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The Boston Phoenix One to Watch

Jon Stewart hangs in

By Mark Bazer

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Comic Jon Stewart has a nifty piece in his first book, Naked Pictures of Famous People (Rob Weisbach Books, $24), called "Five Under Five." Calling attention to five little tykes who "will be at the forefront of our early-to-mid-twenty-first-century cultural trends," it's a playful satire of the kind of "ones to watch" list Stewart himself was on a few years ago.

"I think I was [on a list] a few years back, when I was at MTV and I still counted," he acknowledges. That was in 1993, when as host of MTV's The Jon Stewart Show he was inviting hip, young guests (and sometimes forgotten old-timers) to sit on a torn-out car seat and casually shoot the shit. Stewart was up on the celebrity gossip, had seen all the bad television shows, and was what the MTV suits must have initially considered the perfect host for the demographic they called Generation X. Ridiculously sarcastic, appealingly self-depreciating, and damn photogenic, he seemed at once attracted to and repelled by shallow pop culture. But the show, which got dumped for lack of ratings by MTV and then picked up in syndication by Paramount before being again axed in 1995, never had the chance to grow that Conan O'Brien's has had. And if Stewart's star didn't disappear (he occasionally hosted NBC's Later with Greg Kinnear and then CBS's The Late Late Show with Tom Synder), it certainly faded.

Now, the soon-to-be 36-year-old is back, and suddenly he's almost as ubiquitous as Ben Stiller. Satirizing his own position as the guy long rumored to replace Tom Snyder (the move eventually fell through), Stewart played himself as the host being groomed to take over Larry Sanders on the final season of HBO's The Larry Sanders Show. "It's really one of the most uncomfortable places you can be," he says of his real-life predicament. "I think I realized I'd rather satirize who I am than be who I am."

So he's got roles in two films (including the Kevin Williamson-scripted The Faculty) coming out in the next few months for Miramax, where he's in the middle of a three-year deal or, as he puts it, "a way to pay the mortgage." And in January, he'll replace Greg Kilborn at the helm of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. (Kilborn, it turns out, is replacing Snyder.)

"I'd not had a regular TV gig in three years," he points out. "I realized when I was on Sanders that the ability to comment in sort of a timely fashion is terribly important to me, and while I still comment on it, I usually do it in my living room, and you begin to think of yourself as perhaps that creepy, bitter guy who sits on his couch and says, 'Can you believe this!?' "

Stewart's not exactly the curmudgeon he fashions himself out to be. The guy's still young, handsome, and, dare I say it, a rising star. But if a new book and a recent excerpt on the back "Shouts and Murmurs" page of the New Yorker are any indication of a comedian's becoming a serious comic sensibility, he's on his way. Like virtually every comedian, he claims that "the main effect of all this is truly just to be funny." Yet unlike so many of the recent crop of routine-rehashing books by top comedians, Naked Pictures is a legitimate stab at comic essays and stories. Or as he says, "the old-style comedy books of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and the Curious George series."

Publishers, he goes on, had been after him to write a book for the past few years. "Once Seinfeld's book and [Paul] Reiser's book went through the roof, I think they went, 'Find me another dark-haired Jew.' " Yet the cover, he's both quick and proud to note, doesn't feature the comic's smiling face staring right out you. Instead, it's an sepia-toned photo of a naked Abraham Lincoln with a black bar covering his eyes and his hands covering his genitals.

"The majority of the book is basically taking a kernel of an idea and pushing it to its most absurd limit," he explains. Two of the most absurd, and more off-color pieces are "Martha Stewart's Vagina," in which he imagines how Martha would recommend decorating a vagina, and "A Hanson Family Christmas," where as the group's fame grows, we watch Mother Hanson's holiday-correspondence signoffs change from "Jesus Loves You" to "Jesus Loves Us" to finally "God Is Dead." He also takes on award shows, Bill Gates, and the Kennedys. "I definitely pick targets, there's no question. But I think the main point of the book is the absurdity of the situations. It's never based on the personalities as much."

The essays, all a bit wicked, are also silly and generally enjoyable (if not terribly memorable). Even though Stewart admits he's not a very diligent writer, I'd put him on my "five emerging comic writers to watch" list.


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