"Career Stakes Higher, Workload Heavier Now for MTV's Jon Stewart"
San Diego Union-Tribune
September 20, 1994
by Manuel Mendoza

 

Here we are Jon, entertain us.

Jon Stewart ably answered that generational call a year ago when MTV tapped him to be its first talk-show host.

Producing one of the quickest half-hours on television by keeping the pace frenetic and the sensibility wackily collegiate, the fast-rising stand-up comic appealed to short-attention-span slackers of all ages.

The Jon Stewart Show was designed for MTV's largely teen-age following, but wound up attracting an older and wider audience. Some 30-year-olds were actually watching. During its leisurely 50-episode run -- each few weeks of new shows led to months of repeats -- it was one of the most-watched programs on the cable music channel.

Now with the show transferring to Arsenio Hall's old syndication spotlight -- complete with expansion to an hour, five nights a week, 40-some weeks a year -- the stakes are higher and the workload heavier.

Moving from MTV, where a 1 rating is a boom, to broadcast TV and the high-profile arena of late night, the 31-year-old New Jersey native is opposite the second half of Late Show With David Letterman in most of its 100-plus markets. It airs in 90 percent of the country.

Reached recently by phone, audibly chewing on a roast beef sandwich "a little weak on the Russian dressing," Stewart sounded tired at first. "Hmmm, hmmm," he said, enjoying his lunch-on-the-fly. "I'm sorry. I've been running around all day. This is my first chance to sit down." The interview took place between tapings of comedy bits ("He can't come to the phone right now," his assistant had said earlier, "he's in a Captain Kirk outfit.")

But as soon as his quips began to hit their marks, the newest late-night gabber perked up.

His MTV show's simple format -- "no house band, no curtain" -- continues with a few changes. The monologue has been lengthened. The Nok-Hockey table, which served as a desk, is gone.

"You gotta show the kids you're making improvements," Stewart said. "We're not dealing with plywood anymore. But it's still just me and Howard in our own little love nest, talking to guests, making them uncomfortable." (Howard is Howard Feller, Stewart's nerdy announcer-foil, who favors Kramer-type bowling shirts and is often the star of "bumpers," short sketches that lead in and out of commercials.)

The biggest change is the new show's pacing, which can't possibly match the old one's. "If it did, you'd kill everybody by the end of the week," Stewart says of the hour-long vs. the half-hour format. "We have to get comfortable with not running as fast as we can. I think it'll help the show actually. There were a lot of times on MTV when I felt, `Please welcome Elle Macpherson. Elle, what have you been working on?' `Sirens.' `That's terrific. We'll be right back.' Sometimes I thought we gave our guests short shrift, and now we won't have to. We just have to find the balance between short shrift and `OK, that's enough, we get it.' " Stewart won't be wearing a tie like the other late-night hosts, though Paramount suggested it. Known for his Gap-boy look of jeans, T-shirt and unzipped jacket, his wardrobe is the same except "I have to wear clean pants now," he said.

He also won the battle to keep the show in New York; it is being taped at Chelsea Studios in Manhattan. Paramount had wanted him to move to Los Angeles, but on a trip to L.A. to scout studio space, he found the city too unreal. In New York, on the other hand, reality is right around the corner, as Stewart found out when he recently locked himself out of his downtown one-bedroom.

While waiting two hours for a locksmith in the middle of the night, a seemingly crazy woman paced up and down his block. "The 10th time she walked by me, she turned to me and she goes, `Get a life.' That's when you know it's the kind of town where you can't get too high."

Stewart got his initial grounding growing up in Lawrence, N.J., just outside Trenton, in a family of brains. His father was a physicist, his mother an educational consultant and his older brother a model student. So he took the wiseacre route.

"I can't remember not being this way," he said. "I can't remember one day thinking, `You know what might work for me -- humor.' My brother was smart, so there was no way I was going to cop that title in the family. I naturally gravitated toward another direction of attention. I was the court jester of the family."

Stewart won't come out and say he's making a show for Generation Whatever, though Paramount says it is targeting the 18-to-34 market.

"We are aiming it for people who think what we think is funny," he said. "There are going to be people in the audience who are 20 years old that think it sucks and don't get it or don't like it. And there are going to be people who are 50 and do."

At first, Stewart didn't want to leave the comfort and success of his MTV show. Now, he feels the pressure of a bigger gig, and at the same time, he doesn't.

"I had to make peace with the fact that if this works, great, and if it doesn't, you have to be OK with that, too," he said. "You can't go into it thinking, `If I do this and they take this away, what's going to happen to me?' You have to know that you can always open an ice-cream store."

 

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