Jon Stewart, The Comeback Comic
From: New York Now
Sunday, December 13, 1998
Former overnight sensation has new Comedy Central gig and two movie
By J.D. HEIMAN
Only in notoriously short-attention-span Hollywood is it possible to
talk, without irony, about Jon Stewart's comeback just five years
after he was declared an overnight sensation as the smirky host of his
own MTV chat show.
"That's right, I'm making my triumphal return to cable television," the
36-year-old actor/comedian says, tossing his head back haughtily and
reclining across the couch in his Parker Meridien hotel suite.
Jon Stewart plays a teacher in 'The Faculty.'
"Look out. I'm back, baby."
Back in 1995, "The Jon Stewart Show" was snapped up and syndicated by
Paramount amid buzz that its star might be the young Johnny Carson. Just
as quickly, it was consigned to talking-head oblivion along with the
shows of Arsenio Hall, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Alan Thicke. And while
its host has worked steadily over the intervening years, it does seem
that suddenly he's the celebrity equivalent of lint popping up
everywhere, and in the most unlikely places.
This holiday season, for example, Stewart will be seen in "The Faculty,"
a movie about aliens taking over a high school. In January, he appears
in the high-toned comedy-drama "Playing by Heart," portraying a suave
architect who woos lonely single gal Gillian Anderson. A suave architect
named Trent, no less.
"I was the last to be cast," says Stewart. "Originally, the character
was supposed to be physically the embodiment of masculinity, and the
name conjured up those soap opera guys with names like Cliff, Rock,
Stone or Dirt. I explained to the director [Willard Carroll], you know,
that's not exactly me."
The film, with a stellar cast that also includes Sean Connery ("I
definitely play Q to his James Bond," Stewart quips), Gena Rowlands,
Madeleine Stowe, Ryan Phillippe and Dennis Quaid, is a major step up
from the comedian's previous film work bit parts in the turkeys "Mixed
Nuts" and "Half Baked."
Then there's the aforementioned triumphal return: In January, Stewart
returns to New York full-time to take over for Craig Kilborn as host of
the "Daily Show" on Comedy Central the same network that plucked
Stewart from comedy-club obscurity a decade ago and gave him his first
big break as a writer and performer.
And as if all this weren't enough to spell c-o-m-e-b-a-c-k, Stewart's
book "Naked Pictures of Famous People" has won critical acclaim just for
being a book by a famous comic that's actually funny.
You'd think it might turn the head of a guy who only a few years ago was
driving a catering van and working downtown clubs like the Comedy
Cellar, "doing standup for the hummus plate." But not so. "I'm lucky to
be able to do a diversity of things right now," Stewart says, seeming
really to mean it as he works his way through a pack of cigarettes.
Still, he's sometimes deaf to the nuances of big-time success. Case in
point: While other members of the "Playing by Heart" cast show up at a
Sunday-morning press junket looking tanned, waxed, buffed and
camera-ready, Stewart is pale, stubbly and outfitted in a baggy gray
sweater, looking unapologetically Saturday Night.
Amid these Grade-A movie stars, he looks like an "impostah," as he puts
it with a mock British accent. "The fact is, I've fallen into a lot of
things," Stewart says. "If I had any goal, it was to be a good standup.
I never said, 'I'm going to be a standup comic so I can be a talk-show
host or an actor.' "
That explains a big part of Jon Stewart Leibowitz' tremendous appeal. He
delights in playing the unlikely celebrity, a nice Jewish boy who grew
up in suburban Trenton, the son of a physicist and an educational
consultant. As a student at Virginia's College of William and Mary,
Stewart encountered good ol' boys who had never met a Jew before, "boys
with eight first names, which also happened to be the names of
Confederate generals, but who just went by 'Trip.' " It gave him a sense
of what it is to be an outsider.
"It made me understand what it is to be disenfranchised," Stewart says.
That in turn, informed his snarky, anti-authoritarian humor. This is,
after all, a man who once asked William Shatner if he could sit in his
Like any real New Yorker, Stewart makes no bones about his dislike of
Los Angeles. He owns an apartment in downtown Manhattan, in the nabe he
mockingly calls "TriCoCo" in reality, the West Village. He doesn't
holiday in the Hamptons, but in his old haunts on the Jersey Shore. "The
Hamptons are the most Hollywood place in New York, filled with all the
people in New York you're trying to avoid," Stewart complains.
Playing a self-deprecating stiff who can barely muffle a giggle at his
own good fortune is more than good shtick it has won Stewart a
tremendous following. Entertainment writers have said that women are
charmed by the still-single Stewart because he's clever, genial and
non-threatening, and men like him because he's, well, clever, genial and
non-threatening. In other words, the opposite of anybody named "Trent."
Separate shtick from reality, and you quickly realize that Stewart has
worked very hard at being Mr. Average. Since the cancellation of his old
program, he has won raves as an "All About Eve"-type guest host of HBO's
"Larry Sanders Show" and gained a new, older group of fans ("lots of
people from Nova Scotia") by periodically stepping in for Tom Snyder as
host of CBS' "Late Show." He's also a favorite talk-show guest
discussing everything from matzo to Monicagate for David Letterman,
Larry King, Tom Snyder and even "The View."
But standup remains Stewart's first love, and that, along with his
desire to work in New York, drew him back to Comedy Central.
"I think comedians have this Pavlov's dog response when it comes to
jokes," Stewart says. "You tell a joke, you get a laugh and I miss the
immediacy of that. With a movie or a book, you have hours of wringing
your hands, wondering if people thought it was funny."
But he acknowledges that taking over as emcee of the "Daily Show" is a
bit of a gamble. For one thing, it again casts Stewart in the
uncomfortable role he has become adept at playing both for laughs and
for real over the years: replacement host.
"At least this time, I'm going in after a guy who's leaving because he
wants to," Stewart says, referring to show-biz gossip that once had him
replacing talk idol Snyder on the ailing "Late Show." (Instead, it's
Kilborn who will take over on CBS.) "It seems I'm always the guy who's
in the dark corner rubbing his hands together, scheming to get rid of
Snyder or whoever."
Still, current host Kilborn's shoes won't be easy to fill, not least
because Stewart labels those feet "huge and Aryan." It has been a few
years since Stewart was tagged with the unlovely "Gen-X comic" label for
his cable antics. These days, his hair is graying more than a bit, and
it's Kilborn who's the darling of 14-year-old miscreants everywhere.
And while Stewart's biting sarcasm is legendary, he's far more
comfortable dissing rich and powerful targets like Kathie Lee Gifford
than the clueless Middle Americans who are regularly eviscerated on the
Kilborn's mocking humor has a whiff of the sadistic fraternity
pledgemaster about it. Stewart's sympathies, by contrast, invariably lie
with the pledges.
"It's fair to say that at times the 'Daily Show' can be a little too
mean," Stewart says. "I happen to have a huge soft spot for all the
eccentrics out there in America, and I think at its best, the show
Still, he doesn't imagine a kinder, gentler Stewart regime. "The show is
what it is, and if sometimes that means going out there and tearing
Carol Channing a new a------, well, I don't have a problem with that."
Meanwhile, Stewart's already basking in the glow of being the comeback
kid. "I'm glad to be back in New York and have the flexibility that the
show provides," he says. "As our world spirals into chaos, I've missed
the ability to comment on it every day."
Since he's taking over as host of the "Daily Show," we thought we'd
brazenly rip off one of the program's trademark bits and ask Jon Stewart
five brain-crushingly difficult, if somewhat inane questions.
We haven't scheduled the makeup exam yet.
1) Kathie Lee Gifford or Debbie Matanopoulos (from "The View")?
"Ah, that's a good question. It's so hard to say. I'd say that one
passes the torch on to the other."
Answer: Correct! They are part of the same diabolical Slimfast-drinking
2) What is the capital of Lesotho?
"What? What is Lesotho? It's in Africa? I've never heard of it. Is it
Answer: Incorrect! The capital of Lesotho is Maseru.
3) Finish this motto: "Trenton makes ..."
"That's easy: 'The world takes.' " (Stewart informs us that Trenton
makes Trojan condoms and Champale.)
4) Sean Connery or Roger Moore?
"There is no question. Sean Connery is the only Bond."
Answer: Correct! We accept no substitutes shaken, stirred or Remington
5) Complete this lyric: "You take the good, you take the bad, you take
them both and ..."
"Um, 'you can dance if you want to'? Whenever I don't know a song, I go
to my old standby, 'Safety Dance.' I don't know."
Answer: Incorrect! It's: " ... there you have the facts of life!"