"The Seriously Funny Jon Stewart"
Washington Post
May 2, 2002
by David Segal


Cable's 'Daily Show' Host Delivers Satire With Substance

NEW YORK -- Here's a million-dollar idea.

Now that David Letterman has decided to stay put, ABC remains a no-humor zone right after the local late news. What to do? Well, instead of choosing between comedy and gravitas, ABC can have both. Keep "Nightline" in the lineup, but -- and here's the genius part -- get Jon Stewart to replace Ted Koppel. Think of it. Instantly, you've got news and interviews with opinion makers and you've got giggles.

"Here's the only problem with that," says Jon Stewart, leaning back in the chair in his office, looking skeptical. "I'm not a newsman," nearly shouting for effect. "I think you may need someone with a journalism background. I'm a comic. This is a fake show!"

He's sort of right. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," a program that shish-kebabs all things political and fatuous five nights a week, 30 minutes at a time, only looks like a newscast. Stewart, who will perform a night of stand-up tomorrow at the Warner Theatre, gathers the show's raw material from the seemingly limitless supply of doublespeak and pretzel logic that rule politics, both here and abroad.

On some nights, though, the most admired show on the Comedy Central cable channel treads perilously close to the Serious. Like this night, in mid-April. It starts light enough, here in a surprisingly small studio in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan where Stewart, 39, and a staff of 60 write and tape the program. Stewart warms up the crowd before the cameras roll by taking questions, including a request to name his favorite snack food. "That's a good question -- for a guy in 'N Sync," he replies.

It's been a freakishly warm afternoon, so when the cameras roll, Stewart starts with some material about global warming ("On the way to work, I saw a dinosaur," he whispers. "That can't be good") before rolling into fake headlines. A brief excerpt from an editorial in the Syrian Times, which is sharply critical of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is read aloud. Then Stewart comments:

"You know, I get the Syrian Times, and on Sunday my wife and I catch up on what we really like," he says, as though sharing a secret. "She goes for the spirited propaganda and I go for the martyrs' roll call."

Then there's a report from the "Middle East" by correspondent Steve Colbert, who is actually standing about 20 feet away, before a backdrop image of an Israeli landscape. Colbert is bursting with news.

"Secretary of State Colin Powell has just announced just six minutes ago, 11:02 Eastern time, 6:02 a.m. here in Jerusalem, that by tomorrow he'll be able to establish the framework of an agreement to reach a preliminary understanding on the terms of a tentative pre-agreement agreement. What a day, what a moment, what an honor to be here at the dawning of a new day of peace."

Stewart pretends to be confused and unimpressed. Is there any budging on either side?

"Absolutely, Jon. Sharon is asking that Arafat use all of his power to stop the terrorist attacks. And to facilitate this, Sharon has thoughtfully confined Arafat to a single windowless room equipped only with a cell phone powered by his own urine."

When it works, "Daily Show" comedy pinpoints the precise location of a political absurdity and then guts its underbelly like a trout. Often that's as simple as showing a film of one of those politician-to-politician handshakes that, for photo-op reasons, go on for a full minute. ("Let go of my hand, you're killing me!" Stewart will scream in a voice-over.) But it can get more complicated than that, especially when the topic is as difficult as a blood feud in a foreign land.

Since Sept. 11, Stewart has been booking at least one or two non-celebrity guests a week, and engaging in the sort of Q and A that has more than just a hint of the earnest and soul-searching about it. On this night, a former correspondent for Time, Lisa Beyer, is here, and Stewart is merely the everyman trying to make sense of a world gone loopy. Except that when Beyer says, "Good question," Stewart says, "Really?" and gives an aren't-I-smart look to the audience.

"Being a parody, we have to deal in the same territories as others are dealing with but in a much more superficial and retarded way," Stewart says in his office after the show. "Oftentimes the discussions are more serious than the ones you'd have with, say, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen [the "Saved by the Bell" star], although she has issues too. Her take on the right of return is that if you grant that . . ." He trails off, like he's forgotten, then feigns recollection. "Oh yeah, hers was 'quarters is a fun game.' That's what it was."

There are comedians who are funny only when they're in the mood. Stewart, on the other hand, seems to fire on 12 cylinders without putting his foot near the gas. He'll get around to a real answer, but at first he'd like to try out a fake one, too, just to see what happens. Ask him what he does for fun, and he'll look you straight in the eye and mutter: "I kill demons. You're not a demon, are you?"

The truth about his spare time is actually a little duller, and Stewart would like to apologize for that. He doesn't do much other than work on his show and spend time with his wife of two years, Tracy, and their two dogs and a cat. That's pretty much it.

"I should probably make this story interesting, but I got nothing," he says, shaking his head. "I'm trying to imagine [celebrity biographer] Kitty Kelley in here saying, 'Let's do a book' and she'd be in here for five minutes and then she'd say, 'You know what? Screw this.' "

It might not count as "activity," but Stewart watches a lot of television. His passion recently was "The Bachelor," the reality dating series in which a hunky Ivy Leaguer wined, dined and winnowed down a group of young ladies all apparently eager to be his lawfully wedded wife. Stewart has a novel theory about Alex, the management consultant and bachelor of the title, who grinned through his endless dates like a sheik in a harem.

"He's a blackhearted sociopath," Stewart says, confessing that he never missed an episode of the just-ended program. "He made it seem like the hardest thing about meeting all these girls' families were the flights. Hey, he was having an intimate experience with four separate families, and only a sociopath could do that without fragmenting. He should be hearing lizards talk right now. But instead, he's just, like, 'I'm a little tired.' "

The show is also further proof to Stewart that television can turn anyone into a stud. About 5 feet 7 and destined for the young Dustin Hoffman roles whenever he's up for an acting job, he would know. When he began to appear regularly on television, first on MTV's "Jon Stewart Show" in 1993, women started to treat him differently, he says. Today, he's got a handful of film credits to his name, albeit in forgettable fare like "The Faculty" and "Death to Smoochy," and he's twice hosted the Grammys.

Growing up in Lawrence Township, N.J. -- where he went by his birth name, Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz -- he was more likely to get pounded by bullies than hit on by girls. Later, he played soccer and studied psychology at William and Mary, and after graduating noodled for a few years, tending bar and playing softball, trying to figure out what to do with himself.

He started doing stand-up in 1986, the year he moved to New York City. Odd jobs with Comedy Central came next, then the MTV show, which lasted two years. When that was canceled, "I was unable to have a job," he says, though actually Stewart was busy, appearing on "The Larry Sanders Show," regularly filling in for Tom Snyder on "The Late Late Show" and writing a book called "Naked Pictures of Famous People," a collection of long-form essays. It includes the hilarious Larry King interview with Hitler, who, it turns out, isn't dead at all and is now a regret-filled senior citizen who starts every day by heading to the mall for an Orange Julius.

"That's a transcript, I can't take credit for that," Stewart jokes. "You send them $2.50 and they send it to you. I've got a wonderful Michael Landon from 1973."

His current gig began in 1998 when "The Daily Show's" original host, Craig Kilborn, was chosen to replace Snyder on "The Late Late Show" on CBS, a decision that seems more insane than ever now that Stewart has doubled his program's audience to an average of 731,000 viewers and Kilborn is trailing the (only) occasionally amusing Conan O'Brien in his time slot.

"I haven't seen the show," he diplomatically demurs when offered a chance to critique Kilborn's program. "My wife and I don't stay up that late." But he understands the difficulty of day-in-day-out comedy production. "I remember when I was at MTV, you'd get done and go, 'What do we do tomorrow night?' " he says, acting out an exhausted conversation with writers. " 'I have no idea.' 'Maybe a parody of Willy Wonka.' 'Okay.' "

The fake-newscast structure of "The Daily Show," he says, provides a framework and it makes the source material easier to find, since it's right on the front page of the newspaper. A working routine is now set: Stewart usually calls in at some point in the morning to discuss possible subjects for that day's show, then meets with writers at 11 a.m. There's a working draft in place by 1 that afternoon and a rehearsal at 3 p.m. On this particular evening, jokes for tomorrow's show are already taking shape.

"We're going to do a thing about how the bishops are going to announce that they'll apologize about the pedophilia, but not till the year 2652. They've got a big backlog of stuff. They only got around to the Inquisition last year."

Uh, can a Jewish guy do Catholic jokes?

"Yes," Stewart shoots back. "As long as I don't end them with 'oy.' "

"The Daily Show" will tread anywhere, as long as Stewart feels he's got a take on the subject that has some substance. After Sept. 11, his biggest problem wasn't newly sacrosanct topics or even a national audience unwilling to laugh. The trouble was that everyone agreed with everyone else, which sanded away the seams that political satirists need for their livelihood. On one particularly lean day last year, Stewart introduced a clip of Al Gore with a hopeful plea for some dissenting words from the former Democratic nominee. Cut to Gore at a speech, saying he stands foursquare behind the president. Cut back to Stewart, who now has a napkin tucked into his shirt, a knife and fork in his hands and a very empty dinner plate on his desk.

"So hungry," he murmured.

Lack of material isn't a problem now. Leaders and bloviators alike are disagreeing with each other again, and as important, Stewart knows how to put a routine together fast. The stuff he used for the first of some 30 appearances on Letterman's show took five years to assemble, he says. Now, if they call at midnight, he'll be ready to go the next day. "It may not be that funny, but it will be a comedy-like substance," he explains.

His show at the Warner tomorrow night is one of a few he has planned for coming weekends, a sideline that keeps him in a game that he can always play if this television thing doesn't last. His patter isn't written down or even rough-drafted somewhere, though initially he says he'll merely ask the people in the audience where they're from and then express amazement when they all turn out to be from the Washington area. But actually, the biggies like sex, religion and life itself will be covered. And after years of sweating over whether he's any good, Stewart has a more balanced sense of his capabilities as a comic, and he never lets the benefits of television fame get to his head.

"I'm on TV," he says. "You put a grapefruit out there that's been on TV, people would be, like, 'Damn, check out that grapefruit, that is some sweet grapefruit. I've got to get me some of that.' "


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