Jesse Watters is a rare kind of pundit – the kind who resides at the corner of the political and the absurd and thinks of himself as a mere humorist. During his "Watters World" segments on FOX News Channel's popular juggernaut "The O'Reilly Factor," he takes to the streets to mix it up with everyday people, interviewing them about the hot topics of the day. It's a recipe for instant comedy.
With the 2016 presidential election cycle kicking into high gear, "Watters World" will be spun off into its own series of one-hour specials, beginning Saturday, Nov. 14 at 10 p.m. They'll run monthly for the next year until the weekend before Election Day.
Watters, a Philadelphia native who worked his way up from production assistant to "The Factor" and now to his own show, also makes appearances on FNC staples like "Outnumbered" and "The Five," where the women on the shows seem to find him adorable, thanks to his boyish charm and good looks, and he gets under the skin of Geraldo Rivera, one of three liberals who rotate on the "The Five." Watters says the hour-long version of "Watters World" will be a mix of the cringeworthy man-on-the-street segments found on "The Factor" and a rotating panel of guests in the studio "kicking around news of the day, kicking around big political events, whether it's debates, caucuses, things like that, so I'll be able to showcase more opinion."
On the eve of the debut of "Watters World," we turn the tables on Watters and pepper him with questions about the relationship between politics and comedy, politically correct culture run amok and why he was the Alex P. Keaton of his family.
When you do you man-on-the street interviews, do you get discouraged to see how little people know about politics, history and the nation they live in?
(Laughs) Ya know, I say this to everybody: "Watters World" makes you laugh, and then "Watters World" makes you cry, because it is shocking, and even I myself am still shocked at some of the answers when I go out. I'll say they have to know these answers, they have to know this, the simplest thing, and sure enough, they don't know. I asked someone the other day who won the Civil War, and they didn't know, and then I said take a guess, and they said France. So those are the types of things that continue to stun me.
Why do comedy and politics work so well together?
I think politics is extremely funny in and of itself. You have guys and girls going out there and showcasing themselves in diners and running around the country trying to win over voters, I think it's hilarious. And you know there's tons of gaffes and I think it just lends itself to comedy. Any human being that speaks on live television over and over again, there's a lot of material there. And this country's not in great shape, so I think it's good to laugh sometimes.
"The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" obviously combined politics with humor. Do you feel that political humor in the U.S. is generally left-leaning and you provide some alternative or balance to that?
I mean I'm just staying focused on "Watters World." I don't really look to other shows so much. Right now I'm committed to making my show the best show on Fox and doing the best I can. I think it's just funny the things that come out of people's mouths, whether it's a politician, whether it's an average person on the street - and to be honest with you, sometimes these politicians sound like average people on the street. So I'm just trying to focus on what I need to here at Fox.
In one clip you went to Georgetown to ask what people find offensive, and the answer was pretty much everything. Have we gotten too thin-skinned as a nation?
Absolutely. I think political correctness has taken over this country. I think everyone now lives in fear. I think it's detrimental to society. I think the pendulum is swinging the other way, though. If people now don't even know where to sit, they don't know how to dress, they don't know what words they can say, eventually it's just going to blow itself up. I think this country is reaching the point where they're just going to have it with the PC nonsense, and I think we're getting there pretty quickly.
Are there times when the critical import of a message can be lost via too much humor?
I think with humor and politics there's a balance there. We can always learn something from laughing, and we don't need to take everything so seriously. News doesn't have to be boring, news can be entertaining, and there's lots of different ways you can deliver news and information and commentary, and I think ultimately you want to attract people's attention. Sometimes you can shed light on a situation through humor, sometimes humor isn't the right path and you just want to shine a light and not say anything afterwards. So there are different times for different things.
What's an example of a topic that wouldn't lend itself to a humorous approach?
For instance, I would never go to like Walter Reed and start cracking jokes, obviously. I think there's a time and a place for everything, and I think everybody has good instincts about when not to joke around.
How would you describe your relationship with Bill O'Reilly?
I think it's a good relationship. Bill's been a fantastic boss, I've learned a lot from him. He is very, very competitive and focused on winning every single night, and he is very demanding and very fair. With Bill, as long as you hit your deadline and perform and deliver, he'll treat you great, and he's treated me great over the years and the staff great, and I have a lot of great things to say about him. I thank him a lot for his guidance.
Moving on to some people in the news you'll probably be talking about on the show, What are your thoughts on Donald Trump right now?
Right now I'm thinking a lot about "Watters World." We watched the debates and we watch people out there on the stump, whether it's Trump or Carson or Cruz or Rubio, and you'll hear me deliver my commentary Saturday night about these guys and how they performed, but I think generally what we're seeing is this cycle, this Republican primary is really focused on performance. It's a performance primary now on who has the most energy, who can really deliver the message clearly and simply, and Trump's winning right now, but it's very early so we're just following it like every other news organization.
Ben Carson recently took issue with what he thinks is the media's unfair focus on his past. Do you think he has a point?
Yeah, I do. For instance, we had a lot of doubts being raised about Carson's biography, and some of those doubts are fair, some of that is just natural vetting. But sometimes there's misinformation and it's up to the candidate to correct the record and I think Carson did correct the record. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton was just shown to have said she applied to be a Marine and the Marines rejected her. Is that going to get the same kind of focus Carson got? We'll wait and see, but something tells me it might not. That's maybe one of the things we'll be talking about on "Watters World."
Do you have any early predictions on who will win each primary and then the general election?
I don't. I think it's so early. Right now I think you just want to focus on winning Iowa, then New Hampshire, South Carolina. It looks right now on the Democrat side that Hillary's got this thing locked up, but a lot of strange things can happen, and she's under investigation by the FBI, so I don't know. On the Republican side it's still all up in the air, and it's just fun to wait and see how it shakes out.
When did you become politically aware? Did you grow up in a family where politics was an important topic?
My parents were, and are, liberal Democrats, so I was the Alex P. Keaton of my household. My parents were Vietnam War protestors, so that should kind of show you what conversations are like around Thanksgiving. I was always patriotic, but I didn't really become politically aware until college. It's a funny dynamic within my family, I'll leave it at that.
What do they think of your TV work?
I think they're proud that I still have health care and they're proud that I'm enjoying my job and working for such a successful company. I'm not sure they always agree with what I say, but they're happy and proud of me.
How would you describe your political ideology in a few words?
I think I'm realistic. One of the best parts about "Watters World" is I get to travel the country and talk to regular people, so I consider myself more just a man of the people. I like to just be on the side of the people and support America. I'm more patriotic than I am political.
So would you consider yourself conservative or a Republican?
I'd rather not put a label on it because I have different views on different things, but right now my job, personally, is to just analyze the news and give commentary and give my opinion and kind of mix it up with the folks on the streets.
How do you approach interviewing people on the street as opposed to interviewing newsmakers who are more polished and have done hundreds of interviews before?
It's easier because you get fresh, unvarnished opinion in real time. You don't get talking points, you don't get canned answers, which is great. I think that's what's appealing about "Watters World." People are so sick and tired of listening to these people on television repeat the same talking points over and over again, whether it's the left or the right. People want to hear what people on the streets have to say, they want to hear what Americans who have jobs that aren't totally focused on the day-to-day politics have to say about things, and I think what I'm looking for when I'm going out and looking for interviews is people with big personalities and people that have a lot of authenticity.
What are some of your most memorable moments doing "Watters World"?
I always tell people that my favorite "Watters World" was when O'Reilly sent me to Hawaii. It's the most beautiful place on earth, I wish I could have stayed there longer. Some of the ones that I'm really proud of are not the ones you would expect. I'm really proud of the work we've done on "Watters World" with some of the Wounded Warriors, some of the guys with track chairs. I've enjoyed going into inner cities and speaking to people that come from different backgrounds than I do. I really like to focus on diversity. We have been pretty much anywhere. We've been to women's conventions, we've been to Muslim conferences, we've been to South Beach, we've been to motorcycle rallies, we've been to liberal universities. What I really enjoy most about "Watters World" is the mix of experiences.
What do you watch on TV?
I watch Fox News. But it's nice to kick back. I watch a lot of HBO, sports, and my wife sometimes makes me watch the "Real Housewives."
You started at Fox News back in 2002 as a production assistant and worked your way up to an on-air position. What was that process like?
It's been a lot of hard work. I think Fox is a place that really values and rewards hard work. I worked in the newsroom and worked my way onto O'Reilly and came up from there. It's such a great company because you can really succeed here if you stick to a few things: just work hard, be a team player and deliver fair and balanced news. I'm just happy I was put in the position to succeed. It's a great team here at Fox, and I'm very thankful.