Stewart: MTV's slice of pop culture


Having a conversation with Jon Stewart is like watching his MTV talk show. He treats the interviewer like a one-man audience, using every question to test his wit.

What if he were offered Conan O'Brien's "Late Night" spot on NBC? "If he got canceled and they came to me? I would tell them no. Who wants to make that kind of money and have that kind of show every night on national television? Why, I'd put my foot down."

Mr. Stewart, called "The Man Who Should Be Conan" by New York magazine, has no illusions about entering the talk-show wars. His half-hour show airs on a specialized, if influential, cable channel with a demographically narrow viewership. He plays off that. Much of "The Jon Stewart Show's" comedy is collegiate, revolving around hip musical references, Gen-X anti-heroes and off-color jokes.

At 30, Mr. Stewart is older than the typical MTV viewer. "They don't want me to be them, they want me to entertain them," he says. "But I'm not their chemistry teacher. I'm the creepy older guy who hangs around campus, who never quite left."

During a monologue last week, he joked that Sinead O'Connor was coming out with a children's album. Two of the song titles: "Pope Goes the Weasel" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday School."

Mr. Stewart's guest list leans heavily toward celebrity models (Cindy Crawford, Anna Nicole Smith, Elle Macpherson), young performers (Steven Weber from "Wings," actress Elizabeth Shue, comedian Denis Leary), young bands (James, the Juliana Hatfield Three) and TV icons from the past (William Shatner, any Brady).

The show's guiding principle is to keep things loose and casual -- and frenetically paced. Whoever the guest is, Mr. Stewart's quick, relaxed reactions are the key to his charm. When Mr. Shatner said something about not understanding the hip language being used, Mr. Stewart asked the former Captain Kirk to just hold him. He wound up in Mr. Shatner's lap. "You are boldly going where no man has ever gone before," Mr. Stewart quipped.

Then there's his strange-looking announcer and sidekick, Howard Feller, who makes Larry "Bud" Melman look like Robert Redford. The show dresses Mr. Feller in bowling shirts and other nerdwear and often features him in "bumpers": short and witty pre-taped segments that are used as segues from commercials.

Who dresses Mr. Stewart, who almost exclusively wears jeans, T-shirts and unzippered jackets? "My mommy," he says without missing a beat. Actually, he's dressed that way since ninth grade. "I look like a homeless person." Or Gap Boy.

If Mr. Stewart borrows anything from David Letterman, it's that he tries to be himself. "These kinds of shows, to be successful, have to reflect a singular sensibility," he says, setting up another one-liner. "That was the big problem with 'The Joey Bishop Show' -- all over the place, never tied in."

Born in New York City and raised in Trenton, N.J., Mr. Stewart was a comedy-club veteran when MTV hired him last year as host of "You Wrote It, You Watch It," a mercifully short-lived show in which viewers' fantasies were acted out in skits.

When the network asked him to come up with other ideas, he conjured up a talk show. It went on the air quickly, debuting last October on a minuscule budget, like most MTV programs.

After a six-week first "season," "The Jon Stewart Show" was renewed for another six weeks. That season of new shows will end Tuesday (with repeats to follow), but Mr. Stewart expects a longer stint this summer. He also plans to do more acting -- he did theater in college -- including a supporting role in the coming Nora Ephron film "Don't Drink the Water" with Steve Martin, Garry Shandling and Robert Klein.

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