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
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."