Jon Stewart can remember what it
was like getting his big break in TV. After toiling for years
on the stand-up circuit and small-potatoes cable shows like
Short Attention Span Theater, Stewart was approached in 1994
by Paramount TV about doing a nationally syndicated late-night
Paramount's previous effort in late night, The
Arsenio Hall Show, had changed television. Now The Jon
Stewart Show was going to change television! Today Stewart
can summarize his nine months in syndication in eight words: "Be
careful what you wish for, my friend." The Jon Stewart
Show was funny and smart, but it rode in on Arsenio-sized
expectations, which even Hall ultimately had trouble living up
to. Had Stewart remained on cable, he might have had enough time
to build a substantial audience.
That, in fact, is what he'll get a second chance
to do come January, when Comedy Central installs him as the new
host of The Daily Show, its often outrageously great turn
on the news. He'll replace Craig Kilborn, who is headed to CBS. Stewart
will be reunited with the executive producer of his Paramount
show, Madeleine Smithberg, who created The Daily Show two
years ago to replace another show, Politically Incorrect With
Bill Maher, which was heading to ABC.
He won't just inherit the roomful of angry young
writers that give The Daily Show its edge -- as co-executive
producer, a title Kilborn never had, Stewart will become one of
them. Also unlike Kilborn, who did not build strong bonds with
the writers (apparently not one of them has been enticed to follow
him to CBS), Stewart is liked, respected and even revered by the
staff. And who knows? Perhaps someday Stewart will follow
in Maher's and Kilborn's steps and go network. But not for awhile.
For one thing, he's now locked into a four-year deal with Comedy
Central that reportedly will pay him more than $1 million a year. Also,
remember that part about being careful what you wish for? These
days, Stewart is.
"The goals for me have changed somewhat,''
said Stewart in a telephone interview from New York last week.
"There's a bit of seduction to the idea of being on network,
but it got to the point where that wasn't important. What's important
is doing something worthwhile. Which is why I've always avoided
being on a sitcom. Yeah, it's high-profile and it's on a network,
but you know what? You could be on Suddenly Stewart.''
Besides, Stewart and Comedy Central -- the home
of South Park -- make an ideal couple. The cable channel
offers creative freedom and an audience already well attuned to
Stewart's sensibility. He gives Comedy Central a brand-name talent
and will be money in the bank for years to come.
Stewart has spent the past three years on a
variety of projects and making guest appearances on other people's
talk shows. Talk-show producers love him because he's easy to
work with; hosts marvel at his incredible ad-libbing powers. He
also spent one year as designated guest host for Tom Snyder, who
is retiring and whose franchise is being handed over to Kilborn.
Stewart also played himself in the last season of The Larry
Sanders Show and helped punch up the show's scripts.
And there was a development deal with Miramax
Films. That arrangement will continue; he'll have flex time to
make films. Two movies starring Stewart will be released later
this year, as will his first book, Naked Pictures of Famous
People. "You'll see enough to be sick of me by the time
I start doing the show," Stewart promised.
Still, it's unlikely he will find any venue
for his talents as creatively rewarding as The Daily Show.
"The currency of this show is your own head,'' he said. "They've
established a certain structure here, but it's still in evolution.''
As is -- one feels compelled to add -- Jon Stewart.