"Jon Stewart on skewering news"
February 2, 1999
by David Martindale


It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And frankly, that suits Jon Stewart just fine.

Since mid-January, his job has been to report the news of the day from a skewed point of view. The crazier that world events become, the easier his gig as anchorman of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart is.

No need to fabricate absurd but phony news stories, he says, when so many bona fide stories are weird around the edges or, in some cases, weird all the way down the bone.

"Reality has gotten to a point where it's almost so unbelievable that it appears you're making it up," says Stewart, who's starring on the big screen in Playing By Heart. "I'm very confident that the world will provide us with a great amount of fodder in terms of the skewed truth, especially now that we approach the year 2000.

"I mean, I'm not hoping for the apes and the monolith. I'm hoping for controlled chaos to assist us."

The Daily Show is Comedy Central's nightly news program, which brilliantly balances mockery of news makers (particularly those who make asses of themselves) with parody of TV news givers (from prime-time magazine shows like Dateline to 24-hour news networks).

"To me, that's where a lot of satire lies," Stewart says of the TV news industry. "News used to hold itself to a higher plane and slowly it has dissolved into, well, me.

"Remember that guy who got gored by a bull and the bull pulled his underwear off and he had to run around the ring naked? If that footage comes out, I'll run that."

And the sad fact is that many legitimate news programs will show the same film. That's what makes "The Daily Show" so on target. It is at times difficult to separate the glib parody from the real deal.

"Look at MSNBC," Stewart jokes. "I actually heard that they gave Monica Lewinsky's dress its own show."

In fact, it must seem to Stewart that the news media is wearing a giant bull's-eye, just begging to be fired upon. In recent months, for example, CNN took its lumps over the "Tailwind" debacle, 60 Minutes apologized after being duped into airing a bogus investigative piece and NBC ran a bottom-of-the-screen crawler that greatly exaggerated details of the still-living Joe DiMaggio's death.

"A half-hour show almost doesn't do it justice," Stewart says. "There is so much material out there. The 24-hour news networks are talking about news analysis when they have no vested interest in news. They have vested interest in fanning the flames of conflict because that's what gets them ratings. That's what keeps them on the air.

"MSNBC, they must be saying, `Thank God for Monica Lewinsky.' Because otherwise MSNBC would have Brian Williams and a slow flatline on the EKG. When O.J. went away, they had something to fill the void."

Stewart took over as The Daily Show anchor because former host Craig Kilborn inherited Tom Snyder's Late Late Show at CBS. Kilborn signs on the week of March 29.

Stewart, 36, a former stand-up comedian who first got attention as host of a youth-skewing MTV talk show, has been perceived by many as being "softer" than Kilborn, not as arch when it comes poking fun at newsmakers and public people.

"Well, I don't know about a softer side," he says. "I do have a feminine side. As you've been talking to me, I've been making an afghan with the producers. But if you saw the HBO special that I did, I think my Pat Buchanan butt****ing jokes speak for themselves."

Stewart's idea of an effective "Daily Show" spin on a news story would be to have a porn star read passages of the Ken Starr report or to have a dry cleaner appear as a pundit to discuss the Lewinsky dress.

"But the main thing I don't want to be is un-funny," he says. "That's really the mandate. Just whatever we're doing, make it as funny as we can possibly make it. And believe me, if the show starts going down, we'll introduce a baby. We'll do everything that they did on `Family Ties.' I'm not afraid of that."

For the time being, though, the format, carefully honed since its debut in the fall of 1996, has undergone relatively few changes. The show's trademark "Five Questions" interviews with celebrity guests are gone, although the interview segments remain. And many familiar faces, including correspondents Beth Littleford and Stephen Colbert, remain alongside some new personnel.

"And did you ever hear of a little man named Bryant Gumbel?" Stewart adds, his pants on fire. "That's right. He's back."

The Daily Show gig is merely the capper of a busy year for Stewart. Earlier, he was Larry Sanders' rumored successor during the final season of The Larry Sanders Show, all of which was purely fiction.

Then his first book, Naked Pictures of Famous People, a collection of Woody Allen-esque writings, was published in November. And he had decent-size parts in two feature films, December's The Faculty and the current Playing by Heart.

"What happened was everything that I've been working on for the past year and a half all came out the same weekend," he says. "So now I'm talking about all the things that happened a year and a half ago, much how Charlie Sheen must feel all the time."

But stepping behind the news desk of The Daily Show, that's what he is truly passionate about these days.

"There's always anxiety when you start a new job," he says, "that you're the one guy who doesn't know where the ketchup is."

But no matter what surprises come his way in this new adventure, there is one nugget of wisdom he says he will never lose sight of.

"Don't cross Lorenzo Lamas. Ever."


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