"Third time's a charm?"
Richmond Times-Dispatch
January 9, 1999
by Douglas Durden


Stewart to try his luck as host of Comedy Central's Daily Show

Jon Stewart, comedian, author and almost movie star, is quite possibly the funniest talk show guest on television today. He makes David Letterman laugh. He charms Rosie O'Donnell. He's one of the frat-boys-at-heart with Conan and Andy. He was perfection as the guest host (and Larry's greatest fear) on The Larry Sanders Show. He's cute, he's smart and he's a touch dangerous when need be. But can he be all that on a nightly basis as the new host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show? Twice he's failed. OK, so maybe it was the venue that failed, and not the host.

First, he had a talk show on MTV. It didn't matter if he was polished or not; it was cable TV and his guests were barely articulate. Then, he became host of a late-night talk show for syndicated TV. Bitter doesn't begin to sum up his residual feelings about the experience. "I'd rather host a show in a concentration camp than first-run syndication. That's the worst place you can host a show. If your show isn't working, they'd just as soon put on an ad for a vacuum cleaner."

More recently, it looked as if Stewart had graduated to network level, if network TV still represents a level. He had a deal with CBS through David Letterman's production company. He was rumored to be the up-and-coming candidate to replace Tom Snyder in the post- Letterman time period.

Time went by, the deal fell through. And suddenly, Craig Kilborn, former host of The Daily Show, was hired instead. And then, in a plot twist worthy of The Larry Sanders Show, Comedy Central hired Stewart to take Kilborn's place. It's possible this may all work in Stewart's favor. Considering CBS' less-than youthful audience, Stewart might meld much better on Comedy Central than he would on network TV; kind of like Dennis Miller thriving on HBO vs. NBC.

This doesn't mean Stewart had a lot to say about his new job, which starts Monday, in a recent telephone interview shared with several other TV critics. Comedy Central's newest employee was in the uncomfortable spot so many TV stars find themselves in: asked to talk about a show he had yet to join.

Will Stewart continue The Daily Show's popular five questions segment? "Until we get over there and see what works and what doesn't, that's a hard one to answer." Will he do much of his own writing? He won't know until he gets there. Any signature pieces? "That's another thing that evolves. You can design them for months, and then the first week of the show, they turn out to be garbage," said Stewart, speaking from experience. Will the show be softened? Another too soon to say. What about celebrity guests? "I hope, maybe at some point, to not only have celebrity guests, but also newsmakers or someone relative to a story -- like having a dry cleaner on when we're talking about Monica Lewinsky."

Stewart doesn't expect viewers to see a huge difference between his Daily Show and Kilborn's Daily Show - at least not in the beginning. "The main thing I don't want to be is unfunny.

"I haven't spent a lot of time defining who I am," said Stewart, asked how he differed from Kilborn, who was a sportscaster for ESPN before moving to Comedy Central. "He did great with the show. Hopefully, we can find our own rhythm that will make it work as well as it does. "I think you'll find I have a more specific comedy voice from being in the clubs all those years, and his is defined by what they were doing on the show."

Since graduating from The College of William and Mary in 1984, Stewart has been a bartender, a stand-up comedian, occasional actor and, most recently, author. His Naked Pictures of Famous People, a collection of comic essays, was published in the fall to good reviews. Stewart, ever the kvetcher, only talks about the down side. "Stephen King must be a freak. The idea of sitting down and writing, without any reinforcement or outside stimulation, it's mind-boggling."

Outside stimulation, as in current events, politics and pop culture, is the daily diet of The Daily Show, which airs at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday with several repeats. For a show that satirizes the news and coverage of the news, there's never been a better time to be on the air. "Twenty-four hour news networks. That's where a lot of the satire lies. News holds itself to a higher plane... There's a real hypocrisy about what these people have become. To see Barbara Walters criticizing a celebrity story when that's what they've become."

Stewart, whose smartness pops through in comic references to Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, remembers the dignified days of Meet the Press. "Now it's... all confrontational."

Stewart may fear being locked in a room with a typewriter. But he doesn't fear running out of comic material for television. "Reality has gotten so absurd. It's almost like you're making it up. Especially as we approach the year 2000, things are just going to get weirder and weirder.

"You are, as a comedian, cheering for the disillusionment of society. You're hoping for chaos of which you can make muck with. I have the utmost confidence that the world will provide it... I'm not hoping for the apes and the monolith, but that makes my job easier."

There you have it. Stewart is thoughtful. He is smart. He likes to make references to 2001: A Space Odyssey -- none of which makes him a sure thing. But if there's one thing Stewart knows, it's how to recover from failure. "The money in entertainment in general is so skewed, even the past few years without having a so-called national platform have been better than they should be. I never thought I would be doing this well and I think many of my teachers would agree."


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