"Jon Stewart Jimmies His Way Into the TV Talk Show Door"
INsider Magazine
Vol. XI, No VII (Winter 1994)
by Alyssa Lustigman

 

"I'm too young for a dental plan!" thought Jon Stewart Leibowitz.

At 23, living with friends in a small, rented house in Trenton, NJ, tending bar and playing softball, the comedian now clawing for a piece of the late-night pie made a fateful decision. "I threw everything away and moved to New York on a six-week lease," he recalls.

Eight years later, the surprising low-key, boyish-looking Stewart (who dropped the Leibowitz when he became a stand-up comic) is romping on the late-night playground with Dave, Jay, Conan and the other laugh-lovin' boys of the post-prime time airwaves as the host of The Jon Stewart Show.

But the clean-cut comic, whose Gap-basics style of dressing and sardonic sense of humor fits in perfectly with his mostly twenty-something viewing audience, isn't worried about joining such luminaries as Pat Sajak, Alan Thicke and Chevy Chase in the late-night compost heap. Instead, Stewart is living for the moment and reveling in his current success.

"It's not like when you get to 50 you're going to go, 'Gee, I had a lot of fun back then," he explains, kicking back in his dressing room and puffing on a cigarette after taping the day's show at a New York studio. "You have to get a little gusto out of it now."

Still, it wasn't too long ago that Stewart was only dreaming of the fruits of success, not chewing on them, as he struggled to make it as a standup. After moving to New York, he held the usual assortment of culinary-and libation-oriented jobs. He bartended, waited tables, and chopped tomatoes as a caterer's assistant so he could afford to work the club scene at night.

After a few television appearances, including a brief stop as host of Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater, Stewart landed a role as host of the mercifully short lived You Wrote It, You Watch It on MTV. After cancellation, he pitched the idea of a talk show to network execs, and landed the eponymous half-hour segment. "We were an aberration on MTV," says Stewart. "We actually talked to people seven minutes at a time."

Stewart did, however, adopt MTV's frenetic style of pacing, as well as its emphasis on the offbeat -- dressing up in drag, cuddling on William Shatner's lap, and rocking to the beat with some of the music channel's top artists. The hour-long, syndicated Jon Stewart Show maintains much of the eclectic appeal of its predecessor. Back on the new set are the custom-covered red leather Range Rover car seats. The knock-hockey board that served as a desk on the first show has been upgraded to an air hockey table. Musical guests veer toward the college-radio alternative spectrum. And Howard, Stewart's older and geekier sidekick, still takes his place in the corner of the set, perched on an old tractor seat.

The most obvious difference between the shows is the extra 30 minutes. While the half-hour pacing often seemed rushed, and left too little time for meaningful interaction with the guests on MTV, an hour might be too long for today's attention-deficit channel surfers.

"People did get used to our half-hour pacing," concedes Stewart. "So when the watch it now, the sort of think, 'Hey, this is supposed to be over! Make him stop!"

Stewart himself admits that occasionally the show has lagged and his mind has wandered. "There are times when I'll just be sitting out there, thinking about my laundry."

The extra time has also allowed Stewart the chance to showcase his bizarre side. Recent shows have featured a group of 80-year-old cheerleaders doing splits and Stewart doing an imitation of Anna Nicole Smith, replete with blonde wig and red lipstick. Even the guests get in on the action: Tough-acting Jean Claude Van Damme recently did his best Jerry Lewis impression, and for Banned Book Week, literary figure Quentin Crisp made a cameo to read from the controversial Where's Waldo.

"Every now and again," Stewart groans, "you look around and just think -- I'm [former Gong Show host] Chuck Barris." Stewart's production house and distributor Paramount Domestic Television hopes this zany atmosphere will expand upon the "Gen X" following Stewart built on MTV. While he won't necessarily say he's targeting that market, Stewart does admit to attracting a younger audience than say, Matlock.

"You have to do a show that's comfortable to you. If it's where you want to be, I think the viewers will find it comfortable, as well, whether they're 17 or 50." he says. "But I guess the bands might not appeal to an older audience. I don't think my dad would watch and go 'oh my God, you've got Helmet! I'm stoked!' But the are the bands I listen to."

While late-night king Letterman celebrates his new middle-aged, straight-from-the-heartland fans, the decidedly New York crowd at a recent Stewart taping in Manhattan favored Doc Martins, denim, and lots of facial hair. The show itself certainly relates to a younger mindset. When Bob Newhart recently was a guest, a visual of a group playing the "Hi, Bob" drinking game at a bar was greeted with cheers of recognition by the audience.

Stewart admits he took part in his own fair share of drinking fun during college at William and Mary. "I was far more impressed with the fact that I could stock my fridge full of beer than I was with a degree program for the first couple of years," he recalls.

Even with his psychology degree, which he labels as "far too broad to be useful," Stewart wasn't exactly on the fast road to success after graduation. "When they came to interview candidates for job programs, I was never asked to join in the fun. I was always -- 'Who's that guy getting high in the corner?"

Today, the Jewish boy from New Jersey has adapted a much more Protestant work ethic. "He's a real workaholic," exclaims Howard after a recent show taping. "I think he sleeps here somewhere."

Working 13-hour days doesn't actually leave Stewart, who's happily single, much of a social life, although he complains that he's been on the solo route for awhile. "My social life before this pretty much consisted of me and four other bitter guys sitting in a diner and eating cheeseburgers," he says. "I definitely wasn't a debutante before this."

He's also yet to be seen walking arm-in-arm with a high-profile supermodel for an evening on the town. "The glamorous side of this has yet to kick in," he confesses.

Still, fame has brought change. Most notably for Stewart is a lack of time to just sit and think. Usually, these reflections would come thanks to frequent insomnia. "Everything seems to be really clear at four or five in the morning." Stewart vouches. "All your brain synapses seem to fire at the same time, and bits just form in your head."

But since four hours of sleep just won't cut it in TV-land, Stewart has had to trade in the mental self-conferences for some shut-eye. "Luckily, they make pills for that." Stewart acknowledges that despite his calm approach to the late-night wars, there are pressures in joining the talk-show club. "This is the kind of business that's built on anxiety. It's like you're standing in Jell-O half the time."

For the moment, though, Stewart is simply enjoying himself. "There's still a lot to be done, but right now, this is a blast. If it were a blast for five years, that would be great," he says, pulling out a cigarette. "If it were only a blast for six months, I'd be bummed out, but on some strange level, I have to believe it would be okay. I have a weird, fatalistic approach to things."

Fate aside, Stewart still feels strongly about controlling his own destiny, and he stresses that philosophy to anyone who worries about their own future. "If I give anything to people, it's the hope that anybody can do this," he says modestly. "It's not like I was preordained to be a stand-up.

"My basic advice to people is to just do it," Stewart adds. "I know it sounds corny, but you have to follow your gut toward what you want to do, for your own sanity.

"That," he deadpans, "and drink milk."

 

The Stewart File

Favorite TV Show: Faulty Towers

Favorite Late Night Movie: Brian's Song-- "I always loved that."

Favorite Sports Team: The New York Knicks -- "Unfortunately, Paramount sold the team as soon as I signed on, for whatever that's worth."

Favorite Musician: Tom Waits. -- "He's beautiful when you're brooding, because you can just totally get into your depression."

Favorite Move Person: Director Quentin Tarantino -- "I admire the way he writes; It's almost like he baits you, and then knocks you on the ass."

Earliest memory: "Throwing up in class when I was kindergarten. I think it was Thanksgiving and I remember barfing in class, much to the joy of my other classmates. Maybe I was allergic to having to dress up like a pilgrim."

What he talks about during breaks: "I mostly tell people my dreams. 'Last night, a giant banana was chasing me down the street. What does it mean, Gary?"

 

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