When asked about how he reacted to learning that one of his Daily Show satires was used as evidence to torture a journalist in Iran, Jon Stewart says, "I might have uttered the phrase: 'Are you — with some profane adjective — are you kidding me?' "
"It's so surreal and it's so absurd that it's hard to imagine it as not farce," Stewart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
That discovery led to Stewart making his first film, Rosewater, adapted from a memoir by journalist Maziar Bahari.
Bahari was born and raised in Iran. In 2009, he was back in Iran covering the presidential election and the subsequent protests challenging the results that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. After Bahari shot news video of the protests, he was arrested. During his 118 days in solitary confinement, he was beaten, tortured and accused of being a spy.
The evidence Bahari's torturer presented to prove he was a spy included a satirical report about Iran that Bahari had appeared in on the Daily Show. In the clip, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones went to Iran to ask Iranians what makes them so evil. Jones was dressed like a spy in a B movie when he interviewed Bahari in a cafe.
"I always assumed that somewhere one of our bits would be used like that — I just didn't think it would be this one," Stewart says. "I think it just affirms that sense that you always have that you cannot outsmart crazy. You can't ever imagine how someone might weaponize idiocy."
On Bahari telling his story
I think [he] feels that part of the process of transforming his ordeal into something more positive is reclaiming his freedom and reclaiming expression. [The interrogators] also told him, "When you get out, you say nothing. You will tell nobody. You will tell nothing about it."
And I think, literally, on the plane as he was flying back to London, he was composing the article he was going to write for Newsweek and part of his memoir. ... He's a brave dude!
On how humor sustained Bahari when he was in solitary confinement
Humor survives in the bleakest of conditions. ... I think the idea that under these incredibly harsh conditions, not only did [Bahari's] humor survive, his humor sustained him. And I found that incredibly empowering. ...
People always say, "Is that an appropriate joke? Is it appropriate to joke about that subject?" And [I] always want to say, "Not only is it appropriate to joke about that subject, but I think it's essential to joke about it." ...
I've always had this experience at funerals or in a time of great worry [that] a joke can kind of re-energize or reconfigure a room or bring people back to life to some extent. [Bahari's] ability to do that for himself in the absence of audience I thought was remarkable.
On whether what happened to Bahari makes Stewart worry about how his satires might be used
You can't censor yourself for someone else's ignorance. There's no way to understand. What they utilized was innocuous and they weaponized it. ...
It was just pretense. If it wasn't that, they would've used something else and they did! They used his Facebook page against him. The idea that he was on an Anton Chekhov fan page, they used against him. You know Anton Chekhov, the famed Zionist.
On making comedy versus making drama
I think the process of drama is not particularly different from the process of comedy. ... I think there's always the sense when you're a comic that, "Hey, you know what would go well in this scene? A banana peel. Why don't we stick that right on the floor?"
So there was maybe exercising a certain amount of restraint more than it was completely operating in an alien environment or an alien medium. The process of breaking a story, deconstructing the narrative — of creating that narrative arc — is not so different from what we do on a daily basis at the show.
On filming in a functional prison in Jordan
From what I understand, Jordan has a new — it's nascent but flourishing — film industry, so it's not as though they had never had somebody from a film crew come in and say, "Hey, we're doing a film." Jordan generally stands in for films that deal with this type of subject matter.
I think they would've been more surprised if I came over and said, "Hey, can we use Jordan to shoot a rom-com? I've got Sandra Bullock and I've got Ryan Reynolds, and here's what I want them to do: I want them to meet-cute outside a hummus cafe." I think if we had done that, they would've been more surprised.
On the beard Stewart grew on set in Jordan
Let me tell you something. Here's what that was: Fifteen years of having to go on the air and wear a suit and shave, it really did feel like one of those things like, "Hey, man, I'm [Man vs. Wild's] Bear Grylls; I'm naked and out in the desert, man. I'm gonna let my freak flag fly."
I was unaware — since it had been so long — I was unaware of just how I had gone from sort of having a Timothy Busfield beard to just going flat-out Moses.
I went flat out — it's just gray and long, and I just felt like, "Wow, I should study at some point." I really felt like I could walk into a rabbinical college and they would just automatically grant me a doctorate, just sort of out of pure and utter biblical looking-ness.
On whether the camera can be a weapon of its own
Bearing witness has its limitations as activism as well — that doesn't mean that if you have the opportunity to do it, you don't do it. Satire, or what we do on the show, certainly has its limitations, but I think we try to utilize it to the best of our ability. ...
I don't see it as a weapon as much as I see it as a conversation ... against dogma. ... I see all of these shows as in some ways a weapon against complacency. ... It's an awfully complex ecosystem and it doesn't exist on its own.
I think when you have a moment that is as focused as the one Maziar faced, then it really crystallizes what it is that your art form does. ... We live in a country where satire is settled law — so we're not fighting against the kinds of censorship and parameters that somebody like Maziar or somebody like my friend Bassem Youssef in Egypt would've been fighting against. That takes away one level of urgency from what you're doing.
On doing a daily show versus a long-term project, like filmmaking
What's so seductive, I think, about doing a daily show is ... that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day where you sort of get the sense that, "Man, we did it!" It is that rhythm of completion that I think is very seductive and very rewarding within that.
I think part of the issue with the film is I didn't realize at each turn how much further I had to go. I think sometimes it's sort of that sense of, you know, when you're lost on a highway and you feel like you're in this strange limbo land until you get back to that exit that you knew? ... So until you get back to that tent post, you feel as though you're in kind of a strange limbo of: time is not passing, distance is not passing, because I'm lost. There was a little bit of that. When I finished the script I felt like, "I'm done!" And obviously then you have to cast it. When I finished shooting I thought, "I'm done!" and [I'm] not done, never done. It's a constant process of revision and revisiting, but the rewarding aspect of that is I felt like at each turn there were opportunities to improve it. ... That's the seductive part of filmmaking.
Bob Dylan's career was interrupted in 1966 when he crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home in upstate New York. He wasn't badly injured, but used the occasion to disengage from the grind of touring he'd been doing, relax, and hang out with his band. During this hiatus, some tapes surfaced of new songs he'd been writing: the infamous Basement Tapes. On the occasion of the entire archive being released, Fresh Air critic Ed Ward takes a look at them.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford was a young man, he says he had a cynical view of aging.
"I sort of went through life thinking that when you got to be in your 60s that basically you weren't good for much," Ford tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's a younger man's view. I know that the AARP phones are ringing when I say that but now I'm 70 and I don't think that anymore, OK?"
Not only is Ford older, but the character he's been writing about for years has aged, too. Frank Bascombe, whom Ford wrote about in The Sportswriter and Independence Day, is now 68.
Ford's latest book Let Me Be Frank With You is a series of four interconnected novellas about Bascombe, who is retired from his work as a real estate broker. It's 2012, just before Christmas, and just a few weeks after Superstorm Sandy destroyed parts of the Jersey Shore near where Frank lives.
Ford says for this book, he had to bring Frank "up to date" to make him a plausible character.
"I really got interested in the consequences of the hurricane and I got interested in having Frank be my instrumental narrator in assessing those consequences," Ford says. "So once I figured out how old he would be, then I had to sort of fill in the absences there that weren't taken care of in the other books. In other words, I kind of backed into it being about aging because he happened to be that age."
In the stories, Frank is dealing with the aftermath of Sandy, his aging body, a dying friend and his ex-wife, who has Parkinson's and has moved to a nearby assisted living facility.
"I think these things are surrounding us all the time," Ford says. "We don't have experiences to get over [them]; we have experiences so we can sort of deal with them and address them and have, in some ways, some stability towards them."
On writing about Frank Bascombe at a turning point in the character's life
I just thought I was writing about something that was interesting to me that happens in a life. I mean, when you're in your life living day-to-day, I don't think — I'm not sure anyway — if we recognize turning points when they happen. I mean turning points are kind of a term of art, by which I mean it's a thing we ascribe reality to after the fact.
On the importance of houses in his story, especially in the wake of the storm
Half of my young teenage years I spent living in a hotel. Very transient ... people living in rooms and dying in rooms and doing bizarre and wonderfully scandalous things in rooms, [as] opposed to what my father, who died when I was 16, wanted more than anything, which was to have a house — to own a house — to live in the suburbs, to have that serenity, that stability, that assurance that it would be there when he came back on the weekends. He was a traveling salesman.
So for me, houses are full of drama because they're always opposed by the chaos that's constantly inflicting itself on us. ...
For me, houses have almost iconic status. I've lived in lots of houses; I've owned a few houses; I love looking at houses because it's shelter. ... A house is where you look out the window and see the world. A house is where you'll die; a house is where you'll get divorced. A house is where you'll have your most sacred and most profane experiences. Houses for me are critical to my experience and I guess I thought critical to many Americans' experiences.
On Ford's father, a traveling salesman
My father used to leave on Monday morning whistling and he would come back on Friday afternoon whistling. And that always made me think somewhere that between Monday and Friday he was having a good time. ... I thought work was good. I thought work was rewarding; work was satisfying. I have a very good ethic because of that. I'm not a good procrastinator — I just go do it if it needs to be done. He taught me that.
On a writer's legacy
Art is the daughter of time, which means basically you write for the people who can read you when you and they are alive. I'm perfectly comfortable with that. The whole notion of legacy — I think it's kind of a media creation in a sense. We all talk about people's legacies. I just don't think about it. I feel like it's a privilege to get to write books. I feel like it's a high calling. I feel like it's allowed me to take full advantage of myself, with the chaos that goes on in my brain. If somebody reads me now, when I publish these books and write these books, that's all I ask. That's really all I ask.