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