"Solidly Stewart"
November 14, 2002
by Theresa Bradley


Daily Show host Jon Stewart Talks About Real News, Fake News, and His Career in Comedy

For comedians on the way up, an appearance on David Letterman's late-night show is "Valhalla," according to Jon Stewart, who is now the host of his own late-night show on Comedy Central.

Stewart, who first appeared on Letterman's show in the early 1990s when he was working the club circuit, compares a Letterman slot to being knighted, or blessed by the pope.

But even a Letterman appearance is not an instant, career-making moment, Stewart told Ted Koppel on UpClose, ABCNEWS' late-night interview show. "It was also an incredible lesson in the idea of the journey as opposed to the destination," he said. "I felt really great, and went home to my illegal sublet, and was still as short as I was the night before, and still had roaches. It was a lesson that nothing changed."

Stewart, 39, is now host of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, an Emmy- and Peabody-winning spoof newscast that is the nation's leading source of political satire. He has dozens of other television credits, and has appeared in eight films and written a book of essays, Naked Pictures of Famous People.

He has become successful, but says there was no single event that marked his arrival. "There is no 'making it,'" he said. He attributes his success to the "gradual process of the roller coaster," and says his feelings of accomplishment came from inside, rather than any external marker. "You learn to develop an internal barometer, and that was the turning point for me — more than anything else, more than any show — that deemed me to be a comedian or said I was worthy to be on the air. It was learning, intuitively, when I was good and when I was bad."

Stewart retains a grounded humility — spiced, of course, with a matchless wit at once sardonic and sincere. The roller coaster, he says, "doesn't end because somebody outside deems you worthy.... You have to learn that, yeah, maybe you're not going to be Woody Allen; but at least you're not going to be as godawful as you were that one night in the Village when it was raining and they booed you off stage."

Sorting Mosquitoes

Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz grew up a sharp, soccer-playing short kid, voted "best sense of humor" at his New Jersey high school. After graduation he worked a series of odd jobs — including collecting and sorting mosquitoes for the state of New Jersey to test for encephalitis — before attending college at William and Mary in Virginia, where he got a degree in psychology.

After college, Stewart came back to New Jersey and drifted for a while, working the same odd jobs he had had since high school. "At 23 you sort of find yourself wondering what the hell you're going to do," he told Koppel. "You could join the softball team, and bartend at the bar, and work for the state, and pretty much stay in that equilibrium for the next 50 years. Or you could figure out something else that you're going to have a passion for, and make an attempt."

That attempt began one day in 1986: Stewart sold his car, left his apartment, and made the 60-mile pilgrimage to New York City. "That is apparently where dreams come true," he remembers thinking.

Open Mike for a Plate of Falafel

Stewart arrived on the scene in the midst of what he calls a "comedy explosion," and he joined in the search for a stage.

The key to what he calls a comic "feeder system" were open mike nights where the stage was open to all comers. Even if he remembers open-mike nights as "the super minor leagues," they offered him more than just a chance to play for the scouts: at their feet, he polished his game.

"You could travel the country and make 600 bucks, 800 bucks a week. Or, you could do what I was doing, which was open mikes for a plate of falafel."

"The hope was just to get better," he said, "to learn what your voice was. It was, in some respects, an exercise in Outward Bound for neurotics. It was a mental challenge."

"I honestly think it was a rhythm ... that I didn't realize that I had," he explains. "Until I got on stage, it didn't actually make sense."

Caterpillar to Comedic Butterfly

In New York, Stewart kept working odd jobs to pay the rent. This time, an uninspiring position as contract administrator for the City University of New York freed up his evenings for his first regular gig: at 2 a.m., Sundays through Thursdays, at the Comedy Cellar. Within two-and-a-half years, Stewart's wit was sharp enough to support him.

From comedy clubs to college tours and cable TV, Stewart was soon spinning jokes before a national audience — including the appearance on Letterman.

Scratching an Itch

The 1990s saw Stewart go from stand-up success to full-fledged actor, writer and television personality. He hosted a series of his own talk shows, first at MTV, and then in syndication through Paramount. But it wasn't until January 1999, when he stepped in at the helm of The Daily Show, that Stewart hit his present stride.

The show was a perfect match for its modest yet incisive new host, bent on finding humor through juxtaposition and paradox, and on mocking hypocrisy.

"I'm attempting to scratch an itch, and I want to make humor about things I care about," Stewart says. "Where do the jokes come from? Really, they, they come from a place of pulling your hair out, of seeing things that make you cringe, and wanting to turn that into something that will make you laugh."

Ratings doubled under Stewart, and The Daily Show won an Emmy in 2001 for its writing, including its irreverent coverage of presidential politics, "Indecision 2000," which featured regular commentary from Bob Dole, and is said to have inspired a new generation of Americans to pay attention to politics.

Stewart calls the The Daily Show staff — who come up with more than 120 pages of jokes every day and then cull them into a 35-page script — "one of the most crack fake news teams ever assembled."

Taking Aim at Cable News

A favorite target of the team's scorn is cable news, which Stewart calls "our saving grace."

"It's almost like having my own bank," he said, "because they've so destroyed the fine credibility or the fiber that was the trust between the people and what they're hearing on the air."

The 24-hour news cycle, Stewart says, has sacrificed fact to the "louder and brighter and faster" pulse of marketing, and of the corporate model. The fact-checker today, he says, "is just the one going, 'You know what I heard?'"

"That's what they should call CNN — 'You Know What I Heard?' I don't even know if they've got an acronym for that."

[Video clip caption: Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, talked to Ted Koppel.]


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