"The new late knight"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 7, 1999
by Joanne Weintraub

 

Comedian, actor Jon Stewart proves nice guys get talk shows 

David Letterman isn't most people's idea of a self-help guru, but Jon Stewart says the best advice he ever got came from CBS' resident bad boy. When Stewart's first TV show, a chat-fest for MTV, died on the vine, "Letterman said to me, 'Don't confuse cancellation with failure,' " Stewart recalls in a phone interview. "It helped me through some dark nights."

That was three years ago. Nights are brighter now for the 36-year-old comedian, actor and writer. Next week, The Daily Show, one of Comedy Central's mainstays, gets a new host and talk about your nice perks: a new name, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays).

Not only that, but the exceptionally affable, reliably witty Stewart is getting the sort of press coverage that sounds like it was orchestrated by his mom. Sample headline, from Newsweek: "Nice Guy Finishes First."

Gushy, maybe, but understandable. Last year, Stewart's Daily Show predecessor, Craig Kilborn, was briefly suspended from the show for making some mean-mouthed comments about a co-star in a magazine interview. It's no easier to think of Stewart doing something like that than to picture Roma Downey spitting in public.

Hosted since its 1996 debut by Kilborn, who's leaving to replace Tom Snyder on CBS' Late Late Show in March, The Daily Show is a half-hour of topical smart-aleckry at the expense of the day's newsmakers. Motto: "When News Breaks, We Fix It."

It should be a comfortable fit for Stewart, whose media diet already includes CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone "and Penthouse, but just for the stereo advice," Stewart adds.

Stewart's last regular TV gig ended last spring, when HBO's ferociously funny The Larry Sanders Show stopped production. At the end of the series, Stewart, who played himself, was about to replace Garry Shandling's title character as the host of a network late-night show. In real life, there was talk that the younger actor would keep the HBO show going in some form, but it didn't happen.

"At 2 o'clock in the morning, we used to talk about it," he says, "but I think we were all afraid it would turn into After MASH (the 1983-'84 clunker built out of spare parts from the CBS classic). At 2 in the morning, I'm sure After MASH sounded like a great idea, too."

The spinoff that remained un-spun was not Stewart's first near-miss. He was reported to be a strong contender for both Snyder's CBS job and, before that, the post-Tonight Show spot that went to Conan O'Brien. But, even before Comedy Central called, Stewart had amassed a pile of consolation prizes.

One was the fall publication of his book of comic essays, Naked Pictures of Famous People, featuring such inspired flights of fancy as Larry King's exclusive interview with Hitler. He's also had film roles in the recently released The Faculty and the forthcoming Playing by Heart. He has finished shooting Big Daddy with Adam Sandler and, down the road, has a deal with Miramax Films to star in a comedy with Janeane Garofalo.

Now that things are going his way, he says he wants to remain as philosophical about good luck as Letterman advised him to be about its opposite, difficult as that may be. "You can't help but feel, 'Omigod, nothing will be the same,' " he says of his new TV gig. "It's, like, the first time I [appeared on Letterman's show], I came back and thought my apartment was going to be bigger. It wasn't."

Stewart, who writes much of his own material, is meeting with the show's other writers and producers this week to talk about what to keep, what to get rid of and what to tweak. Two of the show's regulars, A. Whitney Brown and Brian Unger, are leaving with Kilborn. Beth Littleford and Stephen Colbert will return. A Comedy Central spokesman says one of the show's nightly features "Five Questions," a mini-Jeopardy played with a celebrity guest may or may not survive.

Such recurring segments as "God Stuff," a roundup of the worst in televangelism; "Ad Nauseam," which does the same for advertising; and "Out at the Movies," with the hilarious Frank DeCaro, will continue.

Stewart gives the allotted 20 minutes to the phone interview, then goes on to the next in what sounds like a very long string. This business of launching a nightly show is not for wimps.

Any plans for celebrating his first night back on the air? "Most likely," he says, "I'm going to plunge my head into an ice bucket."

 

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