Jon Stewart Hangs
Comic Jon Stewart has a nifty piece in his
first book, Naked Pictures of Famous People (Rob Weisbach
Books, $24), called "Five Under Five." Calling attention
to five little tykes who "will be at the forefront of
our early-to-mid-twenty-first-century cultural trends,"
it's a playful satire of the kind of "ones to watch"
list Stewart himself was on a few years ago.
"I think I was [on a list] a few years
back, when I was at MTV and I still counted," he acknowledges.
That was in 1993, when as host of MTV's The Jon Stewart
Show he was inviting hip, young guests (and sometimes
forgotten old-timers) to sit on a torn-out car seat and casually
shoot the shit. Stewart was up on the celebrity gossip, had
seen all the bad television shows, and was what the MTV suits
must have initially considered the perfect host for the demographic
they called Generation X. Ridiculously sarcastic, appealingly
self-depreciating, and damn photogenic, he seemed at once
attracted to and repelled by shallow pop culture. But the
show, which was sold by MTV and picked up in syndication by
Paramount before being axed in 1995, never had the chance
to grow that Conan O'Brien's has had. And if Stewart's star
didn't disappear (he occasionally hosted NBC's Later
with Greg Kinnear and then CBS's The Late Late Show
with Tom Synder), it certainly faded.
Now, the soon-to-be 36-year-old is back,
and suddenly he's almost as ubiquitous as Ben Stiller. Satirizing
his own position as the guy long rumored to replace Tom Snyder
(the move eventually fell through), Stewart played himself
as the host being groomed to take over Larry Sanders on the
final season of HBO's The Larry Sanders Show. "It's
really one of the most uncomfortable places you can be,"
he says of his real-life predicament. "I think I realized
I'd rather satirize who I am than be who I am."
So he's got roles in two films (including
the Kevin Williamson-scripted The Faculty) coming out
in the next few months for Miramax, where he's in the middle
of a three-year deal or, as he puts it, "a way to pay
the mortgage." And in January, he'll replace Craig Kilborn
at the helm of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. (Kilborn,
it turns out, is replacing Snyder.)
"I'd not had a regular TV gig in three
years," he points out. "I realized when I was on
Sanders that the ability to comment in sort of a timely
fashion is terribly important to me, and while I still comment
on it, I usually do it in my living room, and you begin to
think of yourself as perhaps that creepy, bitter guy who sits
on his couch and says, `Can you believe this!?' "
Stewart's not exactly the curmudgeon he
fashions himself out to be. The guy's still young, handsome,
and, dare I say it, a rising star. But if a new book and a
recent excerpt on the back "Shouts and Murmurs"
page of the New Yorker are any indication of a comedian's
becoming a serious comic sensibility, he's on his way. Like
virtually every comedian, he claims that "the main effect
of all this is truly just to be funny." Yet unlike so
many of the recent crop of routine-rehashing books by top
comedians, Naked Pictures is a legitimate stab at comic
essays and stories. Or as he says, "the old-style comedy
books of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and the Curious George
Publishers, he goes on, had been after him
to write a book for the past few years. "Once Seinfeld's
book and [Paul] Reiser's book went through the roof, I think
they went, `Find me another dark-haired Jew.' " Yet the
cover, he's both quick and proud to note, doesn't feature
the comic's smiling face staring right out you. Instead, it's
an sepia-toned photo of a naked Abraham Lincoln with a black
bar covering his eyes and his hands covering his genitals.
"The majority of the book is basically
taking a kernel of an idea and pushing it to its most absurd
limit," he explains. Two of the most absurd, and more
off-color pieces are "Martha Stewart's Vagina,"
in which he imagines how Martha would recommend decorating
a vagina, and "A Hanson Family Christmas," where
as the group's fame grows, we watch Mother Hanson's holiday-correspondence
signoffs change from "Jesus Loves You" to "Jesus
Loves Us" to finally "God Is Dead." He also
takes on award shows, Bill Gates, and the Kennedy's. "I
definitely pick targets, there's no question. But I think
the main point of the book is the absurdity of the situations.
It's never based on the personalities as much."
The essays, all a bit wicked, are
also silly and generally enjoyable (if not terribly memorable).
Even though Stewart admits he's not a very diligent writer,
I'd put him on my "five emerging comic writers to watch"