"Daily grind"
Chicago Sun-Times
January 4, 1999
by Phil Rosenthal

 

Stewart pressured to continue success 

Here's a message for Jon Stewart, who's taking over as host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show next week: Don't screw it up, little man.

"I always get that cautionary warning right before I get off the phone with an interviewer," Stewart said from New York. "It's: `Good luck with the show. I really like it, and if this goes wrong, you'll be hearing from my attorneys.' "

Stewart, 36, is prepared for whatever fallout may come. Clearly, he has a different comedic sensibility than Craig Kilborn, whom he replaces behind the anchor desk of the four-night-a-week Newscast parody. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Kilborn, an ESPN alum and former basketball player, had a smug sort of frat-boy cockiness. In his penultimate appearance on The Daily Show last month, he gave the smaller Stewart a telephone directory to sit on. Stewart's humor is more cerebral and self-deprecating. "Whenever you take over something that is popular and has a fanatical following that loves it, you're never going to please everyone," Stewart said. "The trick is to have enough wherewithal to follow through with what you want to do with it and give it time to evolve."

That Stewart is replacing Kilborn completes a late-night TV chain. A former cable and syndicated talk-show host, Stewart most recently was understudy to CBS' Tom Snyder, who's retiring from the daily grind and being replaced in March by Kilborn. "Yeah," Stewart deadpanned. "And Snyder's going to Friends. He's replacing David Schwimmer."

Stewart is scheduled to move into his Comedy Central office today. His debut on the program will be at 10 p.m. Jan. 11. "That gives us a week to put this together," he said. "That's enough time, isn't it? They won't even be able to hem my pants in time."

While the new job pays $1.5 million a year and The Daily Show has a relatively small, dedicated following, Stewart once seemed destined for more. His low-key MTV talk show evolved into Paramount's response to the retirement of Arsenio Hall. Somehow, a Jewish guy who sometimes didn't shave interviewing marginal guests seated on car seats, with a Nok-Hockey game board for a desk, didn't appeal to Hall's audience. Imagine that.

David Letterman signed him to back up Snyder and develop a late-night show for CBS ("And all our development went into Touched by an Angel," Stewart jokes). But the deal lapsed and, in a puzzling move, Kilborn was chosen to succeed Snyder.

Stewart has a book of humorous essays out and a slow-blossoming film career, and the Daily Show job enables him to move back to New York while continuing to pursue both endeavors. But why? "I'm doing everything I can to sabotage my career," Stewart said. "It's a little thing called `fear of success.' Seriously? Those [regular talk] shows become your life - I mean, for 10 years, it's your life. That is what you are and what you do.

"This is a different kind of hosting than I'm accustomed to. It's a little less free form. But we'll find out what I can do well and start tailoring it to that... It's less driven by me than the Paramount show was, but it will be ultimately driven by a certain comedic point of view that's different."

Along with Kilborn, Daily Show contributors Brian Unger and A. Whitney Brown are leaving the program. But Stephen Colbert and Beth Littleford are remaining, as are key writers and other staffers such as executive producer Madeline Smithberg, who worked with Stewart on his earlier talk shows. Stewart's style should encourage the writers to adopt a less mean-spirited approach than Kilborn's. But Stewart is capable of the occasional potshot. "Hopefully the only things off-limits are [crummy] jokes," he said. "But being a standup comedian, I know that's not always the case... You know it when you have to take a shower afterward."

Hope it works. We have lawyers on retainer.

 

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