"Aging Gracefully: A Few Gray Hairs? No Problem. Jon Stewart Has His Panic Under Control."
Axcess
1995 (Vol. III, No. 3)
by Farrar, Michelle

 

Jon Stewart is intensely into music. As Bush, the Violent Femmes, Nine Inch Nails and the Offspring play on his radio like the soundtrack to a movie Richard Linklater hasn't filmed yet, he sits silently in his sofa chair as if he's using the rhythm of the songs to think; the interview begins with the rough ignition of his cigarette. "Barry White was on the show last night," he says. "Walked by me after our interview and said 'You're a bad mutha' in that bass Barry White voice of his. That's the kind of thing you want on tape when you're seventy years old and you got your family gathered around you, and you go, 'You know, the old man had a show, and Barry White was on, and this is what he said to the old man' -- and you play it back -- 'You're a bad mutha.' It was just perfect coming from this enormous man, in this huge baritone voice."

Chalk up another magical moment for Jon Stewart -- the highlights of his life come fast and furious for this Lawrence, New Jersey native. His parents were proud when he graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in psychology, but that was just the beginning. He returned to New Jersey, performing puppet shows for schoolchildren aimed at sensitizing them to the disabled. (This, he swears, was not community service.) In 1986 he was back in New York, playing open mike nights at the comedy clubs while working various day jobs. The audiences loved him. His successful stand-up act led him to TV and a job hosting Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater for a year, followed by MTV's groundbreaking interactive series You Wrote It, You Watch It, in which viewer mail was turned into skits. This experiment was canceled after 13 weeks, and The Jon Stewart Show was born.

"Yeah, interesting title," he remarks. "The mind-blowing part is when I walk past the receptionist and she'll answer the phone 'Jon Stewart.' Not even 'The Jon Stewart Show.' They just say 'Jon Stewart.' My head swivels constantly during the day because I'm just not used to hearing my name all the time. I constantly think people are talking to me -- but they're just answering the phone."

This confusion is the least of Stewart's concerns, however; as executive producer of his own show, he's often called upon to defend his creative decisions. This part of the job is not for the weak. "When it comes down to content, that's where I choose my battles," says Stewart as he washes tonight's TV makeup off in the sink next to his carton of Camel Lights. "If they say, well we'd love it if you'd wear a black sweater tonight, I'll usually do that, but if they say, well we don't think that bit's funny, we don't want you to run it, I say 'Well, we do,' so we put it on."

While Stewart's star status gives him clout in these conflicts, he realized that things can change fast in the entertainment business. "If a show is going to turn its back on me, I would hope that it would be New York rather than Los Angeles," he declares. Living and working in the Big Apple helps him keep things in perspective. Rejection wouldn't matter to him as much there; New Yorkers just aren't prone to hyperventilate over celebrities. "Everybody's got their own shit to worry about," he explains. Even his neighbors are unimpressed about having a TV star next door. "I think that as long as I keep the music down, they're fine." New York, like TV, is a separate reality with rules of its own.

Jon rests his black sweater cuffs on the knees of his jeans and attempts to explain TV reality. "I make up shit for the show, about my family, and -- "

And the Playboy bunnies and supermodels?

"Oh well . . . that is completely falsified. In real reality, supermodels talk to you for about six minutes and then go off and have sex with professional athletes."

Moving beyond flipness, Stewart reflects on his goals in life, and how they've shifted with age. "In some ways you shed a lot of the bullshit, the neuroses of your earlier years. Speaking personally, I don't think I'm floundering as much as I used to. I still have my moments of abject panic, but I've been able to control it more as I've gotten older." His age seems to be an issue with certain members of the press, who suggest that MTV secretly marketed the 32 year old Stewart to the X Generation as one of their own. Many of the faces that steer MTV have always been over 30, and the Baby Boomers that created that dividing line anyway. (Logan's Run ain't a Gen X movie.) Is thirty the new twenty?

"I've heart that thirty was the new eighty. I think, judging from my gray hair, it might be more the truth," he muses, gesturing toward his temples. "Doing this gig is like… you know, when you see pictures of the presidents when they first get into office, and then two years later they look like shit? That's what's going to happen to me. They go 'I really want this job,' they campaign real hard, and then two years later, they're broken." The job's tough, the critics are tougher and he has to perform new material five times a week. It helps if he can strike a rapport with three or four new people, his guests, with the camera watching. Humor's a hard job, and Jon works 12 hours a day to take care of business.

There's plenty of room for someone like Jon, even on the overcrowded talk show host ballot. His show is a chance to see celebrities genuinely at ease. He doesn't disregard his guests like Conan, hip them like Arsenio, or bite them like the old Dave. "This isn't 20-20," he once remarked. "We don't want to make the guests cry." His viewership has grown by an amazing process of word-of-mouth. In his studio audience, his mostly young fans cut across the spectrum of kids who ordinarily wouldn't go to the same concert together. And he practically owns middle class pop culture. He's had almost every member of the Brady Bunch movie on his show, and almost every bathing suit from Baywatch. Stewart is big on the Denny's menu, and humbly sums up his life with one movie -- Fletch II. While critics (secret spies from the Leno camp?) have called his show sophomoric, it's suspiciously more toned down that Jon Stewart himself.

The life of a stand-up can be compared to the life of a frat boy, surviving on the income of an intern with all the permanence of a youth hostel. Sounds like fun -- and Stewart hasn't lost his flair for youthful antics. Turning up on the show, Sammy Hagar tells the audience his disbelief on seeing Jon take him up on a dare to streak the stage the night before. A recent article's assertion that Stewart impressed Trent Reznor's band with "fart fireballs" in an Atlanta strip bar is only shocking at first. And despite admissions of not really dating the supermodels that are his running skits, urban myth is that everyone is just one friend away from someone who's dated Jon Stewart. It's incongruent with the "I'm just an ordinary mensch" attitude for those real mensches out there. But it seems obvious when you note that Stewart is funny, attractive, ambitious and wears soft black sweaters. Nice guys, the mean ones will say, finish last -- but if they do, they want to finish like Jon Stewart.

(Sidebar) "Jon Stewart's New York"

Best Cable Access Show: Robin Byrd

It's basically people taking their clothes off to music. And at the end they all talk. And you know what? I'll make you a little confession here, I'll give you a little dirt -- sometimes I'll even watch the guys if the song is good enough. There you go, you have it. If it's something that's got a good beat, easy to dance to, I'll check that out too. Although they're a little hard to watch because they're a little rough. But the girls, it's always a pleasant thing. Everyone gets a five minute segment. It's funky to be able to watch a Disney movie and with one click of the remote control be able to see naked people dancing. That's the beauty of this country.

Best Pizza: John's Pizza, Greenwich Village

I know that's probably a hack answer, because everybody likes that place. There's also another little place, right up the block where you get it by the slice, I think that's Joe's Pizza. In New York, you can't spin a dead cat without hitting a nice pizza place. And believe me, there are a lot of people spinning dead cats here. It's kinda sad.

On the Concept of Boroughs

No one's ever explained it to me. You know, the sad part about living in New York is you never really think about what a borough actually is. I just know our taxes are higher because of it. I never quite figure out what the deal is. I guess we're like a township. There's a bridge though -- a triborough bridge. So obviously it's an important thing, these boroughs.

New York Psychics vs. L.A.'s

Very rarely do the psychics go "There will be an earthquake." That's typical out in L.A. The psychics in New York -- you walk right in and give them five bucks and they go, "Do you have kids?" "No." "Well you will, thank you. Are you married? No? Well you will be." Real mom and pop.

New York Subways

Buck twenty-five. Take you anywhere you want to go, come on. You can't get a better deal than that.

Favorite All-Nighter: Kiev's

It's a diner down on the lower east side. You get some great barley soup and some nice bread and sit there and yap until all hours. Basically, the diner is the mainstay of the comedian. You can finish your gigs at one o'clock, two o'clock, whatever, and then you and the four other losers you're with can walk to a diner and eat cheeseburgers.

A Date with Jon Stewart in N.Y.

So many girls that I meet are vegetarian… I'd take her to a corner bistro and force her to watch me eat meat and see how she reacted.

What New York Has That You Won't Find Anywhere Else

Contact. Yeah, supreme contact, interaction. New York is all about interaction. We're all in one big mosh pit, you know?

 

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Copyright © 1995 Axcess. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Dani for the article.

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