"Watch Out, Conan; Heeeeeeeeere's Jon!"
San Diego Union-Tribune
January 31, 1994
by Phil Rosenthal

 

Being the next big thing is no big thing for MTV's Jon Stewart.

"It's not like my cat treats me any differently," said Stewart, 29, whose The Jon Stewart Show has quietly become everything the baby boomers running NBC had hoped Late Night with Conan O'Brien would be -- but hasn't yet become.

"It's tough for me to gauge. Every now and again I'll get a glimpse of it, though. I'll go to a Denny's in New Jersey, and a bunch of young kids will be going, `Heyyyyy!!!' "

MTV says the ratings for Stewart's talk show -- seen at 7 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday -- are second on the cable network only to the animated bad boys Beavis and Butt-Head.

But while he is considerably more intelligent and has not yet been accused of setting anything on fire, some people still aren't quite sure what to make of Stewart, his talk show or his success.

All they know is that he's young, he's unusually relaxed on TV and he's poised for even better things.

"There was a reporter who said to me, `You're doing a Generation X talk show.' And I was: `We are? What's Generation X?' " Stewart said. "I thought it was something from `Speed Racer.' People put their own labels on what you're doing.

"The guy was a lot older, so I guess he figured, `Well, you're a young man. You're part of that whole Generation X thing.' Sounds like algebra to me."

What's interesting about the Generation X comparisons to NBC's O'Brien, 30, is that Stewart was a finalist for O'Brien's Late Night job. And Stewart's MTV show is gaining both the critical and commercial success that O'Brien, an on-the-job trainee, still seeks.

Because he's on cable, Stewart has far fewer viewers than O'Brien, a former producer and writer for Fox's The Simpsons, whom Stewart considers "obviously a very smart, very funny guy . . . Hey, any friend of The Simpsons is a friend of mine." But MTV attracts a greater concentration of the young audience the two shows court.

Plus, Stewart enjoys the considerable advantage of not having to do a show each night. When The Jon Stewart Show is in production -- as it has in just six of the 11 weeks since its Oct. 25 debut -- he does just four a week.

Stewart's show is also only a half-hour long vs. the hour his rival must fill each weeknight. If you believe that Stewart and O'Brien are actually rivals, that is.

"That's the whole thing," Stewart said. "We never went about setting it up as, `We're going to do a young person's show and we're going to compete with any other young person doing a show.' That's the media.

"Any time you go about setting something up [like that], it ends up looking a bit contrived. Most of what's on the show is what tickles me. And from that, hopefully, it will tickle some other people."

Over the years, Stewart has had to do plenty of things that did not tickle. After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a degree in psychology, he worked in a cancer research lab and on a project for the state of New Jersey in which he had to work with live mosquitoes. It was a tough decision to abandon all that for stand-up comedy in 1987. He found himself frustrated by his previous TV work, which included stints as host of Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater and of MTV's unfortunate You Wrote, You Watch It.

The Jon Stewart Show is the first opportunity he has had to do things the way he wants to do them.

"I always used to think my autobiography in show business would be called A Guy's Got to Eat," he said. "I was always so defensive. People would come up and go, `Hey, I saw you on that show.' And I was like: `Look! I've got to eat, too! I've got to make a living!' Now I feel proud. I'm excited about it."

Stewart grew up as Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz in Lawrence, N.J., near Trenton. He clipped the last name when he was trying to break into comedy and found audiences more receptive to fewer syllables.

So far, his show has veered only slightly in format from standard talk-show fare. The musical acts featured almost all come directly from the MTV playlists. What quirks there are come from the imagination and nerve of Stewart and his staff.

The show's set resembles a well-lit but slightly unkempt garage. Stewart -- usually in a leather jacket, jeans and crew-neck shirt -- works from a worn living-room chair, while his guests must contend with what looks to be a vinyl car seat from an old Dodge. Instead of a desk, there is a Nok-Hockey game table. There's room for fewer than 100 in the studio audience.

"For me, coming from the comedy clubs, this is a very relaxed atmosphere," Stewart said. "Nobody's drunk. It's not 1 o'clock in the morning. I don't have to shout. Everybody seems to be listening. It's a really good environment.

"And, because of the casual atmosphere of the show, people have a tendency to come to that level. We've had some nice experiences. People know I'm not out there to wreck them. We're just having a good time, and people tend to respond to that."

One highlight was the Christmas show in which Tony Bennett sang and Cindy Crawford discussed some semi-nude modeling for Rolling Stone with a fortunate pair of excitable -- according to her -- young men.

Another program inexplicably found Stewart in the lap of William Shatner, who held the host as he said, "Captain Kirk, you're boldly going where no man has gone before." ("He beamed me over," Stewart would say later, when asked. "I was powerless.")

Then there are the throwaway bits such as the "Baywatch Moments," in which gorgeous model-types in lifeguard gear periodically interrupted the proceedings in honor of the photogenic syndicated series. Another bit parodied an MTV dance show by replacing the dancers with dogs. In any case, the sense you get from watching The Jon Stewart Show is that everyone is having a good time, which may not be too far off.

"Usually, it's not fun doing publicity for a movie or show, but I genuinely enjoyed doing his show," said Daniel Baldwin, the Baldwin brother on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street.

"He's quirky, he's nonchalant, and he lets you let your hair down. I would do his show again in a minute. It was a lot of fun. I even watch it now, and I never watch MTV."

 

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