About a decade ago, Jezebel published a longread on The Daily Show’s writers’ room, which was then a veritable boy’s club with few-to-no women writers or correspondents. The women staffers who did come through told Jezebel they felt marginalized, disrespected, and targeted for firing. Their experience was not necessarily universal—in response to the article, women Daily Show staffers wrote a response praising the “meritocracy” they worked for—but looking at the cast and crew list, there was no question that at the time the show’s writers and correspondents skewed toward men, and white ones at that.
Jon Stewart addressed the article, and the show’s general lack of diversity, in an interview on political accountability and systemic racism with the Breakfast Club. Co-host Charlamagne tha God mentioned how important it was for white men with “tremendous privilege and power”—like Stewart—to admit to the existence of systemic racism. Stewart started talking about how difficult that had been for him to understand.
“I do feel like what’s hard about that for people is that you get defensive. Nobody likes to get called on their shit,” he said. “Especially when they feel like it’s not really their shit.” Then he got into what happened when he got called out on his shit:
Look, when I started on The Daily Show, pretty much an all-white staff, all white correspondents, mostly male. And people would call me out on various shit about it. And I would get defensive until I had to stop and think about it. There was an article written, there weren’t enough women writers and I was sexist, and I was like, sexist? I was raised by a single mother, my mother wore a t-shirt that said “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I’m a man, I grew up in a house where I knew I wasn’t needed. And I remember going back into the writer’s room and being like, “Do you believe this shit? Kevin? Steve? Mike? Bob? Donald? Oh...Uh oh. Uh oh.”
Stewart explained that The Daily Show had a blind hiring policy, which at the time producers thought meant no one could accuse them of being racist or sexist. But white men kept getting hired, because white men were more likely to write for the Harvard Lampoon, or have support systems that enabled them to take unpaid internships at late night shows, or have access to whatever other resources helped them hone the kind of writing that would catch a Daily Show producer’s eye.
“What we realized was the river we were getting the material from, the tributary, was also from the same inertia,” Stewart said. “You had to say to them, send me women. Send me black people. And all of a sudden, women got funny. It just happened. But they’d been funny all along. We just hadn’t actively done enough to mine that.”
Stewart also recalled the time Wyatt Cenac, who was then the only black person on staff, called him out in a staff meeting for doing a racist Herman Cain accent:
I did a bit about Herman Cain, where I adopted Herman Cain’s accent. And to me it was just his accent, but to that writer it was a racist bit. And he called me out in a meeting with everybody around, and I got defensive, and got mad. It took me a long time to realize that the real issue was that we hired one person who was black, and because then they felt like they’re carrying the weight of representation, they suddenly feel like, “I’ve got to be the speaker of the race.” So we think we’re doing the right thing but we’re not doing it in the right way. Those were hard lessons for me, and they were humbling lessons. and I was defensive about them and still didn’t do it all right.
That doesn’t totally explain why Stewart reportedly kept blowing up at his staffers, but hopefully he’s learned something in the years since. You can watch the whole interview below.