“There was never any epiphany,” Jon Stewart says of his transition from stand-up comic to talk-show host. “It wasn’t like I was doing the dishes and suddenly a voice from the toaster went, ‘Talk show, Stewart! Talk show, you idiot!'”
As it happens, though, in his first year as host of The Jon Stewart Show (which moved from MTV to syndication in September), the 32-year-old native of Trenton, N.J., has proved to be a natural behind the desk —– or, in his case, the Air Hockey table, which, along with some red car seats, makes up his junkyard-kitsch set. With its anything-goes ethos and Buzz Bin musical guests, Stewart’s show became an instant hit with the MTV crowd. But its greatest asset is Stewart himself, a genial, quick-witted host whose goofy antics —– playing foosball with Kelsey Grammer, chugging wine with Ralph Macchio –— lend the show an unforced, in-the-basement feel. For job qualifications, Stewart, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, can point to six years on the comedy-club circuit and stints hosting Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater and MTV’s You Wrote It, You Watch It. “It’s sort of like something falls and hits you on the head –— that’s how I’ve run my career so far,” he says. “Pretty solid advice to young people, huh?”
Your show switched recently from a half-hour format to an hour. How’s that working out?
We’re enjoying it. We’re finally getting to the point where we feel like our heads are out of our butts. The first four or five weeks, it was sort of like every episode was Broadcast News. Ten seconds before it went on, somebody was sprinting down a hallway with the fat-guy tape.
Has the focus of the show changed?
I’ve always run by the hierarchy of “If not funny, interesting. If not interesting, hot. If not hot, bizarre. If not bizarre, break something.” It’s still that way, but at MTV it was so much more fast paced. Now we really have to all sit back and go, “OK, it’s a talk show. I guess I have to ask something now.”
What have been some of the highlights so far?
I think my top-dog moment overall was seeing Iggy Pop read from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. We had a banned-book week, where we got a list together of all these books that had been banned for one reason or another, and we were able to get Iggy to come in and read from one of them. And just to see Iggy behind a podium, going, “And then I got my period. …” It was insane.
How about the rougher moments?
At MTV we did a show at spring break once, and there were, like, 2,000 people there, which is not the environment for a talk show. It’s the environment for a hot-buns contest. We were talking to Marlon Wayans about his next project, and you just hear hundreds of little voices going, “Chug it!” tuck you!” “Aw, you’re gay!”
Do you miss doing stand-up?
Oh, yeah. One of the nice things about stand-up is you work on material and hone it and really give it time to breathe and live. And when you’re doing a monologue every day, rather than discussing things that you really believe, you go, “Hey, look at this –— a guy in Wisconsin fell into a vat of macaroni. Come on, we can do something with that! I’ll do an impression!” You start to lose sight of what you actually think.
How do you feel about constantly being identified with the “MTV generation”?
I guess I don’t think enough about it. Maybe if I went out to the corner for coffee in the morning and the guy was going, “What do you want, cream with that, Mr. Generation X?” it would make a difference. Or if I felt I was doing something unnatural. But, you know, the music we have on the show is the music I listen to. The guests are more of a potluck of who’s in town. In general, Letterman sits down to feast, and then we come up afterward and go, “Are you gonna finish that?”
Is Letterman a role model of yours?
I grew up watching him, so he’s what I look at as the ideal version of a talk-show host. And maybe in some ways you look at him, and you think, “Boy, they’ve done something historic with a talk show.” And in some ways you do feel a little bummed out about that.
What’s it like when you go on his show?
My first instinct is, as he walks out, to throw my arms around him and go, “Papa!” Just sit in his lap.
Are there any other hosts you admire?
I think everyone knows about my obsession with Mike Douglas and the way he would come out and just open with a number. God, that guy could sing!
What do you do when you’re not working?
Whittle, mostly. To music. I’m lucky in that I have a couple of friends that I’ve had since I was 10 years old who have nothing to do with this business. So when we go out, I’m not allowed to focus on any of this. They’re just like “We don’t give a shit. The Knicks have started again.” So it’s good. A little perspective check.
Are you seeing anyone?
It’s been a while. Someone asked me once, “If you had a girlfriend, would you keep it quiet?” And I told them, “No, I would rent that Times Square billboard thing and put out GUESS WHO’S GETTING LAID? in big, bold neon letters and flash it at the crowd.”
Do you date much?
Every now and again. It’s like this weird Catch-22. I’m finally in a position where women would find me more appealing, but I don’t really have that much time. And then when it’s gone, you’re back to where you started. I guess that wouldn’t be optimistic, would it?
OK, scratch that. I don’t know what I meant to say. I do have a poem that says it all:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Someone go out with this something,