TV Article

Jon Stewart, the Host in the Machine

The TV comic and crew crank up for another day on the late-night shift

11 am-12:45 pm Pretaping: On a chilly October morning, freshly syndicated talker Jon Stewart and his snaggletoothed sidekick, Howard Feller, are taping a Baywatch sketch on a busy Manhattan avenue in anticipation of Pamela Anderson's appearance the next night. It's the start of another typically long, strange day on the set of The Jon Stewart Show. Decked out in red swim trunks, with zinc oxide on their noses and whistles around their necks, Stewart and Feller draw curious glances from pedestrians.

''Should my shoes be off?'' Feller asks director Beth McCarthy.

''Yeah, take your shoes off,'' she says.

''Take your pants off, too!'' yells a husky passerby, carrying a garbage bag and sniggering to himself.

''Easy!'' Stewart says. ''He thinks he's 12 blocks north, in Times Square.''

A lesser man might blanch at such a bizarre public display, but not Stewart. ''After doing stand-up for so long, there's very little people can do to you in terms of stares to make you feel uncomfortable,'' he says later in his office, which is decorated with a poster of his late-night predecessor at Paramount, Arsenio Hall, and a bubble reading ''Good Luck, Motherf---er.''

''Jon's not worried about looking silly,'' explains producer Madeleine Smithberg, who started with Stewart on his MTV talk show last year. ''I worked for Letterman for six years, and there was this thing there called the silly-hat rule: Dave would never want to look like he was wearing a silly hat. Jon's put on silly hats from day one. And it's worked in his favor.''

Indeed it has. Plucked from the comedy-club hoi polloi by MTV in 1992, Stewart, 31, quickly put together the loosest, hippest talk show since the early days of Late Night With David Letterman. With the merger of Paramount and MTV parent Viacom, and Arsenio's surrender in the late-night wars, Stewart segued into syndication with a low-profile launch in September. Though early ratings are low, The Jon Stewart Show is gaining momentum, thanks to glowing reviews and good word of mouth. ''Jon has this amazing appeal that cuts across all demographics,'' brags his longtime manager (and now his coexecutive / producer) Barry Secunda. ''Women love him, and guys don't hate him.''

1-3:30 pm Rehearsal: In the show's postmodern yet cozy studio, Stewart runs through his monologue, testing out jokes on the crew — and on the Sun City Poms, a trio of elderly cheerleaders who'll be rooting him on throughout the evening (a researcher suggested the Poms after reading an article about them in Self magazine). ''According to experts ... oh, ladies, you're going to hate this one,'' Stewart says, worrying the topic might be offensive, then forges ahead. ''All right, forget it. According to a new survey, married people have the best, most frequent sex ...''

''Yeah!'' the Poms cheer.

''I always thought Mom and Dad were just wrestling, I had no idea ''

The Poms fall silent.

''You don't like the wrestling joke?'' Stewart asks. ''Okay, you'll hate this one, too ... '' He bombs out with lines about Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and a man who smuggled monkeys in his pants, before hitting with one: ''Next week, Barbara Bush will receive the McDonald's award for excellence for her work on behalf of children. And — this is exciting — for an extra 39 cents, she can get the award Supersized.''

''Yeah!'' the Poms cheer.

''Score! One for the kid!'' Stewart celebrates briefly before restarting. ''Beginning in December ... aw, boy,'' he catches himself. ''Man, without sex and death, I got s---. I got nuthin'.''

Later, in their dressing room, the Poms sing the Stewart Show's praises.

''The people here have just been tremendous,'' enthuses Pat Vick, the youngest member of the squad at 66. ''They've turned over backwards for us.''

''No, no, no,'' says Foofie Halan, who can still do the splits at 80. ''We've turned over backwards for them.''

1 2 3