In May 2016, Dan Ackerman, a University of Chicago senior, wasn’t planning to ask Jon Stewart about the allegations against Stewart’s buddy Louis C.K. during the Q&A portion of a live podcast taping. Ackerman was there to see one of his “comedy heroes” in conversation with David Axelrod, but when he got in line to ask Stewart a question, he kept coming back to the fact that C.K. had been Stewart’s final interview subject on The Daily Show and that Stewart hadn’t addressed the accusations of sexual misconduct against C.K., which had been swirling online for at least a year.
Now, a video of Ackerman’s question and Stewart’s dumbfounded response has resurfaced following the New York Times report in which five women accused C.K. of inappropriate behavior. C.K. has since confirmed that those stories are true.
Slate got in touch with Ackerman, who has since graduated, to talk to him about what made him ask the question, what he thought of Stewart’s reaction, and how he feels now that the video has gone viral again.
Were you a fan of Stewart at the time you attended the podcast taping?
Yeah, absolutely. He was one of my first comedy heroes. A lot of people I know are involved in comedy or at least fans of it, and we all grew up thinking of Jon Stewart as one of the greats.
How long have you been aware of the rumors about Louis C.K.?
I went though my Facebook messages, and I found the first person who sent me a Defamer article about this, and it was in May of 2015. That was kind of the summer that the story got a lot of traction online, you know, and there was a Death and Taxes article that same month that was about the Jen Kirkman podcast where she seems to pretty clearly be talking about Louis C.K. harassing people but doesn’t call him by name—that was one of the reasons why, when I talked to Jon Stewart, I brought her up a couple of times, because you can see him shift between saying “Oh, those are tweets,” and then when I bring up Jen Kirkman, he seems to walk back a little bit.
That whole summer [of 2015] I was watching Louie and feeling uncomfortable, and then in August the last interviews for Jon Stewart’s show were announced, and Louis C.K. was gonna be the last one, and the way I remember it was: In early August they had that interview, and you went from Googling “Louis C.K.” and getting the first couple of pages of results about this sexual harassment to seeing “Jon Stewart’s old friend Louis C.K. wishes him farewell for his great show.”
Did you know in advance that you wanted to ask Stewart about C.K. before you got to the mic?
I actually really didn’t, and that’s one reason I was so nervous asking that question. The whole time that I was in line, I was like thinking of those long questions that you really just ask to show that you’re smart. I was thinking about asking him about Bernie Sanders or his political philosophy or whatever. But as I got closer to the mic I just kept thinking, there’s really only one thing I’ve wanted to ask him since the show ended, and this is it. So it was really a last minute thing, and I hadn’t prepared the question. If I could go back, I would have thought a little more about it, how to frame it.
What did you think of his response?
It’s tough, you know. At the time, I would have to hedge and say, “Well, if these rumors aren’t true …” but now I don’t have to do that. Now I have to say, “Well if [Stewart] didn’t know about the rumors …” and I think it’s possible he didn’t. I think it’s unlikely that Courteney Cox and David Arquette knew and Jon Stewart didn’t, but it’s possible. What’s most unlikely to me is that Courteney Cox and David Arquette knew and Jon Stewart’s bookers didn’t. Someone at The Daily Show must have known.
My question was, “Was there any talk about this before [C.K.] was invited on?” and I can totally imagine Jon Stewart not having heard about this and so telling his people, “These are the people I want for my last week, they’re my buddies,” and they just got them and didn’t worry about it.
But the response, I thought, was dismissive. I thought it was weird that his kneejerk was first to make fun of the internet. I know that he was in a jokey mood, and he was doing that with a lot of the questioners, but I thought it was weird that his first response was first to make fun of the internet and then to say, “Well, he’s a great guy,” and not to say—I mean it’s possible that if David Axelrod hadn’t cut him off, he would have said something like “Obviously we should believe victims and abusers, and harassers should be held accountable,” but he didn’t say that.
Even if he didn’t know, I thought it was a disappointing response. And if he did know, then I think it’s indefensible.
I thought Axelrod seemed a little annoyed by the exchange.
It’s hard for me to get inside David Axelrod’s mind, but yeah, I shudder to think what he would have said if Jon Stewart weren’t there, if he were the only one talking. Maybe he’s just not as tuned into what’s happening with comedy as Jon Stewart is, but for him to say “Well, the Cosby stuff is a court case and that’s different,” like, no, people were talking about Bill Cosby way before there was any talk of him being indicted or tried or anything.
Did anyone approach you after you asked the question?
Immediately after, a couple of people in the audience came up to talk to me, and the first responses I got were from people, some of them who did improv or comedy in college and some of them who didn’t, who were like “Yeah, I’ve seen those articles, it seems weird to me that Jon Stewart wouldn’t know about that.”
What was your first thought yesterday when you heard about or read the New York Times story?
It’s kind of sick, but my first thought was that I was so excited. A couple of people messaged me to say it feels like Christmas. Yesterday was a day that a lot of people were waiting a long time to see, and we didn’t think it would happen this quickly. I thought we were going to have to wait until Louis died.
You thought it would take that long, even after what happened with Harvey Weinstein?
I didn’t know what was going to happen, the Weinstein effect. The weird thing was, I also couldn’t have predicted that Louis would make a movie like I Love You, Daddy, where it seemed like he was daring people to call him out at some point. But a year ago, I would have put the timeline quite differently.
If you could ask Stewart about C.K. again now, what would you say?
I would ask him about the Night of Too Many Stars, I would ask him about the conversations he’s had with Louis since then and the ways he may or may not have promoted Louis since then.
Night of Too Many Stars, the HBO comedy special hosted by Stewart, has since dropped C.K. from its lineup.
It’s not like Jon Stewart has that excuse [of not knowing] anymore. He was planning to do it like two weeks from now! It’s not like Stewart can say, “Oh, I hadn’t heard about the rumors.”
Because you told him about it more than a year ago.
Exactly. If I had heard that question and heard Jen Kirkman’s name attached to it, I would have gone to my friends in comedy and said, “Hey, have you guys heard about this, you know? Is this an open secret that I’m just out of the loop on?” You know?
Are you still a fan of Stewart after all this?
I still hugely admire Stewart. That interview he gave C.K. soured the end of his show for me at the time, but I still watch some of his greatest hits every now and then. […] The fact that Stewart stayed quiet and kept working with C.K. is disappointing, but it’s not unique. Plenty of powerful celebrities knew and said nothing or even refused to discuss the issue when asked. Stewart’s tacit endorsement just hit me more personally, exactly because I looked up to him and still do.
I might’ve asked Steve Buscemi about working with C.K. if I had seen him in a Q&A recently, but that moment with Stewart was the one moment of contact I had where I could ask about it, and his answer did mean more to me personally.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*Correction, Nov. 10, 2017: This post originally misspelled Courteney Cox’s first name.