"Relax, It's Just Comedy"
The Globe and Mail
July 23, 2001
by Tod Hoffman

 

Jon Stewart may be the hippest voice in social satire, but he's not a man on a mission: He's out to make people laugh, not change the world

MONTREAL -- Jon Stewart is not so far removed from humbler days and more humbling experiences that he's become all caught up in being the hottest, hippest voice in social satire. He threads through the milling crowd of comics, industry types, media, and assorted hangers-on that cram the Delta Hotel -- Just for Laughs headquarters for the duration of Montreal's comedy festival -- warmly greeting, and being greeted by, people he recognizes. He moves without a hint of the notice-me-but-don't-address-me purpose of the practised celebrity.

One comedian tries to draw him into the festival basketball tournament. "Too competitive," Stewart grimaces, "they have a sign-up sheet."

A publicist introduces us and he actually takes note of my name, a rare courtesy in the interview game. We settle at a quiet table in the corner of the bar. He sinks back, loose-limbed, comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. He could be any vacationer. But these are heady times for the 38-year-old Trenton, N.J., native. He was on the cover of the July Esquire, Time calls him the best talk-show host in America for his work on The Daily Show (Comedy Network, 11:00 p.m.), and he was the headline draw for Friday night's Just for Laughs Gala at the Theatre St-Denis.

He doesn't do star angst.

"This is really a hard adjustment," he says sarcastically. "Living in a Motel Six in Rochester, playing above a karaoke club as opposed to getting a suite and having someone deliver a fruit basket to your room. Yes, it is hard. Often when you eat too much fruit you end up in gastrointestinal distress, but I'm doing the best I can."

He's paid the standup's dues, working the New York clubs, honing material the only way a comic can, in front of a live audience, savouring the hits, dodging the misses. Eventually, he landed appearances on HBO's Young Comedians Special and Late Night with David Letterman. The Jon Stewart Show, originally on MTV, was nationally syndicated in the United States by Paramount in September of 1994. It was off the air by June.

He isn't altogether blithe about its cancellation, but nor does he dwell.

"It wasn't a great show," he says emphatically. "It wasn't like I burst on the scene with a grand idea about getting famous people to tell me, through a series of questions, a personal anecdote and when their next project will air. You could tune in to Letterman and Jay Leno and see much more famous people discussing things much more impressively. We weren't unusual enough to get people saying, 'My God, did you see the third lead from Felicity on Jon Stewart last night?' I wasn't thrilled when it was cancelled, but I didn't think to myself, 'The world is cruel and unyielding.' I very much understood why it didn't work."

Thus was he confronted by one of the paradoxes of network television: to recreate proven formulas for success, while somehow distinguishing yourself. He took some valuable lessons from the experience.

"This is a pernicious business. Being on TV doesn't make you good and being good doesn't necessarily mean a show succeeds. Nobody knows anything, I guess is what I'm saying. From the cancellation I learned I can still go and write jokes. It made me feel good that I didn't need the structure of a TV show to get satisfaction from what I did. That was a very relaxing feeling. A lot of this stuff is just the random spinning of the universe. But if you work hard, try to improve, and maintain some semblance of sanity, you'll be fine. There's nothing else to worry about."

Stewart assumed the anchor chair on The Daily Show in January, 1999, evitalizing the half-hour mock news and current-affairs show with a pointed, rather bemused take on the events of the day.

Its coverage of last year's interminable presidential election, "Indecision 2000," garnered a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting and it is currently up for two Emmys.

Notwithstanding, when it's suggested that he might wield influence, he responds that that exaggerates the impact of a cable show. He isn't being self-deprecating, merely seeking a clear perspective.

"Don't misconstrue what I do with a mission. I'm a comic telling jokes. It's like the Rodney King thing; at a certain point, you have to put the camera down and help the guy who's getting beaten up.

"Right now, we have the luxury of being able to hold the camera. There are people who run charities, who actually go to where the flood hit and do things. There are people who can take a heart out of a chest and get it restarted. These are people on a mission."

He continues, explaining the place of The Daily Show. "The system isn't a disaster. If it were, The Daily Show wouldn't work. The wonderful thing for us is that politics is really bad dinner theatre. That's what makes it so entertaining."

He shifts frequently in his chair, alternating between slouching and leaning forward intent on making a point.

"I enjoy the theatre of the body politic more than anything else. If the reality of this was truly tragic, we wouldn't be doing a comedy show about it. We'd be fighting with the resistance. The fact of the matter is, this isn't Prague '68. There are abiding freedoms. For a cynic, I have great faith in the balance of the system."

His argument is in favour of moderation.

"I wish politics was controlled more by the moderates than the extremists working in think tanks to change laws with which the majority feels fine. The problem is the moderates are busy; they're cutting their grass, raising their kids. The minority is active in politics."

Stewart also understands our preoccupation with scandal, our easy distraction to titillation.

"If you had a friend who was sleeping with a whore and his wife didn't know about it and he also had really interesting thoughts on actuarial tables, which would you be more likely talk to him about?" his eyes widen at the obviousness of the response. "Well, stem-cell research and campaign reform are boring."

Stewart opened his gala set with a silky smooth bit of current-affairs observation, which, true to form, accentuated the preposterousness of public life. He went on at length about Toronto's Olympic bid, suggesting that Mayor Mel Lastman might as well have gone before the International Olympic Committee in black-face singing Al Jolson as make the comments he did about ending up in a pot of boiling water prior to his infamous African visit.

The way he figures it, Canada started off with a good bid for the 2008 Games, "then they went and Torontoed it all up."

Obviously aware of local sentiments, he said: "Toronto is no Montreal." Pausing to consider, he added: "Hey, you guys ever think about separating? You know, you could put it to a vote."

He handled his hosting duties with aplomb, reinforcing the strength of a good standup in contrast to the sitcom stars who are so frequently recruited for the festival to boost ticket sales, but look and feel lost when put centre stage without a supporting cast and a script.

Stewart's quick on his feet and confident he can deftly pluck a joke out of the air because he knows the comedy is ubiquitous.

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Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Lauren for the article.

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