As Jon Stewart announces his Daily Show departure, it's easy to admire his epic takedowns of politicians and media personalities. But what also makes his show work so well are revealing, friendly interviews. A great example: the 2009 Daily Show appearance of a Harvard Law professor named Elizabeth Warren.
At the time, Warren was the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP. She writes in her 2014 memoir that she was so nervous that she vomited repeatedly before she went on-air. And her nervousness shows — she hesitates before she answers, and she even forgets the name of a TARP program she herself was trying to explain to him. In her memoir, Warren herself characterizes the first part of the interview as "terrible."
She sort of recovers, but really she never seems to make a point. And Stewart knew it, too. Throughout the interview it seems like Stewart is fighting to get this anxious professor to tell him what's really important. When that didn't happen, he rearranged his show to give her more time. Warren writes:
"As I started to bolt out of my chair, Stewart grabbed my forearm and said something like, 'You wanted to deliver an important message here, and you didn't get to it. If I gave you one sentence, what would you tell people?'
We looked hard at each other again, our heads inches apart, and then I told him what I really thought. He said, 'Okay, hold on.'"
Stewart then argued with the stage director, insisting that Warren stay on after the break. "You don't have much time," he told her.
The rest of the interview takes off, and Warren seems to find her stride. She finally explains what she wanted to from the beginning: that she thinks deregulation was to blame for a new boom-and-bust cycle in the financial world.
"We go 50 years without a financial panic, without a crisis," she says. "Then what happens? We say, 'Regulation: it's a pain, it's expensive, we don't need it.' So we start pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric. And what's the first thing we get? The S&L crisis."
Warren gives a strong defense of regulation, and Stewart relaxes. "That is the first time in six months to a year that I felt better. ... Thank you. That actually put things into perspective and made sense for me," he tells her.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Stewart's (or Warren's) politics. But it's a great illustration of why viewers kept coming back to his show — not only did he lay into the people he disagreed with, but he coaxed great, cogent, thoughtful answers out of his guests.