Jon Stewart, The Comeback Comic

From: New York Now

Sunday, December 13, 1998

Former overnight sensation has new Comedy Central gig and two movie

roles

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

lap.

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

"Daily Show."

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

celebrates them."

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."

Five Questions

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

space/time continuum.

2) What is the capital of Lesotho?

"What? What is Lesotho? It's in Africa? I've never heard of it. Is it

new?

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.)

Answer: Correct!

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

Steeled.

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!"