"Jon Stewart, The Comeback Comic"
New York Now
December 13, 1998
by J.D. Heiman

 

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, no less.

"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 me."

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 Baked."

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 Saturday Night.

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: replacement host.

"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 or whoever."

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."

Five Questions

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 is Maseru.

3) Finish this motto: "What Trenton makes ..."

"That's easy: 'The world takes.' " (Stewart informs us that Trenton makes Trojan condoms and Champale.)

Answer: Correct!

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!"

 

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