Ask Jon Stewart whether he ever wishes he’d had President Donald J. Trump to kick around when he was still hosting “The Daily Show,” and he responds with a short, mirthless laugh.
“Not at all,” Stewart says, drawing out the vowel in that first word during a recent telephone interview. “I would have preferred that no one else had that either.”
Sometimes the price of satire is too steep, even for a guy who elevated the art of comedy-as-commentary to new heights on television.
Before he left the anchor desk of “The Daily Show'' in 2015 after 16 years, Stewart had begun transitioning into filmmaking, making his debut as a screenwriter-director with “Rosewater'' (2014). Now comes “Irresistible,‘' also written and directed by Stewart, starring Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, and Chris Cooper.
In terms of subject matter, “Irresistible'' hews very close to the kind of issues Stewart used the bully pulpit of “The Daily Show'' to lampoon: namely, the deceit, inanity and misplaced priorities that define our broken political system. He trains his sights on the gamesmanship undergirding political campaigns and the corrosive role of money.
The film, which is available on various streaming platforms, is a “Daily Show'' reunion of sorts: Carell was a correspondent on the show for several years before going on to greater fame in situation comedy (”The Office”) and the movies. In “Irresistible,‘' he plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic operative who practices the dark arts of political consultancy in a feverish attempt to get plain-spoken retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) elected mayor of a rural Wisconsin town. Seeing Hastings as “the future of the Democratic Party,” Gary engages in a no-holds-barred political chess match with a Kellyanne Conway-like Republican consultant named Faith Brewster, played by Rose Byrne.
“It’s very hard sometimes to make a dickish character likable,‘' Stewart, 57, says. “But if anybody can pull it off, it’s the most likable person I know, and that’s Steve Carell. He was who I wrote it for, and he was the first person I showed it to.”
In a separate interview, Cooper says that of the roles he has played in the last dozen years, “Jack is the most like me playing myself. It just fit like a glove, this character.” But the actor found the most interesting component of the “Irresistible'' shoot to be watching former “Daily Show'' collaborators Stewart and Carell settle back into the rhythms of their working relationship.
“As a scene was being set up – the lighting, the camera, all that business – they were consummate professionals: Getting to the nut of the comedy, cutting a line here, cutting a line there, working up to the last minute to get the cleanest, most concise scene that they could,‘' says Cooper. “These guys, they have that improv gene, and I absolutely do not. Jon realized, OK, let’s shoot the scene as written, and when we get what we want, then for a take or two or three we’ll turn Steve Carell loose and let him do whatever he wants to, with his improv and off-the-cuff remarks. It was astounding to be there and watch.‘'
In “Irresistible,” Cooper initially comes to Carell’s attention when a video of the colonel’s passionate town-meeting defense of undocumented immigrants goes viral. You can’t get much more 2020 than that, but Stewart says he drew inspiration from classic political films, including three that were released, respectively, in 1939, 1940, and 1972.
“The impetus for it was very much ‘What if a movie began the way “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'’ ends?' ‘' he says. “And ‘The Great McGinty,’ the idea of a caper, a sort of sting. And the idea of ‘The Candidate,’ of finding someone, not necessarily that you believe in, but someone who has something that you can exploit. All those little elements rolled together.”
Crafting character and narrative required Stewart to move out of his quippy comfort zone, but he welcomed the challenge. “It’s harder for me. I tend to write in joke form: setup, setup, setup, and then – punchline,” he says. “So I had to go back and feel [the characters] out as real people. I love the idea of spending more time crafting a story than being handcuffed to that day-and-date schedule of ‘The Daily Show.‘’'
As anchor of Comedy Central’s mock newscast from 1999-2015, Stewart was the mordant voice of dissent. He molded “The Daily Show'' into a systematic critique – with killer jokes -- of the political establishment and the media, of power and its misuse. Along the way, Stewart provided a roomy showcase for correspondents like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Hasan Minhaj – all of whom now have politics-heavy programs of their own. (Noah succeeded Stewart at “The Daily Show.‘‘) Collectively, they ensure that Stewart’s sensibility remains very much alive on TV, even though he’s now making movies.
On the surface, “Irresistible'' seems built on the widely held notion that today’s political polarization is rooted in the disconnect between Washington and the heartland, between Blue and Red states. When Carell tries to persuade Cooper to wage a campaign against the town’s Republican incumbent mayor, he tells the colonel: “Democrats are getting their asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you.‘'
But Stewart contends that the Blue-Red schism is not the central crack in our civic foundation. The principal problem, he contends, is that “the media and politicos'' have created “this really powerful industrial complex that has only gotten bigger and stronger and richer as the country has devolved.
“This film would work the exact same if it was a Republican consultant in the inner city – it would be the exact same in reverse,‘' says Stewart. “The system that we have created around our election process, which is now permanent and constant, has created its own whirlpool, a centrifugal force that you almost can’t escape. It exists, really, outside of the millions of people that it’s supposed to serve. And so there’s no real accountability.
“This money gets thrown around like mad, and then they go on to the next town, the next fight,” he adds. “And nobody pays a price for not being responsive.” It’s wrong, Stewart says, “for us to comfortably settle into that narrative, that it’s all about the divide, when what we ultimately find out is it’s not really about that at all. It’s about a system of electing people that is no longer responsive to the needs of'' the country.
If those sentiments sound like something you might hear from the head of your state’s Common Cause chapter, they are actually not inconsistent with Stewart’s persona. Within every satirist beats the heart of a reformer, and beneath the scathing wit he unleashed on “The Daily Show,‘' it became clear that Stewart was the kind of iconoclast who smashes institutions because he believes the broken pieces can be reassembled into better institutions.
Of course, that belief can be harder to sustain when the occupant of the Oval Office is the one doing the institution-smashing. Asked whether Trump is so outlandish that he is essentially beyond satire, Stewart says no. “I think the challenge is that it’s heartbreaking, and sometimes it’s hard to do comedy when your heart is breaking,” he says. “But I also think that when we are all focused on the same thing, especially as fractured as the world is right now, in some ways it’s better because we’re all speaking more of a shared language. And in that shared language, there’s even more shared experience.”
In his foreword to a 2016 oral history of “The Daily Show,‘' Stewart wrote that “somewhere along the line the process of making that show became the mechanism by which I worked through my own emotions about the world.”
So what is his mechanism now? This time Stewart pauses before answering.
“When you’re not tied to deconstructing the world and producing content about it every day, you don’t necessarily need to process it in the same way,” replies Stewart. “It’s like I’m intermittently fasting now. I’m having a richer view of the world, and maybe a slightly more balanced life. I find that the need to process it is not as strong. I still do, but it’s not the same urgency.”