Prince of Cool Air
Leno and Letterman may be posting bigger late-night ratings, but for Generation X-ers the talk show host de la nuit is a hip, flip 31-year-old stand-up comic named Jon Stewart. MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show, running thrice daily Monday through Thursday, relies on fast cuts, cutting-edge music and its host’s cheekiness: he has his guests sit in old car seats and once startled Star Trekker William Shatner by plopping himself into Captain Kirk’s lap. Recently, Stewart hunkered with writer-reporter Maria Speidel in the small, dark bachelor pad he shares with two cats in Manhattan’s East Village.
Tell us, why did you want to do a talk show?
I thought it hadn’t been done. Later I found out, jeez, there are like 20 of ’em.
Are you having fun?
The other day, we had Cindy Crawford and Tony Bennett on—and I was standing next to them. Normally that would be the snapshot right before the police wrestle me to the ground.
Were you always funny?
I was the wise guy in the family. I was very little, so being funny helped me have big friends. When I was a kid, I used to do impressions of Nelson Rockefeller. And Mr. Rogers. There’s a dark secret behind that cardigan.
Why did you change your last name from Leibowitz?
I use my middle name to protect my loved ones. My family had a petition and I had to acquiesce.
Tell us about growing up in Lawrence, N.J.
It was a magical little fishing village. My father owned a schooner.
In fact, your father, Donald, is a physicist and your mother, Marion, an educational consultant. After they divorced when you were 7, with whom did you and your older brother Larry live?
My mother. Which is probably why I’m sitting here knitting as I’m talking to you. Instead of just being out shellacking something.
You attended William and Mary college in Virginia.
Yeah. I went there to play soccer. I was miserable there. It was a really stiff place. I majored in psychology.
What did you do after college?
I certainly didn’t want to be a psychologist. I’d had my share of training rats. I moved back home, and I was just lost. I ended up bartending at a beer-and-shot joint in New Jersey. It was me and a bunch of Vietnam veterans. They’re probably still waiting for me to show up for work.
Why did you decide not to?
I wanted to do something with my life. ‘Cause I was sitting around. I ended up drinking way too much and partying way too much. So in 1986 I moved to New York City and went to work driving the van for a caterer.
When did you get the courage to go onstage?
In 1987, I went to the Bitter End in the Village, because Woody Allen and Bill Cosby started there. I went on about 1 in the morning and was terrible and was yanked after five minutes. But I just kept plugging away. I knew I was really in show business when I opened for Sheena Easton at Caesars Palace. The marquee said “Sheena Easton” in big letters. Then if you got up really close you saw my name.
Name one of your dream guests.
Helena Bonham Carter. She’s adorable. I’m waiting for her to get fed up with this whole English accent thing and come home to Papa.
How’s your love life, Jon?
Well, this is a song called “Jon’s Love Life” and it goes like this…. It’s suffered. I was going out with a girl for a long time and we lived together. We split up, but not the cats. We thought that would be cruel, so they stayed with me. But we still keep in touch.
Has the show brought you a lot of recognition on the street?
This has been like nothing I’ve ever done, except for a few episodes of America’s Most Wanted.
What’s next for you?
Have you seen my calendar? We shot it on an island in Greece. It really expresses who I am. A lot of spandex. November is particularly astounding.