Jon Stewart's "Rosewater" opens Friday, as you may have heard, which naturally leads to the question everyone seems to be asking him on the promotional circuit: What are you going to do next, Jon? (David Letterman, in fact, avoided that on Thursday's thoughtful encounter.)
The movie, which Stewart directed, has been well-reviewed, or at worst, respectfully reviewed. Stewart obviously has a real devotion to the subject, and to the art form of film -- as a way to express truths that might otherwise be utterly demolished in a daily or nightly news story. Or on a comedy show, like "The Daily Show," for that matter.
So what will he do next? His contract ends next September, bringing him to about 16 or so years at the helm. (He joined in '99). It's been one of the great rides in TV history, but it is also clear that Stewart is nearing the end of it.
He's circumspect in his answer to "what next" - and responds either playfully (on "The Today Show" the other day) or seriously, in the recent New York magazine profile/Q-AND-A, where he answered that there are other ways to have a "conversation" with the audience than on a nightly comedy show.
Let's sift through those possible conversations. What might Stewart do next?
My caveat emptor asterisk here: I know nothing, really, and certainly have had no idea what Stewart will do. But hunches are fun to explore, and I have plenty of those. Let's proceed and contemplate the odds of each possible career move:
1.) Stay on "The Daily Show" beyond 2015. I believe this is almost a dead certainty -- that he will in fact sign on through the 2016 election, and then call it quits -- most likely in very early 2017. He knows it's a historic election, and to leave the show beforehand would not only squander that opportunity, but deny the show and Comedy Central a chance to groom the next host.
2.) Become a "serious" newsman. This possibility always comes up in questions, and Stewart immediately rejects it out of hand -- as if the person who asks is a ninny. But this isn't a wrong question, but more likely not properly phrased. A better way to ask would be -- "what would be the possibility of assuming a different role on TV that would engender a dialogue or exploration of issues that you are deeply interested in, notably the fate of the Middle East, or the perhaps our own country?"
There's a real failure of imagination in the asking of the "serious newsman" question by those doing the asking, because we are all burdened with the idea of a Brian Williams or Mike Wallace, as the prototype. But couldn't there be another model we've all overlooked entirely? All of us with the exception of Stewart?
3.) Go into politics. That's a laugher right? Right. or well, sort of a laugher. I recall that Stewart once told Oprah -- when she asked him this question -- that he'd go out of him mind, or words to that effect, if he was to run for office.
But he is certainly aware of the history -- notably one senator from Minnesota by the name of Al Franken. Stewart obviously is concerned about the direction of the country, and -- perhaps -- has probably taken any number of calls from the Democratic National Committee over the years asking him ever so politely about the what ifs ... And he's almost certainly ever-so-politely also told the caller to go take a hike.
Those calls are inevitable, by the way. Cronkite used to get them, and Brokaw did as well -- to run on the Democratic ticket in South Dakota, and he always rejected them out of hand.
Stewart recently sold his New York home, and relocated full time to New Jersey, which has a way of sparking silly speculation -- is this a prelude to establishing residency as a prelude to running? (Or maybe his family just likes the schools better?)
Nevertheless, there are intriguing possibilities here -- Stewart, a very wealthy Jersey guy, wouldn't have to become part of the money chase, so he would presumably be above and apart from the pressures applied by the omnipotent K Street lobbyist crowd.
He has no public record to run on, but plenty of people don't and they get elected.
In fact, a potential problem would be the on-air record -- naughty words, and images, said and seen innumerable times on the show. Those would inevitably become part of the attack ads against him.
Meanwhile, don't assume that Stewart has all Democrats or the so-called "left" in the bag. Quite the contrary: He's occasionally received blistering critiques from the left, most recently in the book, “Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will,” by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny.
The authors write that Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity a few years ago "officially abdicated ['TDS's'] Most Trusted title, spending all of its hard-earned capital on what could have been a truly inspiring, energizing event honoring participants in the great American institution of democracy but instead became one bloated, crass exercise in satire-for-ratings. We guess this is how some people felt about Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars."
They added, "Never trust a show owned by Viacom to lead a counterculture revolution. If “The Daily Show” was ever a real threat to the establishment, it would have been canceled years ago."
Of course, the fun irony here is that "Newsfail" was published by Simon & Schuster, owned by CBS Corp.
But I digress.
What about politics? Here's what he told the Queen on her network a couple years back: "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 '30s, 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."
4.) Become a serious director of films and documentaries. Let's see how the box office does today, but this idea may have enormous appeal. Remember, a film doesn't just have to be a movie -- but it can also be a documentary. There are many wonderful documentarians out there doing great work -- just watch "P.O.V." if you don't believe me -- who get absolutely no attention because their name isn't Jon Stewart. To get widespread attention in the documentary field, your name has to be Ken Burns -- that's not fair, but that's just the way it is.
What if Stewart were to launch his own company, which pursues big screen film projects, but also hires serious filmmakers who need the imprimatur of a Jon Stewart to get access and attention -- filmmakers who have an expertise in the Middle East, with credentials and insight and sources, but can't get in the front door at HBO? If Jon Stewart was doing the knocking, I'd bet that door would open.
Surely this is another way to have a "conversation" about important subjects, and since we can all agree that Stewart, at heart, is serious guy who wants to pursue those, why wouldn't this be a viable option?
Maybe, just maybe, it is.