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
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."