actor, author, talk-show host, Jon Stewart could be dismissed
as a show-biz jack-of-all-trades, master of none. "I like
to be not good at anything," he explains with typical self-deprecating
aplomb. "So I try to keep hopping around."
Yet the consistent
element of Stewart's career, in all its various forms, is a high
degree of humor, especially off-the-cuff wit. That's a quality
he displays time and again during a recent conference call with
TV critics trumpeting his debut as host of The Daily Show at
10 p.m. today on Comedy Central. "I've been to talk-show
camp this summer," he says of his preparations for the new
If there is
one person who wouldn't seem to need any remedial training in
that area, however, it's Stewart. A gifted standup comic, he first
attracted public notice with a talk show on MTV. That led him
to be pegged for a syndicated late-night show to replace Arsenio
Hall when he got out of the hosting business. Although praised
by critics, neither program attracted a mainstream audience, and
when the late-night gig was canceled Stewart shifted into small,
comical acting roles in feature films, such as the recent The
Faculty, also doing some nice work during the last season
of HBO's Larry Sanders Show.
way, he kept his hand in the host trade by filling in for Tom
Snyder occasionally on The Late Late Show on CBS. Stewart
was widely considered the heir apparent to Snyder, but an odd
thing happened on the way to the coronation. Stewart was passed
over for that post by Craig Kilborn, who replaces Snyder in March.
Now Stewart moves over to fill Kilborn's previous job as host
of The Daily Show.
prima donnas might have rejected that course, but Stewart expresses
nothing but excitement and anticipation at the move. "In
the first two or three months," he says, "I'm just going
to be trying to get up to speed with the well-oiled machine they
already have going there." Although Stewart allows a little
sarcasm to drip into his voice there, he is only half joking.
With a crack writing staff under Kilborn's stewardship, The
Daily Show has established itself as a biting news satire.
"This show is a little different from what I was doing,"
Stewart says. "That show was probably a little more freeform.
So this is going to be a question of getting used to bits."
Show is more formatted than the standard talk show. "That
makes it easier, easier in the sense of knowing the parameters
of the gig," Stewart adds. "What I like about it too
is the fuel of the show is not just pure celebrities. You don't
live or die on whether Brian Austin Green has a great story, which
is sort of what you did on the other show. The fuel of it is really
the daily fodder of the news, so it's more comfortable in that
I'm confident the world will provide us with a great deal of chaos."
mean Stewart is rooting for an extended impeachment trial in the
Senate? "That puts me in an uncomfortable position. 'Are
you hoping for the dissolution of our government?' Yes,"
he adds matter-of-factly, "and I hope O.J. presides over
it. I'm in the uncomfortable position of cheering for chaos because
that's where I can make the most muck. But, you know, if it's
not that, I'm confident I can make it something else."
In fact, Stewart
seems to relish the idea of stepping into a routine gig for a
while. He recently published Naked Pictures of Famous People,
a fiction collection of humorous stories. "I really enjoyed
doing the book," he says, "but you don't get any reinforcement.
You just sit in a room being yourself for a long time, and it's
hard to get comfortable with that. The idea of getting back in
there in a room with a bunch of funny people and just cranking
out jokes is just really appealing to me."
For a while,
it was rumored that Stewart, who played the part of a talk-show-host-in-waiting
on "Larry Sanders," might get to actually replace star
Garry Shandling and keep that critically acclaimed show intact,
perhaps even moving it to a broadcast network. How serious did
serious. I had moved in with Garry," Stewart gushes, for
once unable to stifle a laugh. "No. There was a lot of 2
o'clock giggling. You know, 'What if we kept this going?' Luckily,
everybody had the foresight to avoid an After MASH situation.
I think everybody sort of understood this show was a gold-standard
show, and it never really became serious."
Not that he
absolutely rejected the idea of doing a sitcom. "I think
the state of sitcoms is similar to the state of almost everything
you can point to in this country," Stewart says. "Ten
percent of it is inspired, 25 percent is competent and the rest
of it is a synthetic-like material that's just filling out the
system. I think you can point to anything and you'll find that
So where does
Stewart's Daily Show place on that scale? "I try to
be as competent as I can," he says, "and hopefully the
occasional glimpses of inspiration poke through." With his
serious side poking through, I ask if he had any problems lopping
off a segment of his ego to replace Kilborn after being leapfrogged
for the Late Late Show job.
anything off my ego? You don't know me very well, do you, sir?
There's nothing left to lop," he says, then gets unusually
serious again. "One of the things about this business, I
don't look at it as finite. So one person's success doesn't diminish
yours or take away from your opportunities. Any time people you
think are qualified and funny do well, that just inspires you
to think, 'If I keep trying hard and getting good, I'll get opportunities
too. I've been really fortunate in this business to have as many
opportunities as I've had. So I don't want to be one of these
guys 50 years later at a bar, a bitter old drunk. I hope to avoid
likely to have to worry about doing The Daily Show for
50 years. This has the look of a good fit, and Stewart the jack-of-all-trades
might wind up settling into this latest role for as long as he
cares to occupy it.