Suddenly, comic Jon Stewart
is everywhere, with a new book, two new films and a gig on Comedy
Central. And wherever he goes, his Yiddishkeit follows.
Jon Stewart made his breakthrough on MTV five
years ago, and pretty soon was named comedian du jour by and for
the youth of America. Within what seemed like minutes -- but was
probably actually hours -- Paramount signed him to host a syndicated
talk show, to become the Jewish Arsenio Hall. Studio suits were
convinced they'd landed a funny Capt. Kirk, whose edgy humor would
take the talk show concept to new dimensions where no one had
ever laughed before. Where it went, instead, was down the tubes.
It was funny, very often inventive and had everything going for
it but ratings.
Stewart didn't exactly flame out. There was
an HBO comedy special. But truth be told, for the last couple
of years, the name Jon Stewart was mostly heard in connection
with the word "gonna." He signed a development deal
with David Letterman's company and was gonna develop a program
to follow The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. Then there
were reports that Letterman was unhappy with Snyder's ratings
and Stewart was gonna replace Snyder.
Stewart's appearances on HBO's The Larry
Sanders Show started another rumor. Star/creator/writer/general
all-around neurotic Garry Shandling was retiring, and Stewart
was gonna replace him.
And leave us not forget Stewart's development
deal with Miramax. That was gonna make him a movie star.
The good news is that the verb "gonna"
is soon gonna be replaced -- with "did." Best of all,
there is no bad news. In fact, in relatively short order Stewart
will be omnipresent. He has a new and hilarious book of essays,
Naked Pictures of Famous People (Rob Weisbach Books, $24)
just out. He stars in two films -- Dancing About Architecture
(with Gillian Anderson) and The Faculty -- due this fall.
And he's just signed a four-year, reportedly $6 million deal to
anchor and executive produce Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
This is the multitalented young man's time.
Everything is available to him. Asked which career he might settle
on when he grows up, he wonders: "How old do you have to
be when you can no longer get into rabbinical school?"
He's joking, of course, but as anyone who has
seen him perform can attest, Stewart's Yiddishkeit makes up an
important element in every thing he does. He refers to it regularly
in his act, and it is a very funny chapter in his book. In "The
New Judaism," he explains the three branches of Judaism to
the uninformed. The Orthodox are "the really chosen ones."
Conservative Jews are "Orthodox Jews who went co-ed."
And Reform Jews are the children of Conservatives, "or, as
they are sometimes known, Christians with curlier hair."
He's just seen a finished version of the book
the day before the interview, and is extremely pleased with it.
Pleased? He's ecstatic! "I look at it and say, `boy, this
is exactly the way I want it.' It's a good feeling. Whether or
not people think it's funny is out of my control. All I can do
is execute it the way I want."
He's also excited about his new duties at The
Daily Show, the Comedy Central hit that spoofs the day's news.
He likes the immediacy. "You go in, write the jokes and have
them out as it happens," he says.
For Stewart, 35, it began to happen in the suburbs
of Trenton, N.J., where he was born the grandchild of Russian
immigrants. His grandfather, who is still alive, was a Manchurian
fur trader. Sadly, at least for a writer, there is no easy peg
on which to hang a story; there is no stereotypical dark side
to his early life.
He went to a yeshiva kindergarten and then to
public schools. He attended Hebrew school until "the traditional
age of 13 when you [look at the bar mitzvah gifts and] say, `hey,
I got the payout.'"
"My life was typical. I played a little
Little League baseball. I never wanted for food. I always had
shoes. I had a room. There were no great tragedies. There were
the typical ups and downs but I wouldn' t say it was at all sad.
We were Jewish and living in the suburbs so there was a slightly
neurotic bent to it, but I can't point to anything where a boy
overcame a tragedy to become a comedian. As my grandmother used
to say, `I can't complain.'"
When did he realize he was funny? "What
time is it?" he quips. Actually, humor bubbled out of him
at a young age. "I realized it was a way of getting attention
pretty early on. There was a sense that this feels good, to say
something that made everybody laugh. It was a rhythm that made
sense to me."
After college -- "William & Mary, a
good Jewish school" -- he made the rounds of the comedy clubs.
If it didn't work out, he'd head for law school -- "as if
the world needed more lawyers." But it did work out -- despite
his first joke. (Have rachmonis. It was his first joke and he
doesn't tell it anymore.) "It's lunch time in the Diamond
District. All the stores close down and the street is filled with
chasidim, who suddenly find themselves caught in Yidlock."
"In New York City it got a big laugh. Every
now and then." Pause. "I didn't use it for a long time."
Still his rise was meteoric, in an Armageddon
sort of way. In 1993 he landed the MTV talk show, and just two
years later he was signed by Paramount, which turned out not exactly
to be the Big Time. Never able to achieve the ratings its inventiveness
deserved, the show was further weakened because it couldn't get
top guests. "We'd only get people already in town and not
yet tired of doing talk shows. We were like hyenas on the Serengeti
looking for carcasses."
But the experience didn't leave him bitter.
It led to other experiences and words of wisdom from Letterman:
"He said something that stayed with me `Never confuse cancellation
with failure.' I didn't get into this business to play it safe.
I know I can always go back to law school."