Saturday, October 23, 1999

A Day in the LIfe of Jon Stewart



Headline hunter

Jon Stewart leads the charge
of the night brigade
on The Daily Show

By Eric Kohanik

NEW YORK -- It's 1:30 p.m. on a rainy Monday and, tucked inside the West 154th Street building that houses the studio and offices of The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart is munching away on a large order of McDonald's fries before tearing into his Quarter Pounder with cheese.

It's a typical order-in lunch for Stewart as he, executive producer Madeleine Smithberg (who opted for Pad Thai noodles), senior producer Ben Karlin (a deli sandwich) and a gaggle of other staff members race through pages of jokes inside Karlin's office, making selections for the night's show before the script is finalized.

Clad in well-worn blue jeans, and with a white T-shirt under his burgundy V-neck pullover, the ultra-casual Stewart looks more like the guy who was sent out to get everyone's lunches than the anchor/host of one of the hippest news satires on television. And, over the course of a daylong visit to the show's operations, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone around with a disparaging word about Stewart.

"He's incredibly intelligent and has an opinion on things," raves supervising producer Kahane Corn. "He adds so much to the development of each joke."

Adds Smithberg: "Jon has such an incredible breadth of talent. He's a thinker. He brings out the best in everyone."

Stewart is equally generous later, in praising his co-workers. "The talent level, top to bottom," he says, running a hand through tousled, slightly-graying hair, "is the strongest of any show I've been on."

A staple on U.S.-based Comedy Central cable network for three years, The Daily Show joined Canada's primetime lineup, on The Comedy Network, just over a month ago. (It is also getting a special telecast on Ottawa's CTV affiliate, CJOH, this week.) Part talk show (each program contains a four-minute segment with a celebrity guest), The Daily Show is mostly a news parody that takes irreverent jabs at each day's headlines as well as poking fun at the trappings of news shows in general. Editorials and field reports from a team of "correspondents" ridicule people and events in the news, while a "Moment Of Zen" (a slap at CBS Sunday Morning's peaceful closings) wraps up each edition of the half-hour program.

Stewart joined The Daily Show in January, taking over from Craig Kilborn (who jumped over to host CBS's Late Late Show). Unlike his predecessor, Stewart takes an active role (he is also a co-executive producer) in honing each show. He comes into the office around 10:30 a.m. and after that, says everyone, the day flies by with lightning speed as jokes are pitched, comedy routines are worked out, and news footage is tracked down.

On this day, everything has been moved up by a half-hour so Stewart can put in a standup-comedy appearance at the re-opening of Radio City Music Hall. At 3 p.m., he is still polishing one of the day's bits on his computer. Elsewhere in the building, several teams of writers are putting finishing touches on other parts of the show. Rehearsal is scheduled for 5 o'clock. The taping session, in front of an audience of 100, is set for 6 p.m. By 7 o'clock, another edition of The Daily Show will be safely in the can, ready to be beamed out across the U.S. for that night - and off to Canada for the next day.

Inside Stewart's office, empty Coca-Cola cans are scattered about his desk; newspapers clutter the desk and floor. "I'm house-training," he quips."I'm a little embarrassed by this. As you can see, I drink a lot of Coke."

The self-deprecating comedian often has tongue planted firmly in cheek as he answers questions. Some of the chain-yanking is so subtle, it's as though he is testing to see if a reporter might take actually take the answers seriously enough to print them. It's all part of the poke-fun-at-the-media mindset of The Daily Show, and of Stewart.

Born in Trenton, N.J., Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz cut his incisive comedy teeth after college, working at comedy clubs in New York as well as in Winnipeg, Toronto and at the famed Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. Appearances on HBO's Young Comedians Special and CBS's Late Show with David Letterman led to The Jon Stewart Show, a latenight talk show on MTV and, later, in syndication. A stint on The Larry Sanders Show had Stewart, as himself, being groomed to take over for fictitious talk-show host Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling).

Stewart points to Shandling and such other talents as Chris Rock, Norm Macdonald and Dennis Miller as comedians whom he admires. "Those are guys I can watch over and over again," he insists. Off screen, the down-to-earth Stewart prefers keeping a low profile, something he says is easier to do in New York than in Los Angeles. He keeps his daily personal life (with his girlfriend of four years, and their dog and cat) very private and would much rather be "sitting on the couch in my underwear, with a Pepsi and a doughnut, watching SportsCenter eight hours straight," than be part of the social scene that is often a part of the TV industry.

"I'm not a big social guy," he says. "I don't have that constitution where you go out every night and you're at beautiful parties talking to beautiful people. I get tonsillitis too easy for that."

Instead, Stewart keeps himself focused on The Daily Show. "I've got a great gig," he says. "We blast out some stuff and then I go home and do a couple of crossword puzzles, and see if there's a game on, and have some dinner, and go to bed."

Not that Stewart (who turns 37 on Nov. 28) has limited his interests -- or his talents -- to television and standup comedy. A published author (1998's Naked Pictures of Famous People), he also has a list of big-screen acting credits (Big Daddy, The Faculty, Playing By Heart). A production deal with Miramax Films will have him starring in two movies per year, as well as writing and producing several films.

That's a full slate. For now, though, Stewart is intent on just making the satire of The Daily Show sharper each day.

"What we do best is play with convention and, by playing with convention, highlight just the incredible silliness that is 'the [media] machine," Stewart says. "What I really wanted to bring to this was a sense of joy and point-of-view. It was a show that appealed to me. It was one that I thought I could be of service to. It was just going to take time before we gelled.

"And then," he adds with a wink, and with tongue firmly back in cheek, "we really tried to perfect it before sending it up to Canada."