Comedian and actor Jon Stewart isn't too worried
about finding something funny and satirical for his debut this
month as host of The Daily Show, Comedy Central's offbeat
news commentary/comedy program.
When you've got a president who's facing an
impeachment trial over sex with a White House intern, what more
do you need?
"It's kind of like a starter kit,"
Stewart said this week. "But the key to the impeachment
process is finding the right joke. You can make the joke that
Monica Lewinsky isn't very attractive. But the real joke is
Rush Limbaugh calling Monica Lewinsky unattractive."
If you miss the point of that wry observation,
then you may find yourself wondering about the cult popularity
of The Daily Show, which debuted on Comedy Central in
1996 with former ESPN sportscaster Craig Kilborn as host. Kilborn
has left to take over Tom Snyder's spot on CBS' The Late,
Late Show starting March 30.
The Daily Show is biting commentary
on news that airs Monday- Thursday at 11 p.m., with repeats
sprinkled throughout Comedy Central's schedule. It looks for
ironic and absurd aspects and exploits them unmercifully without
regard to who may be offended.
The show recently parodied the bombing of
Baghdad by having one of the show's "correspondents,"
Brian Unger, do a pseudo remote broadcast from the roof of The
Daily Show building and comment on the attack, complete
with green screen effects to simulate the night- vision cameras
used by real news crews.
Stewart, who takes on an additional role as
executive producer, says he doesn't plan to change much on the
show - other than its name. Starting Monday it will be The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Asked to explain the show to the uninitiated,
Stewart offers this: "If you watch the news and don't like
it, then this is your counter program to the news."
Enough people have found that philosophy appealing
to make The Daily Show one of the most popular late-night
programs on cable. It has become so important to Comedy Central
that they're reportedly paying Stewart $1 million a year to
For that money the cable channel is getting
a savvy, telegenic 36- year-old comic who knows the territory.
In 1991 he started Short Attention Span
Theater on Comedy Central, which featured news and celebrity
guest interviews - a format not unlike The Daily Show.
Stewart also hosted a short-lived MTV program called You
Wrote It, You Watch It in 1992.
With dreams of challenging late-night talk
kings Jay Leno and David Letterman, Stewart started The Jon
Stewart Show on MTV in 1993 and moved it to syndication
in 1994, where it died after nine months.
Stewart soberly said of the tough lesson he
learned in syndication: "It's a case of be careful what
you wish for - you might get it."
Now Stewart, a native of New Jersey who has
a psychology degree from William and Mary, is a lot more settled
in his career and a lot less dependent on being an instant hit
on The Daily Show.
He's added author (Naked Pictures of Famous
People, Rob Weisbach Books, $24), movie screenwriter (The
Night People) and actor (The Faculty) to his resume.
Still, he finds that he's most comfortable
working with news-related satire and comedy. "I'm a little
bit too obsessed with the news," he said. "I find
the news easier to follow than narrative entertainment programs.
"I'll watch NYPD Blue, whatever.
But I find the news, for me, I watch it like a program. I can't
wait to find out what's happening with my favorite characters.
Like, 'Oh, I'm so sorry they dropped Saddam Hussein from the
show. Oh, they're bringing him back!'"
Stewart said that when he starts work this
week at Comedy Central preparing for his debut Monday, he plans
to be really loose, with no preconceived ideas. "The best-laid
plans of mice and comedians usually wind up on the cutting-room
floor," he said, adding that at first he'll be happy if
he doesn't come off to regular Daily Show viewers as
Kilborn's jerky replacement.
Longer term, Stewart is excited about the
possibilities the countdown to 2000 may provide. "As we
approach the millennium with sort of the idea that society is
going to start spiraling into chaos, I'd love to be making jokes
about that," he said. "Who wants to miss out on that?
If the world is going to end, I want to be there the night before,