Memo to Jon Stewart: Stick With Your Day Job Behind the Desk

Memo Jon Stewart: Stick With Your

The comedic commentator should think twice about taking a break to direct. Films are a chore, and latenight is heating up.

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

Memo To: Jon Stewart
From: Peter Bart

Consistent with my habit of dispensing unsolicited advice, Jon, here is my response to your announcement that you plan to direct your first movie: Don’t do it.

It may seem exciting to take a three-month leave from your hit comedy show to assume the role of auteur, but the plan has never worked for anyone else. First pictures are always failures, Jon, especially in the case of stars and celebrities, and you are the type of person who disdains failure.

The classic was Bob Dylan’s first (and last) film, “Renaldo and Clara,” a four-hour snoozer that opened (and closed) in one week in 1978. As such, it probably did better than “Filth and Wisdom,” Madonna’s first directing effort in 2007.

The hard reality is that, while novelists occasionally strike magic in their first try (think Hemingway or Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell), film directors usually strike out initially. George Clooney is Mister Perfect, but his “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” went nowhere. Neither did Sean Penn’s “Indian Runner” or Martin Scorsese’s “I Call First” (later re-titled “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”).

In his memoir, Elia Kazan acknowledged that it wasn’t until his fourth film that he really knew what he was doing as a filmmaker. His first effort was a mushy movie titled “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” but, to be sure, he ultimately graduated to “On the Waterfront.” In the same vein, it took a few years for Oliver Stone to grow from “Seizure” to “Platoon.” Or for Francis Coppola to go from “You’re a Big Boy Now” to “The Godfather.”

You’re very good at what you do, Jon, but are you really prepared to take another hiatus after your first picture bombs and risk yet another directing venture? You’ll have to watch Stephen Colbert ultimately move into your time slot and maybe even see one of two Jimmys — Kimmel or Fallon — become the new King of Latenight.

The trouble with making movies is that, while it looks easy, it is in fact a very exacting discipline. It helps if you know how to talk to actors (not just interview them) and also have a command of the camera and a mastery of film editing. Then there’s also the craft of appeasing film financiers and bludgeoning distributors into good release dates.

Of course, your producer is Scott Rudin, the king of the bludgeon. You’ll want final cut, Jon — Rudin can tell you about what that entails as well (it involves lots of fighting).

Some first-time directors display their keen sense of self preservation by selecting very accessible and commercial subject matter. Ron Howard, who grew up on television, went with “Grand Theft Auto” first time out. He knocked it out of the park (if you can do that with autos). By contrast, you have selected a political drama titled “Rosewater” (what is that title supposed to connote?) dealing with the imprisonment in Iran of a journalist named Maziar Bahari (no, not Joy Behar).

It sounds like an absorbing story, but how will you persuade filmgoers to buy tickets? We’ve all visited Iran once in “Argo,” but I’m not sure many of us are up for a return trip.

I’m aware that you’ve always liked to break the rules, Jon, and I hope you defy conventional wisdom once again this time. The problem is that most of us always want to become something we aren’t. TV hosts want to direct. Stars like James Franco want to be college professors. Seth MacFarlane wants to be Lenny Bruce; or maybe Frank Sinatra.

I like you the way you are, Jon. I hope you ultimately decide to stay that way.

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  1. Charlene says:

    Saw a good rebuttal blog to the poor logic of this Bart article (Barticle?) here:

  2. TJ says:

    So is the advice he is giving “Don’t try because you might fail”? That is some quality “journalism” right there. I have a self help book I am shopping around entitled “Just give up, Fatty”. Do you think you could give me some notes Mr. Bart?

  3. MaggieFig says:

    When someone successful wants to push the envelope, I see a person grabbing at life with both hands!! Isn’t that what life on Earth is supposed to be all about? Standing still, even when being applauded, isn’t a satisfying Journey for adventurous Souls. Kudos, Jon Stewart!! And who really cares how it turns out – it’s the Journey, not the destination.

  4. Zak says:

    Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper), This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner), Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton), and The War Zone (Tim Roth). All first features directed by celebrities, all effective films.

    Not to mention the less than classic, but still good Throw Momma from the Train (Danny DeVito), Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood), Ordinary People (Robert Redford), and Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty).

    Also, what kind of logic is “If you’re not going to succeed the first time you try something, there is absolutely NO reason to try doing it.” If that was the case your example would have had Scorsese never making a movie after Who’s That Knocking At My Door? How does that make sense?

    • EF says:

      Gone Baby Gone was one of the worst movies of the new millennium aided by a buzz campaign blitz. How dare you couple classics with mediocrity? Get the word out to Gen Y—the old school media terms classic and legend went obsolete with the end of the 20th century.

      • EF says:

        Bad movies in the 50s were called camp. They were fun and funny back when the world of film and music had something called innocence. You might know it as old school. As a break from this bully pop culture of bad ass, you can’t have quality without it. So to live in the past is to miss goodness.

      • Zak says:

        Are you implying that they didn’t make bad movies in the 50’s? There’s a Tor Johnson-sized hole in your rose-colored argument.

      • EF says:

        You made my point with your list there. Anyone care to add to it? But It’s all in good fun. I’ll bet Bart wishes he could pen offensive truth and still get paid for it. Leave that to his real fans. Take heart. Controversy attracts readership. Yet you can’t be too hard on millennials who all think that what is new defines them when it’s really what is timeless that wins the debate in the generation gap wars.

      • Zak says:

        A. Didn’t compare it with classics besides putting in a list that I labeled “effective”.
        B. Really? Is it the worst movie of the new millennium or mediocre? Get your slams straight
        C. Still, worst movie? Norbit? Friedberg and Selzer flicks? Catwoman? Battlefield Earth? Austin Powers: Goldmember? Adam Sandler’s terrible movies? Atlas Shrugged Get real and stop being dense. You might have not liked it, but the majority of people disagree.

  5. Enough already! says:

    Blood Simple. Let artists do what artists do.

  6. EF says:

    You’re a legend, Bart. You were there when Hollywood mattered. But wasting your golden years covering poison Orwellian pop culture is like grading the flammable poop in a burning dog kennel. What you should be doing is starting a media overhaul think tank to help fund and bring back real quality entertainment instead of pretending any modern millennial dreck is worth your time of day.

  7. EAnyc says:

    Mr. Bart, might I give you some unsolicited advice and suggest that you do some research before asking questions such as what the title of the film you’re writing about is “supposed to connote”? Or perhaps you’re so out of touch that not only are your articles pointless, but you don’t know how to use Google.

  8. EK says:

    So talented, intelligent people shouldn’t spread their wings and try new things? What clap trap. You went from journalist to studio exec, thanks to Bob Evans. Based on your “logic” you never should have been given that chance, not that you did much with it, but that’s another “memo.”

  9. forrestcardamenis says:

    Debuts suck, man! Citizen Kane is worthless, and they’re especially bad when it’s an occupation-switch because what did those French critics who thought they could just start a “French New Wave” movement ever contribute to cinema, anyway?

  10. Evelyn Roak says:

    What a load of condescending claptrap. It is very insulting to tell someone how they should go about living their life. That this very advice is full of incorrect information and consists of the staid, boring and conforming is even more insulting, though it makes it much easier to dismiss.

  11. hitdog says:

    I’m happy your opinion doesn’t actually matter and the decision’s already made, because your argument is more holes than argument, Peter.

  12. cjy says:

    It appears you want to be a writer. Good luck with that.

  13. milesmaker says:

    2nd features are the ones that challenge the filmmaker when their are expectations and potentially less passion. Like a musician’s sophomore album, they challenge a promising filmmaker to ‘do it again’. As for firsts–your first completed film is always a success.

  14. Henry Deas says:

    Thank you Peter Bart for being Peter Bart, the man who is king at what he does.

  15. Ellin says:

    Personally, I quite liked You’re A Big Boy Now. And it served notice that here was a director of talent.

  16. cadavra says:


    All first films. All classics.

    Jon, make your film and don’t listen to this guy.

    • Zak says:

      Actually Man without a Face is Mel Gibson’s debut.

    • EF says:

      Sorry to break it to you, but all or most of those classics you listed marked a time when old souls with vision and charisma ruled Hollywood. Now that moviemakers and viewers raised on rap and reality shows own the millennial zeitgeist, there is no hope for modern quality unless you get in a time machine, make your movie in the past and sell tickets to a target audience of 45 and older.

      • EF says:

        Given the threat of climate change and economic chaos, one would have to be a Pollyanna to think the decline of modern media is a matter of attitude or outlook. Those of us lucky enough to have witnessed the Big Bang of pop culture know better than to judge bitter reality as subjective.

      • shakeythemohel says:

        Someone is a pessimist. Way to write off an entire generation. I wonder how old you are.

  17. Jeff Blyth says:

    The subject matter of “Rosewater” sounds like a European or Middle Eastern indie, something that in a best case ends up looking for a Foreign Language nomination. I understand Jon’s connections to the material in that he has interviewed and supported Maziar Bahari through his ordeals, but sheesh — wouldn’t a comedy written by Judd Apatow be a better fit with Jon’s sensibilities? And with his audience?

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