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,
"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
"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."
Copyright ©1994 San Diego
Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.
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