"Young Gun Stewart Shoots from Ultra-hip"
San Diego Union-Tribune
March 31, 1995
by John Freeman


Jon Stewart doesn't necessarily regard his syndicated late-night talk show as competition for network heavyweights David Letterman and Jay Leno. Instead, The Jon Stewart Show appeals to those sleepless Generation X-ers who find Letterman and Leno too mainstream, too smooth, too predictable to even bother with.

A quirky mix of smart-mouthed wise guy and easygoing cool, Stewart has a refreshing attitude about his show.

"I'm a rookie, so I don't even consider myself in their league," said Stewart, whose show is carried by more than 200 stations and watched nightly by some 1.8 million viewers. "It's like a guy who just bought himself a light bulb saying, `I'm Edison!' " It was nearly a year ago that Arsenio Hall's syndicated late-night show woofed its last. To replace Hall, Paramount lured Stewart from MTV, where he had hosted a hipper-than-hip show.

Since its launch last September, The Jon Stewart Show has tried to carve a late-night niche as an energized, edgy, caustically funny, freewheeling talk show that takes chances, often with an underlining tone of desperation.

The show has enjoyed success in other cities. Channel 6, however, has been unimpressed with Stewart's ratings here. This week, the channel began airing The Jon Stewart Show weeknights at 1 a.m., two hours later than its previous air time.

Stewart's comic style has a feisty bite (grittier than, say, Conan O'Brien's), especially when an interview session (usually with cutting-edge guests who wouldn't be booked by Letterman or Leno) isn't going well.

Like Letterman used to be on his old late-night NBC show, Stewart, 32, can be searingly acerbic to his guests. But Stewart's impish charm allows him to get away with it.

And just as Letterman redefined the late-night talk show, making it more a patchwork of comedy gags and pre-taped segments than Q-and-A, Stewart dares to roam into ultra-hip realms.

Consider Stewart's eclectic guest list: Recent shows have welcomed Lori Petty (Tank Girl), Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society), Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends), Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway), Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv) and Richard Belzer (TV's Homicide). Among his musical guests: Ned's Atomic Dust Bin, The Goo-Goo Dolls, Blues Traveler, Live, Old Dirty Bastards and Notorious B.I.G.

As a bonus, many of Stewart's skits are so dumb and sophomoric that they're hysterically funny.

One running bit involves "Talk Show Jon," a skit using clay-mation figures as puppets. Each puppet is a celebrity (of sorts), and "Jon" tries to get them to behave in various situations -- an impossible task. Bizarre and even inane, "Talk Show Jon" works because it mocks the entire (and inherently phonied-up and insincere) talk-show genre, just as HBO's Larry Sanders Show does with such aplomb.

It's a kind of perverse anti-talk-show mentality, in which the host's disdainful goal is to mock virtually everything, including himself, his show and whoever happens to be watching.

On one recent show, when a young female guest (Julie Warner of NBC's new series Pride & Joy) confessed she was nervous, Stewart tried to comfort her, saying: "There's no reason to be nervous, because this isn't a very good show."

Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.

Stewart, whose given name is Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz, changed his name to Jon Stewart when he became a stand-up comic in 1986, two years after he graduated from the College of William & Mary with a psychology degree.

"After college, I went through about 30 different career options," recalled Stewart, a native of Trenton, N.J. "It's not like I heard a voice that said, `You must go and make people laugh.' But yeah, I guess it was something I had to do."

Soon after, he was getting regular bookings and then he was signed by cable's Comedy Central to host Short Attention Span Theater, a half-hour weekly series of comic clips and filmed pratfalls. Then he moved to MTV to host a bizarre show in which viewers' weird fan letters were transformed into skits. The show proved too bizarre even for MTV and was canceled after 13 weeks.

In the fall of 1993, MTV made Stewart the host of a nightly late-night talk show, which lasted nearly a year before he jumped to Paramount. Given the uncertainties of commercial TV, Stewart remains hopeful his show will last at least a few years.

"I have no control over how many people watch us each night," he said. "The only way I could is if I actually went door to door, and said, `Hey, you! Watch my show and I'll give you $5!' But that'd get pretty expensive. And we're still a low-budget show."


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