"Jonny on the spot"
Entertainment Weekly
January 8, 1999
by A.J. Jacobs

 

Reentering the TV-show ring for the second time, Jon Stewart's new role is an anchor of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

Let's examine the career options recently faced by an underemployed standup comic named Jon Stewart. There was always the sitcom route. But no. "I never felt I had the right idea," says Stewart. "I'd say to the networks, 'Imagine Mary Tyler Moore with a penis.' And they would, and I couldn't get their attention back." There were the persistent rumors he'd replace Tom Snyder on CBS' The Late Late Show. Nope to that, too. "I'm too short to host a late-night talk show," says the 5'7" Stewart. "It's like the bar at an amusement-park ride. You have to be six foot two or over." And wasn't he also heir apparent to Garry Shandling in the latter's late, great HBO series The Larry Sanders Show? "Um, that was a little something called fiction. Next you'll be asking me if I can twinkle my nose and make Darrin disappear." 

So what did Stewart up and do? He threw us a career curveball: Come Jan. 11, the New Jersey-born 36-year-old will take over Comedy Central's The Daily Show (the current host of the news-parody program, Craig Kilborn-who does meet the height requirement-departs to replace Snyder). Basic cable? Isn't that small potatoes to a budding movie actor, author of the humor book Naked Pictures of Famous People, and former host of the nationally syndicated Jon Stewart Show? Uh-uh. Stewart insists he belongs "on the dial somewhere between Animal Planet and the guy in the bee costume on Sabado Gigante." 

Oh, that Stewart, the Stravinsky of self-deprecation. Talk to the chain-smoking comic for a couple hours and he'll discuss everything from his overabundance of body hair (he has to shave his neck) to the new petite desk they had to install on the Daily Show set ("looks like doll's house furniture"). 

So it's left to his new bosses to do the boasting. "To us, Jon's the second coming," praises Comedy Central executive VP of programming Eileen Katz. 

Well, he's certainly the net's biggest star to date (that is, if you don't count the talking poop on South Park). And to snag him, they offered a godlike deal: time off to moonlight in the movies (he's in the sci-fi thriller The Faculty and the upcoming Sean Connery-starring drama Playing by Heart); his name in the title (it's now called The Daily Show With Jon Stewart); and an astronomical-for-cable salary -- about $1.5 million a year. "The overall budget of Comedy Central has now been drastically reduced," says Daily Show cocreator and exec producer Madeleine Smithberg. "Chef from South Park will have to go on a diet." 

If you must take food out of the mouths of cartoon culinary types, The Daily Show's at least a worthwhile cause. The series ("the most important show ever," the promos trumpet with the show's typically snide irony) mixes celeb interviews, quips about the headlines, and on-the-street segments mocking John Q. Oddball (victims include Christian clowns and a woman who searches for leprechauns). With ratings shooting up 90 percent since Daily's 1996 debut, that's what you call a recipe for success. Don't, therefore, expect the ingredients to change much beyond a few tweaks. Though you might not be seeing Kilborn's signature bit, the goofy, celeb-rattling Five Questions (Kilborn-who cracks that he's leaving Stewart "a phone book to sit on" -- hopes to whisk them off to CBS), Stewart's got his own gimmick, the Four Questions From Passover Seder ("Why is this guest different from all other guests?"). 

He kids, but one thing's for sure: This host is different from the previous host. Kilborn-like fellow Central grad Bill Maher before him-plays up the smug-guy's guy shtick, a persona that earned him a PR debacle last year when Esquire quoted him making lewd comments about Daily Show cocreator Lizz Winstead. Contrast that with Stewart's sweet, ironic mensch vibe. "Jon's the kid Craig probably beat up every day in fifth grade," says head writer Chris Kresld. 

So while we may see fewer of The Daily Show's cruelest jabs (like the whopper about Alzheimer's-stricken Reagan "talking to a mailbox"), the sharp-witted Stewart undoubtedly will fill in any holes; unlike Kilborn, he writes a lot of his own material. "I think the first two to three months are gonna probably be a little shaky, until we get our stride," admits Stewart. Indeed, Stewart's debut comes shortly after the departure of two of the show's popular correspondents-Brian Unger and A. Whitney Brown. But those behind the scenes are unconcerned: "I think if you take The Daily Show and add Jon Stewart, whatever comes out of the microwave at the end of a minute will be tasty," says Smithberg. "I'm just not sure whether it's a taco or a pizza."

 

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