That Time Jon Stewart Eviscerated The Magazine Industry
(It was also the first time he admitted, on the record, that he cared)
In September 2005 I was three things: the media blogger for FishbowlNY, a maniacal Daily Show fan, and the only person to smuggle a tape recorder and camera into a big Magazine Publishers of America event featuring Jon Stewart interviewing five hotshot magazine editors in an unbelievable bloodbath.
This was a big deal. A decade ago, print was still king. The Internet was still regarded by the media with skepticism, as a curio, an untamed land populated by bloggers in their pajamas. There was no Twitter. There was no Instagram. Which makes sense, because there were no iPhones. YouTube existed but on the fringes — “Lazy Sunday” was still three months away. The wheels were slowly coming off, but high in the gleaming office buildings of Conde Nast, Hearst & Time Inc. it was happy, comfortable, profitable and, dare I say, smug business as usual.
The MPA was hosting a big event for its advertisers: a cocktail party and panel featuring big-name editors-in-chief Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, Jim Kelly of Time, Kate White of Cosmopolitan and David Zinczenko of Men’s Health — and, in a big coup, moderated by Daily Show host Jon Stewart. A thousand people filled Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, looking forward to a fun-filled presentation. The event was called “Laughing Matters: Magazines Celebrate Humor.”
In September 2005, the Daily Show was gaining currency as a must-watch for progressives and media people with edge, riding high on the breakout success of its Indecision 2004 election coverage and staying relentlessly relevant through Republican scandal after scandal. You still had to catch it at 11pm though (or on a repeat showing at 1a.m.) — there was no next-day video, and we were still a ways from widespread DVR.
In that media environment, my next-day Daily Show recaps were far and away my most popular posts. But that, for FishbowlNY at Mediabistro in September 2005, usually meant traffic in the hundreds. The media establishment got it that Jon Stewart was a thing, but many of the still didn’t quite get why. That’s why the MPA thought it was perfectly safe to book Stewart with their boldfaced-name editors. And to be fair, maybe it seemed safe — after all, though the Daily Show was doing skewering segments and one-liners, Stewart was still by and large fairly mild in his interviews (see his interview with Rick Santorum in July 2005). But looking back, all the signs were there — Jon Stewart may have followed puppets, but he wasn’t one.
And so — bloodbath. Which is why in September 2005 I had my first big scoop in the form of the only almost-full-transcript of the event, which I still remember feverishly transcribing in excitement and wonder. What can I say, in 2005 we were all much less jaded. There is a LOT here — but a few notable moments include David Zinczenko proclaiming that “fit is the new rich,” Graydon Carter stubbornly insisting that print would always set the agenda, and me getting Jon Stewart to admit — for the first time in print that I could find — that he actually cared. Which of course became clear in the years to follow but it was nice to hear it said out loud:
“Look, we have a very small, narrow talent: writing jokes. Hopefully those jokes are funny. We’re just applying that talent to things we care about. We are joke writers who would prefer to write jokes about things we care about.”
Anyway — for those of you who enjoy deep-dives into events that reveal their significance years later, here it is. Forgive me, Dave Zinczenko.
Jon Stewart Kicks Some ASME
By Rachel on Sep. 30, 2005–12:30 PM
Jon Stewart was on fire last night at the Magazine Publishers of America Magazine panel “Laughing Matters: Magazines Celebrate Humor,” going to town on top editors Graydon Carterof Vanity Fair, Time‘s Jim Kelly, Cosmopolitan‘s Kate White and Dave Zinczenko of Men’s Health . The house was full (according to Folio there were over a thousand people there — yowsers!), and Jon was in total control, letting loose with zinger after zinger and not holding back in the slightest, which the crowd appreciated, if not the poor plucky editors onstage. Fish in a barrel, people, fish in a barrel.
The night began with a choice of two cocktail parties: the actual ASME event at Stone Rose in the Time Warner Center, one floor down from the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater where the panel would be held, or the Tenth Annual Creative Excellence in Business Advertising Awards upstairs by the theater, where many a confused media attendees wandered around wondering why they didn’t recognize anyone (panelist Jim Kelly was somewhat befuddled by the lack of colleagues untilFishbowl set him straight and sent him on downstairs).
Fishbowl, meanwhile, had arrived at 6:30 for an event that began at 8 (damn you, Advertising Week website!) so we were able to sample all the appetizers including crepe-wrapped filet mignon with aoli sauce, risotto cakes with sundried tomato creme fraiche, pineapple chicken skewers, mini-Reuben sandwiches and delicious vegetarian spring rolls (oh, wasted taco, that I could go back in time and save you for later!). The room filled up; more wine was passed, Fishbowl resisted. Getting tipsy before the presentation: bad idea. Mustn’t reveal true feelings to Jon. MUSTN’T.
Killing an hour and a half before a high-profile event has its perks; like getting there in time to snag a random seat in the middle of the front row. We sat next to Playboy VP and Publisher Diane Silberstein, her colleague Ron Stern, and ASME Executive Director Marlene Kahan.
The program began with ASME president Nina Link in a paean to magazines (“Magazines touch us in so many meaningful ways”) before introducing ASME President and Newsweek EIC Mark Whitaker and Reader’s Digest Corporation CEO Tom Ryder. Ryder told a joke wherein President Bush thought “Brazilian” was a real number, like “gazillion”; laughter, the best medicine. Whitaker had a more on-point anecdote, about panelist Kate White: she chaired a panel at an ASME workshop on coverlines two years ago (they workshop those??) on which Whitaker was participating, and an audience member asked if there was one word which would move magazines the most. Whitaker said “God.” Newsweek‘s penchant for Jesus-as-coverboy, explained. The next day, White sent him a note thanking him for inspiring a new coverline: “God, that was good last night.” Now take out “Kate White” and replace with “Jim Kelly.” Hee. Time Man of the Year!
This was officially entertainment: they had an opening act. Funny as the subsequent panel was she was Susie Essman and she was hilarious, if ribald as hell. Laurel gives my fingers a break by getting it all down below; we want to give props to Marlene Kahan for getting off a good line on Essman: after Essman finished her schtick on how you could tell if a man was good in bed by his choice in magazines (“Vanity Fair — calls out his own name during sex”), Marlene said simply “Or, if he has big feet.” Nice one, Marlene! It was the closing punchline of Essman’s set. ASME people are FUNNY!
Okay. You’ve been patient. Here was are: September 29th, 2005. This is The Daily Show Jon Stewart’s Eviscerating Take On Top Magazine Editors And The Industry In General.
And there he is! It’s Jon! He’s so cute, walking out onstage. It’s a well-known fact that he’s somewhat diminutive but, well, he’s quite diminutive. No less a commanding, confident and instantly likeable presence though. HUGE applause.
He pauses, and the crowd stills. “What a night,” he says, smirking faintly, punchline to come. “What a night for the…(turns around to look at giant screen above his head)…”MPA.” He hasn’t got the slightest idea who they are, and the crowd loves him for it. Actually, he will continue to insult them all night and they will chortle with glee. “We’re celebrating humor in magazines. To do that I’m going to interview editors. That is because they’re hilarious. Vanity Fair, Men’s Health, Consmopolitan, Time — all of them known for their humor.”
He recalls being approached to host the gig and asked if he wanted to interview four top editors. “I thought, wow, that’s great. Or — or — should I put a needle in my eye.” See? The crowd LOVES it! Then they mentioned the budget (and by the way, the budget! Lincoln Center! Open bar! Veggie spring rolls!). “And I remember thinking…mmm, it might be interesting. (Faux-mulling) Editors are interesting, they go to parties, they write “stet” in the margins…they go to parties….fuck it, let’s do it.”
The photographers — all three of them — rush to the front of the stage in a mini-scrum. Jon is perplexed. “Why the mosh pit? Are you really that interested in getting a picture of Jim Kelly?”
After promising Ron in the first row that, unlike Susie, he won’t berate him for the lack of sex he has with his wife (“My girlfriend,” Ron corrects; “and your girlfriend?” Jon deadpans. “This is the kind of humor we celebrate tonight”), Jon is ready to bring out the gang! He’ll introduce him alphabetically, he says, because “you would not believe the fucking egos on these people.”
Backstage, I can see Graydon’s unmistakable silhouette (well, the hair is unmistakable; he’s a little more portly than imagined). I see him take a deep breath. Aw. Don’t worry, Graydon, you’ll be great. I’m sure Jon’ll be real nice to y’all.
And here they are! Graydon! Jim! Kate! David! Out they come, beaming, pleased as punch to be here, sweetly oblivious of the merciless mockery to come. Zinczenko goes in for the close handshake; Jon takes the moment to mug for the cameras. Zinczenko loves it. I have to say, it’s weird seeing them all to scale. I always pictured Graydon as tall and ramrod straight; that said I find him a far more likeable presence than I would have expected, thoughtful and jovial and a touch absentminded, almost avuncular. (I think I mentioned that I was sitting in the middle of the front row — I had access, people. No one stalks like Fishbowl!). Jim Kelly seemed jolly and nice with his fluffy white hair and rosy-cheeked smile, as though he’d giggle like the Pillsbury Doughboy if you poked him in the stomach. (For the record, we did not try this.) Kate White looked very Cosmo-appropriate in hot heels and a smart, fashionable outfit; she’s got herself some great legs. David Zinczenko presumably also has great legs to match the great abs he’d damn well better have as editor of that magazine. He reminded me a bit of Will Arnett’s portrayal of Gob on “Arrested Development,” unshakable perma-smile coupled with an air of nervous energy. Then again, what do I know.
I do know this: brown shoes with black socks and black everything else are a fashion no-no. And yet, behold Graydon’s feet. They are at my eye level and I stare, fascinated. Can this be the Graydon Carter
of Toby Young’s “How To Lose Friends And Alienate People” fame? I have heard tell of Graydon’s stringent footwear requirements. So what’s with the fashion faux-pas? My eyes slide across the panel, floor-level. Jim Kelly, black; Jon Stewart, black; gasp! David Zinczenco, brown? He’s all black-pants-and-jacket too! No brown accents, not anywhere! Is it me, or are they both massively wrong? It could be me; I am wearing a white unitard, after all.
Jon opens by welcoming them to a spirited discussion on magazines and humor, “which plays, certainly, in Time.” He turns to Graydon. “What do you attribute the long-term success of Vanity Fair. Is it humor? Because that is what we are celebrating.” Graydon nods and agrees, noting that yes, humor does play a role, both in coverlines and content. And if Jon happened to look at the masthead he’d see nine or ten people left over from Spy. Jon thinks for a second. “Why, if humor is so important, is that magazine dead?” [Cheers.] Yet, says Jon, Vanity Fair lives on. Well, says Graydon, “I think humor works, and irony works unbelievably well on television–” “Excellent, excellent” pipes up Jon. Graydon continues: “It’s not as marketable a commodity in print.” Graydon. Are you KIDDING me? You’ve obviously never read this Fishbowl post about how you like hairy men.
Jon changes tacks, asking Kate how long Cosmo’s been around. “40 years,” she says proudly, walking into it. “40 years,” says Jon. “If in 40 years these women have not figured out how to keep it quote-unquote “spicy” — is the hope at Cosmo that if we just hang in there another five years…?” Huge applause. Kate takes this one seriously, referring Jon to the Cosmo Love Lab, where “we’re working at it all the time.” She says that Cosmo speaks to women in an authentic voice, presumably with many exclamationi points. (Hi, Mr. Kettle!)
“Look, we have a very small, narrow talent: writing jokes. Hopefully those jokes are funny. We’re just applying that talent to things we care about. We are joke writers who would prefer to write jokes about things we care about.”
Jon cuts her off; this is not meant to be about you, Kate White. “Dave,” he says, thoughtfully. “Why is your magazine so gay?” The crowd ERUPTS. Jon goes on. “I enjoy health. And yet, when I read it, I don’t know whether to go to the doctor, or rub my own nipples.” That is SO funny, that’s EXACTLY how I feel when I read Cosmo!!! Okay here my tape ran out (yes! We taped it! We’re rebels!) and all my notes say is “Oh, please don’t try to best Jon!!” which I can only assume means that Zinczenko has taken the first of his many wrong steps in Jon Stewart relations. (NB — if I seem to harsh on poor Dave’s buzz a bit, it’s not because I don’t give him credit for trying; it’s that I don’t give him credit for judgment. Unlike Jon, he does not understand his audience. Or his host. Especially his host.)
Zinczenko: “Fit is the New Rich”
Jon wants to know why the men on the cover are always “glistening”; Zinczenco says that it’s not always “nipple and ripple,” sometimes they have celebrities in T-shirts. I googled Men’s Health to find some glistening man-cake, and there is a lot of both nipple and ripple. New favorite magazine! Zinczenko says that what he really thinks they should do is get to the bottom of Jon’s issues. Cringe. “Good luck,” says Jon. He deftly shifts it, probably to protect Zinczenko from himself, asking what DZ admires most about a Cosmo or a Vanity Fair. Given the narrow focus of Men’s Health, does he aim for that kind of longevity? Zinczenko thinks. First mistake. “I think, fit is the new rich. I think–” Jon: “What?” Laughter. We’re all kind of dumbfounded. He goes on. “Thin is the new rich. Being fit has status, and…” I don’t know what he said there; my notes read “Dude. Stop talking NOW.” Jon looks at Jim Kelly, gesturing at Zinczenko. “Look how poor we are.” Jim shrugs and says, “I’m thinner in person.”
And now Jon’s focus has shifted. Hot seat: Jim.
Jon Stewart Kicks Some ASME, Part II: Show No Mercy
And we’re back! Round Two of our write-up, but last night the hits just kept on coming. By this point we’d all started feeling a big sorry for our hapless panelists. It was nothing compared to how excruciating it would get. I wonder when they realized they were brave.
We left off with Jon Stewart turning to Jim Kelly. He licks his chops. “Time magazine has been a tradition in America, yet…what’s happened?” (I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that laughter). “One federal prosecutor says ‘let me see your notes’ and immediately everyone pulls their underwear over their heads and hands it over.” A pause. “Not only that…Newsweek breaks the story.” Oooh, snap! “Jim,” he intones, solemnly, “what the fuck?” Graydon Carter is shaking with laughter. His turn next. But Jon wants to know; this, he says, “is a huge issue.”
Meanwhile, in the outside world, news is breaking that Judith Miller has been released from jail. Jim plays the Blame Game, immediately invoking corporate parent Time Inc. and how “Norm Pearlstine in his corporate role decided” to release the notes only “after fighting it out in the Supreme Court.” Don’t looky here, mister. You think I like having to defend this stuff? “Needless to say, we wish that we didn’t have any emails to turn over.” Jon waves it aside for the next pressing question. “Let me ask you this: why is your magazine so gay?” Nice. The crowd loves this! I do too. Jon is so damn quick, and he has this effortlessly under his control. The guy is a pro.
Jon opens it up to the other three: “As editors, have any of you ever been in a situation where you’ve thought, ‘There is peril in what we’re doing?’” (To Jim) “You guys are getting inside information from the government all the time…” (to others) “Do you ever find yourselves in a similar siuation?” Laughter. This is the thing about people who do things effortlessly: they make it look easy. David Zinczenko, don’t fall into the trap! For the love of God, no! His mouth opens. Sigh. “It happens to me all the time. Right now the government is on my ass to try and find out the Deep Throat of the Bench Press.” My tape reflects a short burst of laughter; my notes say “Oy. I’m uncomfortable.” DZ: “And I’m holding out! I am not telling them what’s going on.” Jon spares him any follow-up. Kate White jumps in: For her, it’s tough “when we’re going for 101 sex tips and we only have a hundred.” God, the pressure to whip off one-liners! It’s tough stuff. Right now as I sit here adding my two cents, I have the luxury of the delete button; not so when you’re on the spot (and let it be known that I haven’t gotten to the most excruciating part of the tape yet: where I speak). Jon’s plucky, he picks it up by saying that yes, your mags are all very different but we’re trying to find the common thread “which is, of course, humor.”
On to Graydon. “You guys break Deep Throat. Mark Felt. Did you feel there was peril in that?” “You know, it’s a very strange time for journalists, if you make a mistake it can be a career-ender, and a lifetime’s reputation can get tossed in the ashcan — you all saw what happened to Dan Rather.” says Graydon.
He goes on to remind the room that he published the Mark-Felt-is-Deep-Throat article without fact-checking it with the two people who actually knew (brass balls, people!). That was scary, he said. He was on a flight back to New York from his honeymoon (yay Graydon and Anna! Long live love!) and apparently the pilot came on and announced it. Jon turns to Kate. “Kate. What should Graydon’s wife have done on their honeymoon?” Hilarious. The crowd loves this. It seems like Kate does too. Kate: “I can make a few suggestions from the Love Lab.” Jon goggles a bit; there really is a Love Lab? Kate: “Of course — everything is fact-checked.” (Kate! Are you hiring?) Jon can’t believe it. “Everything is fact-checked? Your saucy tips are fact-checked? When you write about greeting your husband in Saran Wrap, it’s fact-checked?” Kate confirms, but chides Jon gently: “Saran is dead.” Jon looks at Zinczenco. “What about for dudes?” Hee. Zinczenko opens his mouth. Never a good sign. “I can answer her question,” he says confidently. Is there a word for “swagger” to describe speaking? “Graydon should have gone on his honeymoon and he should have had plenty of orgasms — multiple, multiple orgams. So many orgasms that Stephen Hawking couldn’t count them. That’s what Graydon should have done, according to Cosmo.” I wish I could go back in time and save us all from ever having heard that sentence. In the margin of my notebook I have written “DZ stop.” “Stop” is underlined three times.
Jon: “Let’s get back to humour.” Snap again!
Actually, though, Jon turns to Jim and addresses an ‘issue’: “With the speed of news today, how does Time stay relevant?” Jim reminds Jon that Time has a website. Jon shakes his head. “I’m not asking you how you get people to subscribe,” he says. God, he is so quick. Jim reminds Jon that Time broke the news of Michael Brown‘s resume-fluffing but concedes that, yes, as a weeklyTime is somewhat constrained by, well, time. Jon wants to know how many times Jim needs to get burned by an anonymous source before they’re cut off. “Let’s say that the white house has — let’s say, ‘operatives’ — and their job is to call magazines and say…untrue things. And you have had that practice repeatedly done to you. At what point do you stop talking to them? Or is that not an option?” Well, says Jim, when the information comes in, they verify it! Says Jon: “When will that start?” Laughter. (NB Jon is teasing Jim Kelly here for the sins of the brethren; it wasn’t Time that got burned by an unreliable single anonymous source earlier this year. But, it was Time that turned its notes over to the Grand Jury).
“David,” says Jon, “why are the men in your magazine on the cover always showered?” If you are familiar with Jon’s delivery, you know that he uses pauses and vocal intonation flawlessly to tease the most out of the joke, ending not on an interrogatory note but on a more declarative, authoritative one. “If they knew they were going to be on the cover, they could have showered before the photo shoot.” DZ responds: “We haven’t really had shots of guys who are showering on the cover of the magazine; we are showing guys, however, in their ideal state.” Jon’s not buying, really. There is some mockery, garbled by tape and laughter.
Jon switches focus. “Covers. Let’s talk covers.” He swivels to Graydon. A beat. “What were you guys thinking?” Graydon quips: “A cry for help?” Jon: “That was ironic, right?” (We are speaking, of course, of Paris Hilton on the October VF cover). Jon wants to know if having Paris on the cover makes a difference in sales. “Not particularly,” says Graydon. Suddenly from the back of the room “Bullshit!” Woo, feisty crowd! Guess someone’s banking on Paris in riding chaps. Graydon still wants to address this seriously, saying that the magazine is meant to reflect the culture around it — “we try to slice off our own piece of the culture.” As
for Paris, Graydon says that he’s been watching her for the past four or five years, and — “Yes, I’ve been watching her too,” leers Jon. Graydon continues: “People are fascinated by her…she has an ‘X’ factor. I don’t know what her talents are…” Jon smirks. The crowd laughs. He turns. “Kate, would you like to tell Graydon what her talents are?” Hee. So, then, says Jon, it’s about putting a fascinating figure on the cover? Nah, says Graydon, there’s a limit to how much impact a cover can have. Huh? Two words for you Graydon: Jude Law. (NB I can’t *quite* make this out so I could be misrepresenting his point. But still, he seems to be saying that his magazine will appeal despite the cover. This will actually come up soon.) Graydon admits that his children thought the Paris cover sucked. How old are they? asks Jon. Between 12 and 21. “So the audience that is ostensibly hers…” Graydon cuts in. “Well, I don’t look at an audience, I never look at demographic charts.” I’m sure Si’s glad to hear that. Besides, says Graydon, she looks better and “more presentable” than she’s looked elsewhere. RIDING CHAPS, Graydon. Give it up. Jon takes another approach: “Let me ask you this,” he says, I think to Jim Kelly. “When will Time Magazine find Jesus?”
I’ll tell you when, in the next post! Sorry, but this takes a while. Come back soon.
NEXT: Kate White thinks women in their 20s and 30s have short attention spans; size matters (where circulation is concerned); and your faithful blogger blurts out a mangled question to Jon Stewart, thus totally losing the right to keep making fun of David Zinczenko. Don’t miss it!
Jon Stewart Kicks Some ASME, Part III: “And by the way, I don’t read magazines”
By Rachel on Sep. 30, 2005–5:30 PM
We left Jon Stewart looking for Jesus on the cover of the newsweeklies and Jim Kelly swearing that he’s all for evolution. God is watching, Jim.
Enough with the Saran Wrap, Jon wants to know how much merch they’re moving. What’s your circulation? Jim Kelly says Time‘s is 4 million — impressive (but query whether it takes into account those subpoenaed subscriptions that the U.S. attorney’s office wanted — oh, right, those). Still, Time is the clear winner; the next is Cosmo, at a cool 3 million (2 million in newsstand sales!),Men’s Health with 1.7 million and Vanity Fair with 1.1 million. He looks at Graydon: “You’re fired.” Did Jon know all that? He asked them in descending order. Funny. Jon wonders; does that mean Jim makes more than Graydon? Hmmm. “What’s your price point?” Jon demands, trying to get to the bottom of this. $4.95, apparently. Can that be true? I’ve got a Newsweek in front of me; it’s $3.95. Jon wisely notes that the price decreases with a subscription; and by the way, he asks, “how much is one of those football phones?” Graydon likes the football phone joke. He’s quite jolly actually. Who knew? Graydon’s price point is $4.95 too. Kate‘s is $3.95. David‘s is “$25 for a ten-magazine subscription.” So, $2.50 says Jon. Always gotta be difficult. Newsstand price, please. $4.00 says David. Jon seems surprised. Hey man, Rx for the Complete Man don’t come cheap. Fit is the new rich.
I truly think that the Daily Show matters, and more than that I think Jon wants it to matter because he wants to effect change.
We start talking about subscription vs. newsstand. Kate says that Cosmo moves 2 million in newsstand sales. Whoa. “God” on the coverlines, no doubt. Graydon says that VF is more about some sweet subscription action. “So, you could really put anything on the cover,” says Jon. Case in earlier point. DZ’s magazine sells EVERYWHERE: “on the newsstand, subscriber base…” Jon looks at him. “Why do I feel like you’re about to sell me a time share?” Oh, DZ. I do like how you keep on trying. It’s a credit to you actually. Unlike the treble-orgasm ref of earlier. Jon looks at the audience: “Thin is the new rich.” Laughter. Nice. But DZ is about to
win their hearts: “We’re both but most of our money comes from advertisers, actually.” Who hoo! Clap if you’re an advertiser and we kind of forgot to talk about your industry! Jon looks at Graydon. “How many advertising pages?” Graydon: “In…what?” Jon: “VANITY FAIR.” Pretty funny. Oh, Uncle Graydon, where did you leave your teeth this time? VF gets 300 full pages, apparently. He asks Jim, and I can’t quite make it out — I think he said a couple thousand pages a year, which breaks down into 30–40 pages per issue. Jon wants to know “what’s that thing where they shove ‘em all together when you’re the middle of a story [and all the sudden] you’re reading about asthma?” (No, really, what is it? Until we know we’re going to call them Clumpy Ad Pages). Jon: “It’s like, ‘oh, my God, I can’t believe they put dioxin — whoa! Hay fever!” Jim says they try not to be that egregious, and then gives a gracious shout-out to their “wonderful advertisers.” Nice.
Jon turns to now Kate and David, saying that their mags are like big ol’ product placements “It’s almost like ‘Hey, I’m putting out this advertising book and in the middle of it is a tip on giving a blowjob.’” We *think* that one was addressed to Kate. We miss a few zingy one liners between “blow job” and the next thing we have written in our notes — no joke: “Service magazine.” Jon says that it seems like Kate and David struggle more for content, and Jim and Graydon struggle more for…relevance. Ooh. Kate says that Cosmo has its fashion pages as well as news for women about issues they’re concerned about. Jon posits that Kate and David are “talking much more demographically than these guys.” David’s not so sure; after all, “we’re striving to be a complete men’s lifestyle magazine, so we cover business, sex, nutrition, relationships, finance, fashion, travel…” Jon wonders how many guys actually need a complete magazine. Aren’t they looking less for a “life guide” than, well, products? This line of questioning is a little glib, and actually Kate makes a good point here, telling Jon that not only do many of her readers keep the magazine around as a reference (handy bedside astrologer!) but to lots of them it’s their bible. “Whoa,” says Jon. “You met somebody who referred to Cosmo as the Bible?” Jon reminds her that lots of readers are “literally sitting in doctor’s offices, waiting… It’s like, quick hits, no?” Kate: “Not for the 2 million people who buy it each month.” Jon: “Don’t you think it’s like quick hits,” snapping, as thought that will somehow convince the EDITOR OF THE MAGAZINE. “It’s like, oh, quick spicy tip, no?” Dude, if they have COVERLINE WORKSHOPS don’t you think they know how the magazines are read? You’re being too glib; we’re with Kate on this one.
And as soon as she wins us, she loses us. “Well, certainly for a women in their 20s and 30s they’ve definitely got a shorter attention span–” she is cut off by a low whistle from Jon, and a rumbling “oooh!” through the crowd. Says Jon: “They’re not going to be happy you said that.” We most certainly are not! How dare you underestimate an entire two decades of wo– no way, did I really finish a six pack of Diet Coke today? Gross. Zinczenko, on the other hand, will not be distracted from his primary purpose: to irritate Jon. DZ: “I would say that we have one of the hardest jobs out there which is trying to get guys, you know, hypochondriacs like you, to go to a doctor.” [Rumble from crowd] DZ says that it’ll take a gunshot wound or an accidentally severed limb to get a guy to the doctor. “Guys need this kind of information and the only way you can get to them is through humour.” EVERYBODY LISTEN UP! DAVID ZINCZENKO IS VERY SMART! “It’s like, Marshall McLuhan said, all jokes are grievances, so what you have to do is disarm them through humour and then arm them with the information that they need to change their lives. So we come in — not unlike what you do on your show, Jon.”
Says Jon : “I’ve often said The Daily Show is the poor man’s Men’s Health.” David, I’m down with the everything you just said except the McLuhan reference. You should take in a Woody Allen flick sometime.
Jon wants to know about the blurry line between editorial and advertising, especially in Time. Let’s say, he asks Jim, some pharmaceutical company that is a big advertiser has some scandal, and you write about it. Do they pull up and split or do they just not advertise in that issue? “They just don’t advertise in that issue,” says Jim. Obviously they’re not dealing with Morgan Stanley. Graydon remembers eight years back when they broke the story that would become the basis for “The Insider.” Ah, memories.
And now a word for our sponsors: “Do you think advertising in magazines works?” asks Jon. Graydon does, indubitably, and points to Google as an example: “I use Google, people use it like it’s a utility” but damned if he can remember a single ad he’s seen on it, ever. “But,” he says, “you do remember ads in newspapers and magazines.” Good point, Graydon.
David Zinczenko’s magazine, on the other hand, “worships at the altar of our readers.” The crowd has come to expect this; their
disbelieving laughter keeps me from hearing what exactly he means by that. I heard the word “passionate” though. Have we talked about Elizabethan England yet? No? Oh, goody, can’t wait. Jon turns to Kate. “Whereas you clearly have disdain for your readers.” Oooh, zing! Jon kids, he kids. Whither Cosmo ads, really? “I think advertising is reason people come back… they’re shoppers, they’re buyers…” Does the internet make her nervous? Nah, says Kate, we gots ourselves a huge website. DZ hops nimbly in here to trumpet the virtues of reading. “We basically look at the fact that more people are reading and writing than ever before as a good thing — the form is changing, how you communicate with them… but the fact is that three hundred thousand times more people are reading today than there were when Shakespeare was alive…” Once again, all subsequent words are lost in disbelieving audience laughter. “I’m gonna do the math on that,” deadpans Jon.
And then he turns it over to the floor for questions! “I unfortunately don’t know what you really want to know and I don’t know, clearly, anything.” Jon admits that he didn’t know the event was supposed to be for advertisers, and “that might be a nice place to start.” Indeed.
And there my tape ends. Which sucks because this is also the point where my notes get way worse. But, I will try.
Someone asks Jon what magazines he reads. “Juggs,” he deadpans. “To me, gigantic tits are the new rich.” Crass but funny, I will admit. I’m fuzzy on what came next but I wrote down “Jon Stewart Living” and then “I’m going to wrestle you,” which I know was directed at Zinczenko. Then someone from Elle asked a question but damned if I can remember it, I was half-trying to formulate something intelligent-sounding about blogs, the most unintelligent-sounding word ever to describe what my life has become (“squalor” on the other hand, has a certain ring). I figured God had put me in the front row for a reason. I started paying attention again once Graydon said something about how humor worked better “if the city or country is really doing well.” What? I’m not so sure I agree with Graydon’s views on humor. For the guy who co-founded Spy he doesn’t seem to hold it in particularly high regard.
Jon asks the girl in the red sweater about her affiliation — she’s from Elle. (Girl in red sweater from Elle! Email me and let me know what you asked! Actually, anyone who wants to help me reconstruct this stuff please do. Check back Monday because I bet I’ll have a more complete version up then). Jon looks from Elle girl to Kate: “Oh, they are totally fucking you up.” Then he rocks some street moves for his homie in the audience. “We outsell them by a lot,” sniffs Kate. Snippity-snap!
Now. The next thing I have written in my notes is “Oh well. I tried.” What I tried to do: get Jon Stewart to admit that what he did was important, and mattered. Needless to say, I did not succeed in so doing. I wish I had taped it actually because though I was dreading hearing my stuttering, fumbling self trying to engage Jon Stewart in debate, I actually was planning to faithfully transcribe it, because frankly that’s only fair. So I will endeavor to capture the essence of the exchange.
Somehow talk turned to comedy, and Jon said that he wished people wouldn’t set such store by his show, becauase honestly people, he was a joke writer. His staff were jokewriters. Losers, actually. And it really didn’t amount to more than that. “I follow puppets” hung in the air. Now, for those of you who have read one of my laborious Daily Show write-ups (and lord knows how you slogged through this one), you will know that I don’t buy that. I think Jon cares, I think he has an agenda, I think he wants to make a difference. If not, why have guests on the show at all, frankly? Why have Robert Kennedy come on for a laugh-free 10-minute segment about autism in American children? Why is Fareed Zakaria one of your favorite guests? Why not just spent the whole show celebrating the zany antics of Steve, Ed, Rob and Samantha? No. Comedy can and should be many things: toilet jokes or “According to Jim” or Entourage; highbrow or lowbrow, visceral or cerebral. And, it can be a vessel (yes, I know you all thing I’m after Jon’s vessel anyway). Anyhow, the point is that I truly think that the Daily Show matters, and more than that I think Jon wants it to matter because he wants to effect change.
So when he said something to the effect of “what we do doesn’t really matter” I kinda got excited and before I knew it my hand was up and I was leaning forward all earnest-student-revolutionary style and saying something to the effect of “What about being right? Doesn’t that matter?” Sure it mattered, said Jon. So? So, I said, haltingly and not-very-eloquently, you say this all the time about how your show doesn’t matter yet day after day you report what’s really happening and lay it bare and skewer the administration; doesn’t that mean you have an agenda and isn’t that important to you? (NB I did say “laid bare” and “skewer” but I thought that using a few garbled words to convey “agenda” would be better than actually saying “agenda.” People, it was scary! Jon was talking to me! Seriously, I am glad that the thousand people there were behind me.) Jon agreed that yes, that is what he does, saying “I’m there every night” (I said “So am I”) but he said basically that look, we’re comedians, we’re in it to make jokes, so if you’re looking to the Daily Show for some higher purpose, you’re going to be disappointed.*
Then David Zinczenko jumped in. I know what you’re thinking, I was too (notes say “DZ agrees with me. Ulp.”), but I appreciated him keeping the thread going and he made a good point, asking “Why isn’t the news a delivery system for things that are right?” Of course, that’s where it splinters into spin — ergo, Fox News, CNN, CBS/NBC/ABC and all the talking heads in between. My point, that I neglected to properly make, was that just because Jon did it using humor didn’t mean he wasn’t doing it. I just wanted to hear him admit that yes, being right was important and yes, it was important to him.
Well, thanks to David Zinczenko I think I got my wish. Jon said, seriously — and I think it’s notable that he wasn’t cracking jokes: “Look, we have a very small, narrow talent: writing jokes. Hopefully those jokes are funny. We’re just applying that talent to things we care about. We are joke writers who would prefer to write jokes about things we care about.”
JON CARES! You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that admission anywhere. As far as I’m concerned that was the best part of the night.
Then he said, “I don’t understand when humor became so important,” kind of marvelling, I think, that “people feel that underserved” by traditional news delivery (NB I don’t think that’s it; it’s the people he mocks that underserve us). “Boy, I wish you could be at the meetings. We’re comedians. We’re fuckin’ losers.” Then he commented that even if there was an absence of leadership, “don’t look at us for that because at the end of the day you will be sadly disappointed.”
Still: JON CARES. You can’t take it back, Jon! We got you! Whooooooo!
Doesn’t it feel like this should be over? You’re telling me. It’s not. But soon, soon.
Update: Now, now! Here we go again.
New question from the audience: who are the funniest writers you’ve ever worked with? Graydon says Bruce Handy. Jon’s all, “ooh, he’s funny, those “Deep Thoughts” are funny!” Graydon’s all, er, Jon, I think you mean Jack Handey. Score one for Graydon, who then loses my love once again by reiterating that all the funny people leave journalism for Hollywood because “the money is better.” We don’t have experience with that but we’d definitely take your word on it. Jim Kelly also likes Bruce Handy, as well as Joel Stein and Patty Marx (Jon mocks her non-famousness — pride goeth, Jon!). Kate White makes a point of saying how delightfully funny she finds her female writers, but when it really comes to sidesplitting laughs, she loves the boys. There was a funny gang they hired to write some coverlines and they were just hilarious! Don’t need to confirm that in the love lab! Kate, I’d find this irritating if I wasn’t already distracted by something else. Ha, ha. DZ said they have funny writers all the time, most notably Steve Martin who prepped a piece on why men have nipples. Wonders Jon: “Why do men have nipples?” (NB some men have three nipples! It’s true!)
Here’s where we get into the interesting stuff. An audience member brings up Jon Stewart on Crossfire; did anything anger him equally in print? Not really, says Jon: “I don’t consider the print media as relevant.” OUCH. Jon says it’s “kind of hard to get worked up” about anything in print. Take that, Gutenberg! Graydon disagrees, strongly, recalling how much has happened since Jim and he “started at Time 27 years ago this month” (cool media factoid!). Jon responds by saying that it’s all about TV: “the agenda is driven now by the 24 hour network.” Graydon says no way, “they are simply refractors of what appears in print.” Jon not-so-respectfully disagrees. “I didn’t say you don’t have your place,” he said. “It’s just at the children’s table.” Once again, OUCH.
[In my notes I have written: “Kate & DZ have a lot to contribute.”]
Graydon and Jon are digging in for debate. Good! Let’s do it! Jon cites the example of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign: handily discredited in print, but the widespread TV exposure hurt Kerry like a sumbitch. Graydon is stubborn: “Print provides stability and balance.” Jon is equally stubborn: “What’s driving news now, the way that news is driven, is not in print.”
Says Graydon triumphantly: “Television doesn’t break news.” Cough, Deep Throat, cough. GREAT POINT. There is genuine (relieved?) applause. Graydon says that print pushes scholarship forward. Jon is almost impatient here. “We don’t run on pushing scholarship forward. People who voted for the Bush administration were misinformed on most of the issues. And it’s not because they were reading the New York Times and not understanding it!”
Graydon says that print may not reach everyone, but it reaches the critical mass of the people itneeds to reach. Jon calls this out for being slightly elitist, and wrong to boot: “The majority of the country doesn’t function on print.”
Kate makes a good point about the staying power of print: people keep their magazines around (it’s true; my apartment is a total firetrap). Jon shakes his head, says “I really think you’ve missed the point”; he didn’t say that print wasn’t important. Graydon says you did too, YOU said we’re sitting at the CHILDREN’S TABLE. Hmph. “I did say children’s table,” says Jon, reconsidering. “That was…funny.” Look, he says, print is fine and all that but it’s about “what’s driving the discourse.” Print is not driving the discourse. End of story.
Awkward silence. I mean, this was a pretty spirited debate with an informed audience and a (presumably) even more informed panel (whee was Jim Kelly? My notes do not reflect his participation, which is odd, considering he’s the editor of Time. If I missed stuff let me know). Someone else asks Jon about the impact of the internet. He says that it doesn’t have the same sort of impact as TV. Okay, I am DEFINITELY disagreeing with him here. He senses this, because he says: “Here’s another thing: What the fuck do I know?” He says yes, the internet is important, but “all it is is a delivery system.” If he’s so all about the 24-hour news cycle and what is driving the discourse, he should not be discounting the web.
His “what the fuck do I know?” was meant as a punchline, but perhaps also to placate the crowd; after all, though he is certainly by now an expert on many things he doesn’t know the print media like the people in that room, and his glibness on a number of topics suggests that he didn’t exactly study the stats before going in. Even so, since he does work directly off current events as necessarily reported in the media, his views on are telling insofar as they reveal how his own needs for immediacy are met. Of course, having a staff of writers and researchers probably helps, too.
The panel ends by coming back to humor; the circle is complete. Kate says that she think’s humor is “extraordinarily important” and notes that her readers come to Cosmo for information AND entertainment, delivered in an “amusing and cheeky” way. She said that actually Cosmo had made a concerted effort to inject humor into the magazine had had noticed “a big lift” in the year following that initiative (no more specific info than that). The next think I have in my notes is “humor is a way of dealing with anxiety”; who wants to bet that’s Zinczenko?
That is the end of my notes, because that is when Jon turned to the audience and said, “Do you guys have more questions? What time is this supposed to be over?” and, with no definitive answer from the crowd declared his hapless panelists formally at ease, thanking them for their participation.
There was no moment of Zen.