"Jon Stewart Toeing the Line Between Traditional and Weird"
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
January 9, 1995
by Neal Justin

 

The scientist has gone bonkers.

He's on a national talk show to explain the wonders of the digestive system to baby-faced, smirking host Jon Stewart, who wouldn't mind if biologist Christopher Conway stopped yanking his ears, climbing over the furniture and stuffing grapes into his mouth.

Never mind that Conway is just 4 years old. This is late-night TV, and, in case you haven't heard, it's getting tough out here, kiddo!

If the little genius had gone amok when Johnny Carson was in the driver's seat, the old master would simply have let the kid run around, cocked an eyebrow to the audience and shrugged his shoulders. Big laughs.

Stewart, 32, isn't familiar with tradition. When he was growing up in New Jersey, his idea of a talk show was Dinah Shore in the afternoon, baking chicken with Dom DeLuise. So he decides to chase Conway around the set and challenge him to a fistfight. Big laughs.

"I'll run that little kid through my head the rest of the year."

Twenty minutes after taping Show 69 of the syndicated Jon Stewart Show, , which has been gaining momentum since its September debut, the host leaned back in a chair at his office desk, tossing a baseball in the air and chain-smoking Camels.

"Stuff like that, man - you sit at night and you just go over it in your head. Little things you could have said. Oh yeah, it got tremendous laughs, but you always think: I could have done something better."

What's an MTV hipster doing sweating the small stuff, especially a bit that got the biggest laughs of the night? From the look of things around the Manhattan studio, Stewart and his 20-something staff should be thankful just to be on the air. The set looks like Wayne's and Garth's basement: Dull-red guest chairs ripped out of a Land Rover serve as a couch, and the set's wooden walls are splattered with an ultrathin coat of blue paint.

The host hits the stage in baggy jeans, zip-up sweater, white T-shirt and half-hearted goatee, looking like a frat boy heading out for a Friday night kegger. The announcer is some creature named Howard with whacked-out hair, crooked teeth and a creepy, never-ending smile. There's no band, no designer suits, no roof cams.

But like David Letterman, his show-biz idol, and Carson - whom he never really dug - Stewart is an absolute natural on camera. He delivers locker-room humor with a I-know-better-than-this attitude: "There's a new Marilyn Monroe stamp - I think you know where I'm going with this - and licking that may be the closest thing we'll come to being a Kennedy." And he has a quick wit when things take strange turns.

When William Shatner scooped him up and plopped him in his lap, Stewart ad-libbed: "Captain Kirk, you're boldly going where no man has ever gone before." His most famous bit is a move called the Moron Walk, in which he affects a driven look, swings his arms like a spastic drum major, speed-walks across stage and then apologizes excessively for stooping to such silliness.

His show's low-budget, anything-goes attitude has accounted for some of the stranger recent scenes on late-night:
Senior-citizen cheerleaders rah-rahing monologue jokes.
Pina Colada Night, with guests slurping tropical drinks while Rupert Holmes sang into the commercials.

Producers setting up Stewart on a blind date, which was played out on the air. Still, Stewart is a superworrier as soon as the camera blinks off. "We're still at the children's table," said Stewart, who had only one week off during his first four months. "The show's good enough now that at least if people start to watch it, that's cool. Like the first couple months, we didn't want any [viewers] because we kind of sucked. We didn't want to draw attention to ourselves because people would tune in and go, `Huh?' "

Stewart downed some cold medicine and placed the bottle on his desk, next to a bag of rolls and an untouched cup of tea. His cramped office, the size of a high-school counselor's room, is cluttered with odd items: a mini Etch-a-Sketch, a pumpkin, something called "Hot Tub In a Can" and a New York Rangers banner from the hockey team's 1993-94 Stanley Cup season. On top of a small refrigerator packed with pop cans and one bottle of beer, an idea for a sketch is scribbled on a paper napkin.

"Oftentimes we're flying around by the seat of our pants," Stewart said. "It's not so much, `Dum-da-da-dum-da-da: The Show!' It's more like, `Oh, OK. Ah, welcome back.' "

TV life might have been a bit more glamorous if NBC had pegged Stewart to replace Letterman in the late-night slot, which eventually went to Conan O'Brien. Stewart, a stand-up comic for the previous seven years, auditioned for Late Night producer Lorne Michaels and NBC president Don Ohlmeyer, but he has no idea whether he came close to landing the job.

"It's not like they call you and say, `You were third,' " he said. "But I imagine those guys didn't come out and look at everybody. I was flattered."

Instead, Stewart went the route of MTV, which has made stars of Daisy Fuentes, Denis Leary and Beavis & Butthead. "I was doing a show for MTV called You Wrote it, You Watch It, which was a brilliant show; can't believe it didn't fly," he muttered sarcastically. "We were sitting at dinner with a couple people from MTV, and they were saying, `Look, this show isn't going to work. Do you have any other ideas for something?' I had two or three. One was a talk show. One of the others was a combination of Star Trek and 90210, a teenage, high-school thing in space. The third was a travel show: Funny man in France!" He paused. "You have to understand, this is between the entree and the dessert."

Impressed by his confidence on camera and his popularity with Generation X, Paramount recruited Stewart in hopes that he would eventually achieve the ratings of its last talk show, Arsenio Hall's.

Stewart, who gives high marks to Hall for bringing something different to late-night TV, hopes to do the same by pushing the edges, a tactic he figures might not please Paramount executives. "They're looking at making this much more a mainstream success, where I sort of feel like, `Why give people what they've already seen?' I'd love to be able to go the other way," he said. "And you know what? Maybe that's impossible."

The challenge facing Stewart - as well as O'Brien, Dennis Miller and the other alternative talk shows out there - is to surprise the audience without going over the gangplank.

"It's the same argument with Saturday Night Live. Are we so used to the format that nothing surprises us anymore?" he said. "You know, when you're a kid - I don't mean this to be rude - but when you see a girl in a bikini when you're 12, it's the most arousing thing you've ever seen. You get a little older, and you see some naked pictures and you say, `Oh, that's great.' Now, if you don't see, like, girls, a goat and a midget, it doesn't do anything; you get jaded.

"Howard Stern is interesting in that way. He keeps coming up with things that keep you interested in what you're doing. It's like when you see a comic who comes up with a great shtick, like Emo Phillips. He didn't get any worse. You just got used to it."

Two hours after taping Show 69, Stewart walked out of his office. The rest of the staff had gone home, except the writers, who were waiting for their boss across the street. Stewart headed down the four flights of steep stairs, walking past numerous "Watch Your Step" signs. One floor down, he passed the studio where veteran Maury Povich does his talk show.

"I don't see him too often. I think he feels what we're doing upstairs is cute," he said. "I don't think he has an idea what we do."

 

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