"Timing is everything"
The Jewish Week
October 9, 1998
by Curt Schleier


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."


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