"Fresh Daily"
The Record (NJ)
January 11, 1999
by Virginia Rohan

 

Jon Stewart takes over Comedy Central's mainstay

After Jon Stewart takes over a Comedy Central institution, he'll have a few things Daily Show host Craig Kilborn did not. Besides the ceremonial phone book that the 6-foot-4 Kilborn presented the 5-foot-7 Stewart as a booster seat for his chair on the air last month, Stewart is getting a reported $1.5 million annual salary, a co-executive producer credit, and his name in the title.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart bows at 11 tonight. Yet, as of just a few weeks ago, the new host, a 36-year-old, New Jersey-born comic known for his wry, absurdist, self-deprecating humor, and great conversational talents, didn't have much of a handle on how his version would resemble, or differ from, that of Kilborn, who succeeds Tom Snyder on CBS' The Late Late Show on March 30.

"The tone will obviously be a lot more Yiddish," quips Stewart, who'll have a big hand in the show's writing. "I think at some point, I'd love to have a little bit of diversity. Not just celebrities, but newsmakers. "But as I keep saying, there is a certain mindset that won't develop until I get there."

The smug, looks-and-hair-obsessed Kilborn was known for checking himself out during the commercial breaks. Stewart surely won't be doing that. "You are correct," he says. "There are no mirrors."

What else do we know? Stewart's first guest will be Michael J. Fox. Sandra Bernhard follows on Tuesday. And publicity-shy X-Files star Gillian Anderson, Stewart's co-star in the movie Playing by Heart, will drop by Wednesday or Thursday.

We know, too, that Daily Show correspondents Stephen Colbert and Beth Littleford are remaining with the show. (Brian Unger and A. Whitney Brown have departed.) And Daily Show executive producer Madeleine Smithberg -- who was a producer of his syndicated The Jon Stewart Show -- has developed a long roster of contributors, too. Most recurring segments, including "Headlines," "Back in Black," "Out at the Movies," "God Stuff," and "Moment of Zen" will remain.

And what about "Five Questions," the feature that Kilborn developed as a sort of bar pick-up-line joke and would like to take with him to CBS? "It's hard to say," Stewart says. "That's probably a decision Comedy Central will have to make." (As of press time, the network had no answer on that.)

Stewart acknowledges that the cancellation of his critically acclaimed syndicated talk show in June 1995 made him leery of doing another talk show. "You go down to the Jersey shore, you lick your wounds for two weeks, and you come back kicking," he says of that period. "You can't just fold up the tents. You've got to refocus yourself and get back in it.

"But even now, when people say, `Are you nervous?' I say, `Sure.'" Stewart, born Jon Stewart Leibowitz, grew up far away from the entertainment world -- in Lawrenceville, between Princeton and Trenton. One of his first jobs was working for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, developing contingency plans.

"I would compile databases, just in case a hurricane struck. I could say, `We've got five beds in Marlboro,'" Stewart recalls. "It was a very exciting gig, as you could imagine."

When he "got tired of helping people," he moved out of New Jersey -- "lock, stock, and barrel" -- and took up residence in New York City and its comedy club scene.

Appearances on HBO specials (at 10 tonight, Comedy Central will air his HBO Comedy Hour from a few years back) and David Letterman's shows eventually led to his own talk show on MTV. Soon, he was being touted as "The Voice of Generation X." ("It's not like when I said something, I heard a chorus of millions of young people saying back, `We agree. My God, man, lead me.'")

Paramount picked up Stewart's show and expanded it to an hour-long format for national syndication. That show's failure was a big disappointment to Stewart.

So, presumably, was the lapsing of his deal to develop a talk show with David Letterman's Worldwide Pants. After all, Stewart, not Kilborn, was long considered the heir apparent to Snyder.) That's a topic he doesn't seem to like talking about, although, during his very funny Dec. 16 appearance on Kilborn's Daily Show (featuring the phone book exchange), Stewart self-deprecatingly said he was too short to do network TV.

On the phone, he prefers to reminisce about HBO's late, great The Larry Sanders Show, on which he played himself. In that series' final season, Stewart was being groomed to take over the throne of Garry Shandling's fictional late-night king, and there were strong rumors that Stewart might continue the series after Shandling left.

"That sort of spun off, obviously, the story line," Stewart says. "There was a lot of 2 o'clock-in-the-morning ranting and raving about that possibility. But to play that character, you really couldn't play yourself. You need the protection of the character to do the awful things the character would need to do."

Besides making Playing by Heart, with Gillian Anderson, Stewart did the movies The Faculty, and Big Daddy, and this past fall his first book, Naked Pictures of Famous People, was published.

His four-year Comedy Central contract prohibits him from doing outside projects for a year. "I think ultimately I'd be able to do a little of both," Stewart says. "I'll be able to keep up my pace of two movies every 35 years."

 

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