Interview at the Onion

The former talk-show host and future movie actor talks about his stand-up gigs, his MTV past, and whether his upcoming films will be any good

by Stephen Thompson

Jon Stewart is a famous talk-show host for MTV and UPN, but he's not doing a talk show anymore. He's making lots of movies and signing new deals, but nothing he's made has yet been released. Perhaps to compensate for the delays in his comedic output, Stewart is currently enjoying the immediate payoff found in the stand-up comedy world, headlining a bunch of dates on Comedy Central's nationwide Stand Up For Sanity tour. Prior to a series of shows--all in cities with cable systems that neglect to feature Comedy Central--Stewart spoke to The Onion about his tour, the progress of his various big-screen romantic comedies, and whether he'll be the cinema's next Greg Kinnear.

The Onion: What's the deal with this tour?

Jon Stewart: The monster tour? Apparently, I hadn't been getting laid enough on my own in New York, so we thought that if we'd take it on the road, surely there'd be some impressionable youth that I could coerce into my dressing room. But we've actually done some of the tour already, and it turns out that's not the case. I apparently used to be kind of this hip guy on MTV, and now I'm the creepy old man. So the worm has turned, if you will. No, it's just that Comedy Central is promoting dates in towns that can't get Comedy Central. And it's basically my way of helping the kids get some quality programming on their cable systems. Not that I have anything against Animal Planet, mind you.

O: Well, there's always the Faith & Values Network, and there's E!, which is a great thing...

JS: [Laughs.] Oh, I don't know about that.

O: Well, getting to watch Howard Stern is nice.

JS: Oh, getting to watch Howard Stern is a good thing. But you gotta wade through a lot of bullshit to get to Howard Stern on E! It's like, three hours of Calvin Klein: The New Fall Line. Although Faith & Values, I didn't even know that was a channel.

O: So what is "Stand Up For Sanity"?

JS: It's a stand-up comedy tour with sort of an Oh, Calcutta! motif to it. All the comics come out and do their stuff, and then there's this kickass finale where a bunch of neurotic Jews stand around naked on stage. It's not to be missed. We've actually done it; we did a little bit of it last year. We did it in Tucson and Lexington, Kentucky, and two other cities that didn't get Comedy Central. And I'm happy to say the shows went really well, and none of those cities got Comedy Central. So, while not effective, it's still fun to do.

O: What sort of material do you cover?

JS: I cover basically the gamut, sort of the Jewish Holy Trinity: politics, sex and religion. You know, usually in these kinds of shows, I try and interact a little bit more with the audience. I try to keep it a bit more low-key than I would normally.

O: Is stand-up still hot?

JS: Not that I'm aware of. As a matter of fact, I think if you ask that question any time after the stock-market plunge of '87, you would get that response. It's hot on TV, I think, but I don't think so in terms of the country as a whole. I don't think it's quite gone the way of karaoke yet, but it's certainly not what you would call the progressive art form that people took it for. When people said it was going to be the rock 'n' roll of the '90s, I think they were mistaken. It's not even the Lilith Fair of the '90s. I think there are hopefully still enough good people out there doing it that it hasn't been completely diluted and destroyed.

O: It's odd, because most stand-up comics are terrible, and yet stand-up still tends to be this springboard...

JS: No, I agree. But then again, I've gotta say, in its defense, that the majority of nearly any art form is terrible. I imagine there's the same percentage of good comics as there are good singers, as there are good bands, as there are good writers.

O: So, you're making several romantic comedies right now.

JS: Oh... That's all I'm doing.

O: Is any of these movies going to be a romantic comedy for the '90s?

JS: I don't even know what that means, exactly.

O: Every romantic comedy that comes out--'Til There Was You, A Smile Like Yours--is inevitably billed as, "A romantic comedy for the '90s."

JS: But in terms of marketing... Have you ever read Paul Wunder of WBAI's movie reviews? Everything that guy writes: "It's a thrill-ride for the '90s!" Don't confuse marketing with what these movies are. I'm doing three romantic comedies right now, and in every one of them, I get a baboon's heart implanted in my body. That's the hook for the trilogy.

O: So, there's Wishful Thinking, with Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Beals. Now, that's done, right?

JS: That's done. That's been done for a while.

O: When's that coming out?

JS: Who knows? I think they're dubbing it into German. I don't know. It's a small movie; it's more of an art-house flick than anything else. In fact, I just did some looping for it today, where you go in and watch the movie, and try and redo your voice because the wind was whipping through your microphone, or you sneezed in the middle of the take. So hopefully, it'll come out. It might come out on video; it may come out in the theaters. I have no idea.

O: Is it any good?

JS: Uh... [Long pause.] You know, I haven't seen the final cut. What I saw, I thought was okay. I wouldn't say it's great. I think it has moments, but I would have liked to have seen it be funnier.

O: You didn't write it, did you?

JS: No, which is why I can so easily criticize it. Now, when I say I'd like it to be funnier, I'd like to see Schindler's List be funnier. I just like funny movies. So it may have value in terms of drama and insight that I'm not aware of, because I'm going, "Come on, where are the fart jokes?"

O: What is the movie with Janeane Garofalo?

JS: That's called Almost Romantic.

O: Now, you're the best man, and she's the maid of honor...

JS: No, that's not actually how it is. That's how it came out in the synopsis, but we're just two friends at a wedding, and neither one of us is in the wedding party. I showed up because I thought she might be there, and she showed up because she thought I might be there. And we're just two friends from college who like each other very much.

O: Watch the sparks fly!

JS: And the hilarity! We end up at some Club Med-type resort.

O: Has that been made yet?

JS: No, we just got a script in yesterday.

O: How is it?

JS: I have not read it. But from what people are telling me, it's pretty decent. We did a long outline for it, and then the writers got to work on it, and they just finished it. So hopefully we'll just have to do some short revisions and a quick punch-up, and have it ready to film hopefully by spring.

O: And what is Wavelength?

JS: Wavelength. The ubiquitous Wavelength. Uh, that went into turnaround when they decided to switch... It was a movie in which I played sort of a bitter MTV jock--there's a stretch--and I do a roast for the Ted Turner-type character who owns all the networks. And I rip him a new asshole in front of everybody. He exiles me for the remaining part of my contract to a radio station off the coast of Ireland. But what ended up happening was they got the idea that, "Wouldn't it be funnier in the Caribbean?" And I got the idea that [emphatically] "No, it wouldn't." You know what? Four black guys? Coming to America on a bobsled team? That's funny. White guy going to Jamaica? Not so funny. So I got the idea that that wasn't the way to go with it, so we're holding onto it.

O: With all these romantic comedies, are you going to be the cinema's next Greg Kinnear?

JS: [Laughs.] Oh, God!

O: None of these movies is going to be like A Smile Like Yours or Dear God, right?

JS: Uh... [Stammers.] You know what? You can only pray. But I don't know. I don't think anyone ever starts out going, "Hey, let's make a shitty movie." Hopefully, our intentions will be followed through by our execution. But you never know.

O: In five years, people are going to refer to a miserable movie career as a "Greg Kinnear."

JS: Pulling a Kinnear? You never know. Here's the thing: I am probably a lot more critical of things than I should be, but I have more empathy for people in those positions than most, as well. I look at that and go, "Look, I know these people aren't dumb people. They're not bad or untalented. Sometimes you get caught up in decisions that turn out to be the wrong ones." But for my part, I just want to do some funny movies, you know? Whether they're romantic comedies or not, I just want them to be decent and good. That's all I care about. That's the sad truth. And chances are, before I'm done, I'll end up hopefully in a couple of good ones, and a couple of shitty ones, I'm sure. Hopefully, it'll all come out in the wash.

O: At this point in your career, you almost seem to be more famous for your potential than for your actual output.

JS: Yeah, I don't have much of an output.

O: Well, there was an MTV talk show that sort of failed...

JS: Well, I wouldn't exactly classify the MTV show as failing. It didn't get canceled. The MTV show got bought when Paramount bought MTV and Viacom, after our third run on MTV. We were coming back for the summer on MTV, and then Paramount bought it and then bought our show. That's why we took it to syndication at that point.

O: So you went from MTV to UPN?

JS: Yeah, and that was because Paramount had bought Viacom.

O: That's a big move there, from MTV to UPN.

JS: Yes, a huge move. You know, they had over one night of programming.

O: Yeah, and they got rid of Homeboys In Outer Space, which was the only thing they had worth watching.

JS: Well, they're replacing it with What's Up, Skinny-Bones Jones? It's about a skinny black man who lives with five fatter, funnier black men. Look for it. But the UPN show was the longest-running late-night syndicated talk show hosted by a white man in history. I do want to point that out.

O: And that was a good show...

JS: Well, it's remembered a little more fondly than it actually was. I think that sometimes, shows that didn't get a fair shake because of the marketplace they were in--I think in some ways, people tend to put them up on more of a pedestal than they deserved. Not that it made enough of an impact to really be on a pedestal as a show, but most of the people I run into say, "Boy, that was a great show." And I think, "Well, I was there, and it was okay, but it certainly wasn't great. We had a long way to go." The only thing I regret is that we felt like we had gotten into somewhat of a rhythm over the last couple of months. I think shows like that need time to develop and have an audience become accustomed to what you're doing and see the style. I think we were getting closer to that than we were in the beginning, that's for sure.

O: What do you think of MTV's current programming?

JS: I don't watch a ton of it. I like the videos sometimes. What do they run that's new?

O: The Real World's second season, every weekend.

JS: Yeah, that show seems like a sketch at this point. With the first one, you thought, "Wow, these people have no idea what the hell's happening to them." And then after that, it's actors. Like, they did a special where they were looking for a cast, and people were referring to themselves as people who were like or unlike other people on the show--using the show as a reference. "Yeah, I'm a little eccentric, but I'm not gonna pull a Puck." Puck has found his way into the American lexicon. He's a cultural milepost. Now people treat The Real World like a TV show instead of what it was, which was this funky faux-documentary.

O: Where did you ever fit into MTV's programming?

JS: I didn't, really. I was never a VJ. I think what they did was they wanted a talk show, and I sort of designed the one that we did for them as a half-hour four times a week. I picked the co-host [Howard Feller] because I thought MTV would never put this guy on TV. But I was never one of their VJ go-to guys. What I liked about that is that in some ways I was able to hypocritically be a part of MTV, but still comment on it. That disaffection is now in vogue, so I think you see it a little bit more among their VJs. Now, with disaffection being sort of hip, it's cool to be on MTV now and talk about how it blows.

O: What was your background going into that show? You kind of seemed to suddenly emerge.

JS: Yeah. I had been doing stand-up comedy for five or six years; I hosted a show on Comedy Central for a year called Short Attention Span Theater. But that was about it. I had done some writing for shows--you know, sketches. Caroline's Comedy Hour, back when Colin Quinn hosted that. That kind of thing, a lot of cable stuff. Kids' shows.

O: How often do you guest-host for [Late Late Show With] Tom Snyder?

JS: Probably about every three or four months.

O: And how often are you asked if you're being groomed to replace him?

JS: Not that often. But this is not like a ball game. When I get off stage, there aren't a bunch of reporters by my locker. Sometimes people approach me in airports.

O: Are you being groomed to replace Tom Snyder?

JS: Uh, no. But here's the thing: It's far more of a concern probably for the media than it is for people in reality. When you really think about the number of people who watch any late-night TV... I mean, honestly, even Leno and Letterman's ratings, when you think about the amount of people who are watching TV at that time of day, we're talking about three or four million people, maybe five or six tops. Those are the people who are watching those shows. So this ain't English-nanny stuff. It's not of national importance. I think its value is probably greatly exaggerated by it being sort of an interesting story in media terms. I don't think it's really on the minds of Americans right now. I get asked for directions a hell of a lot more than I get asked about that.