Jon Stewart is a much shorter and more nervous version of Craig Kilborn, which is to say he's hardly Craig Kilborn at all.
Whether this will matter once Stewart takes over for Kilborn as host of Comedy Central's satirical "The Daily Show" on Jan. 11 is uncertain. For now, Stewart jokes, all he knows is that "a team of expatriate Russian engineers from the breakdown of Chechnya" have installed a booster seat on Kilborn's chair, and a tailor is busy hemming Kilborn's suits to fit a much smaller man.
Since it debuted in the summer of 1996, "The Daily Show," which airs weeknights, has become a welcome antidote to the rise in self-important TV newsmagazines, blustering pundits and celebrity-worship programming. Regular "Daily Show" segments include parodies of the day's headlines, parodies of newsmagazine exposes, parodies of soft-focus Barbara Walters specials.
Kilborn -- with his frat-boy good looks and self-parodying smirk -- was an appropriately arrogant comedy pitchman for the show, in which digs at news makers can at times feel punitive.
Stewart doesn't have the same mean bones in his body. He's a stand-up comedian from New Jersey whose act has always been marked by literate, self-deprecating swipes at his own Jewishness, for one. He dresses in black, and his comic hero is Woody Allen.
"It won't be the same show. Some people will like it less," he says of taking over Kilborn's post. But a change in host won't entail a change in content, says Stewart, 35. True, correspondents A. Whitney Brown and Brian Unger are leaving, but Beth Littleford and Stephen Colbert are staying and, more important, so are the writers -- the ones who truly drive the show's point of view.
"That show existed before [Kilborn] did. He came on to host it, now I'm coming on to host it. If I wasn't doing it, someone else would be doing it. I'm a cog in a machine, and hopefully, because of the writing, I'll be able to help evolve the creative part of it."
It's fitting that Stewart should be taking over an existing entity, because he's practically made a career out of almost hosting other people's talk shows. After two efforts of his own, first for MTV and then a syndicated show from Paramount, Stewart was in the running for the "Late Night" spot on NBC that went to Conan O'Brien, balked at NBC's "Later" slot at 1: 30 a.m., and then signed a deal with David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, to host a 1: 30 a.m. show following Tom Snyder.
That deal expired with no show, and then Kilborn announced in August that he was leaving "The Daily Show" to take Snyder's CBS slot at 12: 30 a.m., which he'll turn into a comedy-variety hour (Kilborn's last "Daily Show" was Dec. 18; Comedy Central is airing reruns until Stewart's debut in January).
Stewart insists becoming the host of "The Daily Show," for which he will be paid $1.5 million a year, is no booby prize. True, it's cable. True, the audience is relatively minuscule, and he wasn't happy to learn that network chief Doug Herzog, with whom Stewart worked at MTV, was stepping down to take over as president of Fox Entertainment.
"Having Doug leave was a blow," he said. "That's a guy I've known for years. He was one of the reasons that I felt comfortable going [to Comedy Central]."
But Stewart says "The Daily Show" will leave him freer to pursue other facets of his career. This year he published a book, "Naked Pictures of Famous People," that's more than just punch lines with chapter titles. They're closer to humorous essays.
There's also Stewart's burgeoning film career, which includes a co-starring role with Gillian Anderson and Gena Rowlands in "Playing by Heart," to be released Jan. 22. Stewart also just finished shooting "Big Daddy," Adam Sandler's next vehicle.
Pub Date: 1/01/99