JON STEWART EMERGES ON CUTTING EDGE
Jon Stewart slides into his dressing room and
leans his spine against the door. His eyes search frantically for
his beloved cigarettes. He looks nervous as he lights up, takes
a protracted drag, and talks within a cloud of his own smoke. The
unexpected has happened, just minutes before taping, and Stewart
is letting the sensation sink in. Supermodel (and Sports Illustrated
swimsuit cover girl) Rachel Hunter, Stewart's guest for the day's
show, has arrived at MTV's midtown Manhattan studio with a surprise
guest of her own, singer Rod Stewart, Rachel's husband. "When someone
like Rod shows up, I mean, he's just so large," Stewart says. "I
can't believe I'm nervous, but I am. I've had three more bathroom
breaks than I would normally."
Perhaps the star of "The Jon Stewart Show" is
concerned about the singer's reaction to the quiz game planned for
Hunter: Which Stewart, Rod or Jon, "has an imaginary friend named
Burt, who makes him do bad things?" OK, so it is Jon Stewart with
the imaginary friend, but if Burt makes him do bad things, the phantom
friend must be on vacation. Whether the opinion comes from the 20-something
fans populating his audience who say they like the casual atmosphere
of the show or TV critics who like its spontaneity, Stewart seems
to be busting all the right moves as a talk-show host for Generation
X, those famous post-baby boomers who are the heart of MTV's target
audience (12- to 34-year-olds). Stewart says his audience is made
up of "everyone who actually knows what's going on on 'Melrose Place."
So life for the stand-up comedian is changing.
More people recognize him now. "In general, fans have a very odd
idea about what I do. They think you live this very glamorous, high
lifestyle. That you travel in limos, helicopters, and cruise ships."
Not so, says Stewart, who recently upgraded from an apartment he
shared to a one-bedroom that's all his because his cats (Sydney
and Stanley) needed more room. Known previously to MTV viewers as
the host of the short-lived program "You Wrote, You Watch It" (a
show that turned viewers letters into comic skits), Stewart is attracting
an audience that MTV says makes his show one of its highest rated
non-music programs. His guests (Cindy Crawford, Denis Leary, Ben
Stiller, poet Maggie Estep, Howard Stern) help Stewart's show feel
cutting edge, leading New York magazine to anoint Stewart as "The
Man Who Should Be Conan", a swipe at another young, hip TV host.
TV Guide calls Stewart "New York's Mr. Schmooze," and now he's getting
ready for his movie debut, in Nora Ephron's "Night Before Xmas,"
which also will star Garry Shandling and Steve Martin.
Call these developments the metamorphosis of a
psychology major into a stand -up comic into the quirkiest talk-show
host this side of David Letterman. At the very least, Stewart must
be the only talk host who must shave his neck on a regular basis.
It's not everywhere in talk TV you can see newly naturalized U.S.
citizen Yakov Israel of New York City compete with the newly crowned
Miss U.S.A., Lu Parker, in a quiz about American history. (Israel
won.) Or watch Stewart's favorite game, "What's in Howard's Pants?
" which calls for audience members to rummage through the stuffed
pants of Stewart's sidekick, the dart-eyed Howard Feller (who looks
like he could be a relative of "Seinfeld's" Kramer) until a "ham
and ointment" sandwich emerges. Or watch the host do comic skits
skewering everything from gangsta rappers to Calvin Klein underwear
And where else can members of the MTV Generation
find a TV host who dresses sort of like them? Stewart is the only
talk host who doesn't own a suit. His fashion statement is faded
jeans, a T-shirt, a sweater, sneakers, or a black leather jacket.
This laid-back-dude persona is a big part of the
show's sensibility. Stewart closes the show with the very cool sign-off
"Later. " But there's also the show's unstructured manner, as freestyle
as hip-hop, in stark contrast to Conan O'Brien's Harvard Lampoon
humor, which may strike some as pretentious.
None of this would work without Stewart, says
MTV's senior vice president of programming, Doug Herzog, who calls
the show "pure, unadulterated stupidity. " That's pretty much what
many in the industry suggested when MTV got into the late-night
talk-show frenzy last fall. Herzog says industry types asked him:
"Are you nuts? ". Just smart, insists Herzog now. "We think Jon's
an enormous talent and we thought we really would be stupid if we
didn't try it," he said.
Stewart says he's 29, but a fellow 1984 graduate
of the College of William and Mary wrote New York magazine to say
Stewart's math is off. Stewart jokes that if he admits to being
older than 29, he'll lose his job at MTV and will have to work at
VH-1. He started out as Jon Stewart Leibowitz, shortening his name
when he began his stand-up career seven years ago. "I'm not a self-hating
Jew," Stewart says. "Actually, to borrow a line from Lenny Bruce,
I just thought Leibowitz was too Hollywood." He's a veteran of Comedy
Central's "Short Attention Span Theater" and HBO's "Young Comedians
Special. " When NBC conducted a nationwide search for a Letterman
replacement last year, Stewart auditioned but was just another also-ran
Since his debut in the fall, Stewart has gotten
the kind of press that has escaped O'Brien. Bruce Fretts, the 27-year-old
TV critic of Entertainment Weekly, says Stewart's show is what O'Brien's
show is trying to become. "Conan's show was billed as the voice
of Generation X, so there was that expectation," Fretts says. "But
I don't think he cuts it. Conan's show feels so forced, like they're
trying so hard to be hip and ironic. " Is there a secret to appealing
to the much-sought-after, much-labeled youth generation of the Nineties?
Stewart doubts it.
"I wish there was some sort of formula like 'Take
one part Corey Feldman and one part Luke Perry and mix it with a
dash of. ... I wish there was that kind of a formula that would
add to that perfect mix every night, but I don't think there is.
I think almost any guest we've had, including Tony Bennett, really
appeals to kids. ... If it doesn't look contrived and forced, then
I think the show will always be cool to them. " And coolness is
not restricted to age, says Stewart, who rejects suggestions that
his show is not for viewers who are baby boomers or older. "We don't
pretend that people older than 30 don't exist, and this includes
my open invitation to Frank Sinatra to come on the show." If there
is a secret to success, Stewart thinks it must have to do with being
daring. "We're not really afraid to flump, you know? There's no
fear on this show." Unless Rod Stewart makes another unannounced
visit. Or Sinatra shows up. Later.
(Photo caption) Jon Stewart of MTV has perfected
the act that NBC is groping to achieve.
Copyright © 1994 Bergen Record
Corp. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Melly for the article.
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