's initial struggles recruiting a diverse staff. One decision dramatically changed the makeup. “We started paying our interns,” said Stewart, drawing huge applause from the student crowd. “And suddenly, the whole group became diverse.” Quelling the applause, he pointed out, “This is nothing to be proud of. We ran the show for 10 years without this.”

From there, the efforts expanded, as Stewart conveyed: “We started an internship specifically for military veterans. We started looking for a wider range of socio-economic status. We started looking for more conservative interns.”

Ultimately, Stewart highlighted the insidious nature of racism and sexism in existing systems. “The systems in place are not necessarily in place because they are malevolent; they are in place because they’re perpetuating a status quo that doesn’t involve bringing in more voices. It can be uncomfortable. People tend to go with people that are kind of like themselves. It’s not evil, it just is. Then those systems get perpetuated, and it takes active and creative thinking to break down those tributaries,” said Stewart.

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Audience members smiling while one raises her hand.
Taking extra time to answer questions, Stewart finished the night with a frenetic "lightning round" of rapid fire responses.

From there, the floor was open for questions as attendees sought Stewart’s perspective on topics spanning his expertise in entertainment and advocacy.

Here are some of the highlights from Stewart.

Satire in this age of absurdity

“Please don’t ever think that satire is a potent avenue for change. Satire can be an agent of catharsis; it can identify certain problems, but change is grunt work, and that is what you are going into (in public policy). Cultural power is not power. It can bring reinforcements, but nothing changes without ‘boots on the ground’ with well-intentioned people.”

How to maintain a sense of hope and optimism

“I am wildly optimistic and always have been. There is always a tendency to look at the moment you are in right now and believe it to be the darkest and most intractable. The way I view it is that people generally want to do good. Ignorance is an epidemic, malevolence isn’t. The difficulty comes with malevolent forces learning how to harness ignorance.”

How his societal impact is perceived as host of The Daily Show

“It’s not advocacy, and it’s not truth-telling. It’s my opinion. Having worked alongside real advocates, I have too much respect for what they do to confuse it with what I do. I do something that is not particularly honorable, but I do it as honorably as I can.”

The damage caused by political tribalism

“When people talk about diversifying their political beliefs, they are often buying into a binary that we (at The Daily Show) don’t buy into in the first place. The question should instead be, what is your current dissatisfaction with what you are seeing (in politics), and what would you rather see? The dividing line for me is not conservative or liberal. The dividing line is whether someone is acting in good faith or bad faith.”

His ability to spotlight political absurdity through sometimes divisive comedy

“My job is to expose the absurdity of it all. To me, reducing the malevolent air is not about gentility or coddling. It is about leading with moral integrity and demonstrating it. From day one, I’ve always known that people will disagree with me.”

On his favorite comedians

“Legacy wise: (Richard) Pryor, (George) Carlin, THE BEST. I was fortunate enough to meet and become friendly with George, and you couldn’t have a better experience with somebody you admire and love—just a wonderful man. Nowadays, there are so many great comedians everywhere. We are in a golden age of comedy.”

Book recommendation

“The Trump Bible”

The guest that affected him the most

“There are certain people you meet who emanate and vibrate on a different plane of goodness than you could ever imagine. When I sat down and spoke with Bishop Desmond Tutu, I went home and thought, boy, if I could just have that in a diffuser.”

Advice for students entering journalism

“Don’t allow the status quo of that machine to kill what makes you want to go into it: to kill the passion and excitement that you have to tell the truth.”

What brings him joy

“My family taught me joy. I had happiness, but I didn’t have joy. They taught me that. Now, so much brings me joy. This world is a joy machine; it is! It’s hard, but even in the hard is joy. Joy is the richness of that feeling of love for another person and going through hardships together. That bond is joy. It’s crazy how much there is and how hard you have to fight to hold on to it.”