"Nighttime Talk, MTV Style"
The Record
by Susan Howard



Jon Stewart slides into his dressing room and leans his spine against the door. His eyes search frantically for his beloved cigarettes. He looks nervous as he lights up, takes a protracted drag, and talks within a cloud of his own smoke. The unexpected has happened, just minutes before taping, and Stewart is letting the sensation sink in. Supermodel (and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl) Rachel Hunter, Stewart's guest for the day's show, has arrived at MTV's midtown Manhattan studio with a surprise guest of her own, singer Rod Stewart, Rachel's husband. "When someone like Rod shows up, I mean, he's just so large," Stewart says. "I can't believe I'm nervous, but I am. I've had three more bathroom breaks than I would normally."

Perhaps the star of "The Jon Stewart Show" is concerned about the singer's reaction to the quiz game planned for Hunter: Which Stewart, Rod or Jon, "has an imaginary friend named Burt, who makes him do bad things?" OK, so it is Jon Stewart with the imaginary friend, but if Burt makes him do bad things, the phantom friend must be on vacation. Whether the opinion comes from the 20-something fans populating his audience who say they like the casual atmosphere of the show or TV critics who like its spontaneity, Stewart seems to be busting all the right moves as a talk-show host for Generation X, those famous post-baby boomers who are the heart of MTV's target audience (12- to 34-year-olds). Stewart says his audience is made up of "everyone who actually knows what's going on on 'Melrose Place."

So life for the stand-up comedian is changing. More people recognize him now. "In general, fans have a very odd idea about what I do. They think you live this very glamorous, high lifestyle. That you travel in limos, helicopters, and cruise ships." Not so, says Stewart, who recently upgraded from an apartment he shared to a one-bedroom that's all his because his cats (Sydney and Stanley) needed more room. Known previously to MTV viewers as the host of the short-lived program "You Wrote, You Watch It" (a show that turned viewers letters into comic skits), Stewart is attracting an audience that MTV says makes his show one of its highest rated non-music programs. His guests (Cindy Crawford, Denis Leary, Ben Stiller, poet Maggie Estep, Howard Stern) help Stewart's show feel cutting edge, leading New York magazine to anoint Stewart as "The Man Who Should Be Conan", a swipe at another young, hip TV host. TV Guide calls Stewart "New York's Mr. Schmooze," and now he's getting ready for his movie debut, in Nora Ephron's "Night Before Xmas," which also will star Garry Shandling and Steve Martin.

Call these developments the metamorphosis of a psychology major into a stand -up comic into the quirkiest talk-show host this side of David Letterman. At the very least, Stewart must be the only talk host who must shave his neck on a regular basis. It's not everywhere in talk TV you can see newly naturalized U.S. citizen Yakov Israel of New York City compete with the newly crowned Miss U.S.A., Lu Parker, in a quiz about American history. (Israel won.) Or watch Stewart's favorite game, "What's in Howard's Pants? " which calls for audience members to rummage through the stuffed pants of Stewart's sidekick, the dart-eyed Howard Feller (who looks like he could be a relative of "Seinfeld's" Kramer) until a "ham and ointment" sandwich emerges. Or watch the host do comic skits skewering everything from gangsta rappers to Calvin Klein underwear ads.

And where else can members of the MTV Generation find a TV host who dresses sort of like them? Stewart is the only talk host who doesn't own a suit. His fashion statement is faded jeans, a T-shirt, a sweater, sneakers, or a black leather jacket.

This laid-back-dude persona is a big part of the show's sensibility. Stewart closes the show with the very cool sign-off "Later. " But there's also the show's unstructured manner, as freestyle as hip-hop, in stark contrast to Conan O'Brien's Harvard Lampoon humor, which may strike some as pretentious.

None of this would work without Stewart, says MTV's senior vice president of programming, Doug Herzog, who calls the show "pure, unadulterated stupidity. " That's pretty much what many in the industry suggested when MTV got into the late-night talk-show frenzy last fall. Herzog says industry types asked him: "Are you nuts? ". Just smart, insists Herzog now. "We think Jon's an enormous talent and we thought we really would be stupid if we didn't try it," he said.

Stewart says he's 29, but a fellow 1984 graduate of the College of William and Mary wrote New York magazine to say Stewart's math is off. Stewart jokes that if he admits to being older than 29, he'll lose his job at MTV and will have to work at VH-1. He started out as Jon Stewart Leibowitz, shortening his name when he began his stand-up career seven years ago. "I'm not a self-hating Jew," Stewart says. "Actually, to borrow a line from Lenny Bruce, I just thought Leibowitz was too Hollywood." He's a veteran of Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theater" and HBO's "Young Comedians Special. " When NBC conducted a nationwide search for a Letterman replacement last year, Stewart auditioned but was just another also-ran to O'Brien.

Since his debut in the fall, Stewart has gotten the kind of press that has escaped O'Brien. Bruce Fretts, the 27-year-old TV critic of Entertainment Weekly, says Stewart's show is what O'Brien's show is trying to become. "Conan's show was billed as the voice of Generation X, so there was that expectation," Fretts says. "But I don't think he cuts it. Conan's show feels so forced, like they're trying so hard to be hip and ironic. " Is there a secret to appealing to the much-sought-after, much-labeled youth generation of the Nineties? Stewart doubts it.

"I wish there was some sort of formula like 'Take one part Corey Feldman and one part Luke Perry and mix it with a dash of. ... I wish there was that kind of a formula that would add to that perfect mix every night, but I don't think there is. I think almost any guest we've had, including Tony Bennett, really appeals to kids. ... If it doesn't look contrived and forced, then I think the show will always be cool to them. " And coolness is not restricted to age, says Stewart, who rejects suggestions that his show is not for viewers who are baby boomers or older. "We don't pretend that people older than 30 don't exist, and this includes my open invitation to Frank Sinatra to come on the show." If there is a secret to success, Stewart thinks it must have to do with being daring. "We're not really afraid to flump, you know? There's no fear on this show." Unless Rod Stewart makes another unannounced visit. Or Sinatra shows up. Later.

(Photo caption) Jon Stewart of MTV has perfected the act that NBC is groping to achieve.


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Copyright © 1994 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Melly for the article.

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