Being the next big thing is no big thing for MTV's
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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."
Copyright © 1994 San Diego
Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.
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