Former overnight sensation has new Comedy
Central gig and two movie roles
Only in notoriously short-attention-span Hollywood
is it possible to talk, without irony, about Jon Stewart's comeback
just five years after he was declared an overnight sensation
as the smirky host of his own MTV chat show.
"That's right, I'm making my triumphal
return to cable television," the 36-year-old actor/comedian
says, tossing his head back haughtily and reclining across the
couch in his Parker Meridien hotel suite.
Jon Stewart plays a teacher in 'The Faculty.'
"Look out. I'm back, baby."
Back in 1995, "The Jon Stewart Show" was
snapped up and syndicated by Paramount amid buzz that its star
might be the young Johnny Carson. Just as quickly, it was consigned
to talking-head oblivion along with the shows of Arsenio Hall,
Keenen Ivory Wayans and Alan Thicke. And while its host has
worked steadily over the intervening years, it does seem that
suddenly he's the celebrity equivalent of lint popping
up everywhere, and in the most unlikely places.
This holiday season, for example, Stewart
will be seen in "The Faculty," a movie about aliens taking over
a high school. In January, he appears in the high-toned comedy-drama
"Playing by Heart," portraying a suave architect who woos lonely
single gal Gillian Anderson. A suave architect named Trent,
"I was the last to be cast," says Stewart.
"Originally, the character was supposed to be physically the
embodiment of masculinity, and the name conjured up those soap
opera guys with names like Cliff, Rock, Stone or Dirt. I explained
to the director [Willard Carroll], you know, that's not exactly
The film, with a stellar cast that also includes
Sean Connery ("I definitely play Q to his James Bond," Stewart
quips), Gena Rowlands, Madeleine Stowe, Ryan Phillippe and Dennis
Quaid, is a major step up from the comedian's previous film
work bit parts in the turkeys "Mixed Nuts" and "Half
Then there's the aforementioned triumphal
return: In January, Stewart returns to New York full-time to
take over for Craig Kilborn as host of the "Daily Show" on Comedy
Central the same network that plucked Stewart from comedy-club
obscurity a decade ago and gave him his first big break as a
writer and performer.
And as if all this weren't enough to spell
c-o-m-e-b-a-c-k, Stewart's book "Naked Pictures of Famous People"
has won critical acclaim just for being a book by a famous comic
that's actually funny.
You'd think it might turn the head of a guy
who only a few years ago was driving a catering van and working
downtown clubs like the Comedy Cellar, "doing standup for the
hummus plate." But not so. "I'm lucky to be able to do a diversity
of things right now," Stewart says, seeming really to mean it
as he works his way through a pack of cigarettes.
Still, he's sometimes deaf to the nuances
of big-time success. Case in point: While other members of the
"Playing by Heart" cast show up at a Sunday-morning press junket
looking tanned, waxed, buffed and camera-ready, Stewart is pale,
stubbly and outfitted in a baggy gray sweater, looking unapologetically
Amid these Grade-A movie stars, he looks
like an "impostah," as he puts it with a mock British accent.
"The fact is, I've fallen into a lot of things," Stewart says.
"If I had any goal, it was to be a good standup.
I never said, 'I'm going to be a standup
comic so I can be a talk-show host or an actor.' "
That explains a big part of Jon Stewart Leibowitz'
tremendous appeal. He delights in playing the unlikely celebrity,
a nice Jewish boy who grew up in suburban Trenton, the son of
a physicist and an educational consultant. As a student at Virginia's
College of William and Mary, Stewart encountered good ol' boys
who had never met a Jew before, "boys with eight first names,
which also happened to be the names of Confederate generals,
but who just went by 'Trip.' " It gave him a sense of what it
is to be an outsider.
"It made me understand what it is to
be disenfranchised," Stewart says.
That in turn, informed his snarky, anti-authoritarian
humor. This is, after all, a man who once asked William Shatner
if he could sit in his lap.
Like any real New Yorker, Stewart makes no
bones about his dislike of Los Angeles. He owns an apartment
in downtown Manhattan, in the nabe he mockingly calls "TriCoCo"
in reality, the West Village. He doesn't holiday in the
Hamptons, but in his old haunts on the Jersey Shore. "The Hamptons
are the most Hollywood place in New York, filled with all the
people in New York you're trying to avoid," Stewart complains.
Playing a self-deprecating stiff who can
barely muffle a giggle at his own good fortune is more than
good shtick it has won Stewart a tremendous following.
Entertainment writers have said that women are charmed by the
still-single Stewart because he's clever, genial and non-threatening,
and men like him because he's, well, clever, genial and non-threatening.
In other words, the opposite of anybody named "Trent."
Separate shtick from reality, and you quickly
realize that Stewart has worked very hard at being Mr. Average.
Since the cancellation of his old program, he has won raves
as an "All About Eve"-type guest host of HBO's "Larry Sanders
Show" and gained a new, older group of fans ("lots of people
from Nova Scotia") by periodically stepping in for Tom Snyder
as host of CBS' "Late Show." He's also a favorite talk-show
guest discussing everything from matzo to Monicagate
for David Letterman, Larry King, Tom Snyder and even "The View."
But standup remains Stewart's first love,
and that, along with his desire to work in New York, drew him
back to Comedy Central.
"I think comedians have this Pavlov's
dog response when it comes to jokes," Stewart says. "You tell
a joke, you get a laugh and I miss the immediacy of that.
With a movie or a book, you have hours of wringing your hands,
wondering if people thought it was funny."
But he acknowledges that taking over as emcee
of the "Daily Show" is a bit of a gamble. For one thing, it
again casts Stewart in the uncomfortable role he has become
adept at playing both for laughs and for real over the years:
"At least this time, I'm going in after
a guy who's leaving because he wants to," Stewart says, referring
to show-biz gossip that once had him replacing talk idol Snyder
on the ailing "Late Show." (Instead, it's Kilborn who will take
over on CBS.) "It seems I'm always the guy who's in the dark
corner rubbing his hands together, scheming to get rid of Snyder
Still, current host Kilborn's shoes won't
be easy to fill, not least because Stewart labels those feet
"huge and Aryan." It has been a few years since Stewart was
tagged with the unlovely "Gen-X comic" label for his cable antics.
These days, his hair is graying more than a bit, and it's Kilborn
who's the darling of 14-year-old miscreants everywhere.
And while Stewart's biting sarcasm is legendary,
he's far more comfortable dissing rich and powerful targets
like Kathie Lee Gifford than the clueless Middle Americans who
are regularly eviscerated on the "Daily Show."
Kilborn's mocking humor has a whiff of the
sadistic fraternity pledgemaster about it. Stewart's sympathies,
by contrast, invariably lie with the pledges.
"It's fair to say that at times the
'Daily Show' can be a little too mean," Stewart says. "I happen
to have a huge soft spot for all the eccentrics out there in
America, and I think at its best, the show celebrates them."
Still, he doesn't imagine a kinder, gentler
Stewart regime. "The show is what it is, and if sometimes that
means going out there and tearing Carol Channing a new a------,
well, I don't have a problem with that."
Meanwhile, Stewart's already basking in the
glow of being the comeback kid. "I'm glad to be back in New
York and have the flexibility that the show provides," he says.
"As our world spirals into chaos, I've missed the ability to
comment on it every day."
Since he's taking over as host of the "Daily
Show," we thought we'd brazenly rip off one of the program's
trademark bits and ask Jon Stewart five brain-crushingly difficult,
if somewhat inane questions.
We haven't scheduled the makeup exam yet.
1) Kathie Lee Gifford or Debbie Matanopoulos
(from "The View")?
"Ah, that's a good question. It's so hard
to say. I'd say that one passes the torch on to the other."
Answer: Correct! They are part of the same
diabolical Slimfast-drinking space/time continuum.
2) What is the capital of Lesotho?
"What? What is Lesotho? It's in Africa?
I've never heard of it. Is it new?
Answer: Incorrect! The capital of Lesotho
3) Finish this motto: "What Trenton makes
"That's easy: 'The world takes.' "
(Stewart informs us that Trenton makes Trojan condoms and Champale.)
4) Sean Connery or Roger Moore?
"There is no question. Sean Connery
is the only Bond."
Answer: Correct! We accept no substitutes
shaken, stirred or Remington Steeled.
5) Complete this lyric: "You take the
good, you take the bad, you take them both and ..."
"Um, 'you can dance if you want to'?
Whenever I don't know a song, I go to my old standby, 'Safety
Dance.' I don't know."
Answer: Incorrect! It's: " ... there
you have the facts of life!"