Show' host Jon Stewart is TV's king of irony
York -- "Don't ever try to give a compliment to a neurotic person,"
warns Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" and spiritual medium
to the gods of irony. "They won't hear you."
Or perhaps they're turning a deaf ear? Since
Stewart is clearly referring to himself, he must be spending
a lot of time these days with his fingers in his ears, trying
to drown out a crescendo of admiration.
"The Daily Show," Comedy Central's news-parody
program, has now won both an Emmy and Peabody award. Stewart
himself, a former stand-up comedian, is in demand both as a
host, for such events as the Grammys and "Saturday Night Live,
" and a guest on shows such as "Larry King Live" and "The Late
Show" with David Letterman. He was even rumored to be the main
contender for Letterman's chair, had Letterman jumped to ABC
To ice the cake, the 39-year-old New Yorker
is considered by women -- especially the Gen X'ers who make
up the bulk of his audience -- to be a hottie.
"Ladies, are you ready to meet Jon Stewart?"
shouts "Daily Show" head writer Ben Karlin to the audience in
the show's Hell's Kitchen studio before a recent taping. Beatlemania-style
When told of this after the show, in his cluttered
brick-walled office upstairs, Stewart blushes.
"I keep telling my wife to behave in public!"
he jokes. Stewart, born Jon Stewart Leibowitz, is not handsome
in a conventional sense; he is 5 feet 7 and slightly stocky,
and his nose dominates his face. His brown eyes, also inordinately
large, speak of mischief and intelligence -- and world-weary
Famously, he fed into the "looks thing" by
doffing his clothes at the Grammys.
"Man, I had to apologize for that. I sent
the country flowers and am hoping they were accepted! I even
tried to say I was drunk."
He just as quickly waves off rumors that he
was approached by CBS about taking over for Letterman.
"Like everyone else, I read it in the paper
first. But it's so out of the realm of reality. And again, it's
impossible for me to let in the good part of that news and say,
'Well, I guess I am that good!' I can't afford to think about
it that much. I have a job to do every day."
Stewart's office is definitely a working one.
Index cards with forthcoming show segments are pinned to a bulletin
board, piles of books are everywhere (including Stewart's own
"Naked Pictures of Famous People," which was released in 1999
to critical huzzahs) and there's a computer, although Stewart
that he uses it only for sports scores and
does not have e-mail.
The Emmy statuette, won in November for best
writing in a variety series, is still wrapped in plastic and
sitting atop a dog carrier in the corner -- evidence of Stewart's
passion for four-footed beasts.
"My wife (Tracey McShane) works in a veterinary
office, and our apartment has become a halfway house for animals
in rehab," he groans.
Almost on cue, the bat-phone rings and he
picks it up, grinning.
"Allllo?" he sings out in a faux French accent.
"Hey, sweetie. Where do you guys want to go for dinner? Sweet!
Will you order me the macaroni and cheese? Sweet! Ah-ha-ha!
See you in a bit."
He hangs up, embarrassed that a reporter caught
him in an unguarded moment. For all of Stewart's regular-guy-ness,
he is intensely private; you'll never see a photo of him in
Vanity Fair on the party circuit. When asked about his wife,
he does allow that he is blessed to have "married a very funny
woman" and that they are "working on" having children.
Momentarily shelving his discomfort, he jokes,
"For some people it just takes a little longer! She's just 11,
Stewart's comedy reflects his everyman struggle
to cope with the harsh realities of life. On this day, there
have been more suicide bombings in the Middle East. Stewart
opens the show with a subdued plea for peace before launching
into the prepared mock headlines that are the show's stock-in-trade.
"There are times when it's not about making
a joke, it's about having to acknowledge what is going on, so
you can feel like you're still in the same world as everyone
Did the prestigious Peabody Award mess with
Stewart's ability to dismiss his own show as a big joke?
"But it's not an award for delivering information,
it's them saying, 'Ha ha!
We get it!' It's their acknowledgment that
we're delivering a countercultural analysis."
He grins. "You know how at Club Med there
are the people who get up and learn the goofy dances, and the
ones who stand in the back of the room and make fun of them?
Well, we got the award for standing in the back of the room
and making fun. By the way, I don't think our show is without
news value, it's just not our main focus."
And that focus, in a word, would be satire
-- much of it aimed at the major news networks. After Sept.
11, "The Daily Show" gained new viewers by resurrecting the
irony that had been banished from the media.
Titles like "America Freaks Out!" and "Operation
Self-Congratulation" flashed across news clips, and during the
anthrax scare, the show experimented with a ticker tape along
the bottom of the screen, a la CNN. But this one read,
"91 Percent of Americans 'Want Mommy,' " "Oh
God Oh God Oh . . ."
"The news now is like a children's soccer
game," he says. "Whatever the main focus of the day is where
they go; it's not about territory and positioning. When one
kid has the ball, everyone runs over there. And then he kicks
it and everyone goes over there."
Still, the show has been credited with getting
young people interested in current events. Again, Stewart shrugs
off the compliment.
"Young people are so information-savvy that
our 22 minutes on cable can't give them anywhere close to the
information that flows through their brains at a submolecular
level all day! I mean, I hope that's true, but I suspect we
exist as island of respite more than a primary source of information."
The one area in which critics come close to
agreeing with Stewart's "I suck" mantra is in his acting; he's
had several character roles in films starring friends of his
-- Adam Sandler in "Big Daddy," for one -- none of which are
going to get him nominated for an Oscar.
"For a night job, they're fun to do, but I
don't consider movies my thing. There is a real art to it that
I don't understand. I'm also not a big fan of handing over my
control to someone else."
Has it heightened his profile any?
"When I go to restaurants now maybe I get
eyeballed a little more," he admits. Then quickly adds: "But
this is a city of 8 million people! Yeah, maybe I'm there in
the produce section, but Richard Gere is over in frozen foods.
This is a city where people do their own thing."
He smiles. "Fortunately for me, fame
is not a currency here."