Twenty-one years ago this week, on October 25th, 1993, MTV launched a little something called The Jon Stewart Show. Yes, that very same Jon Stewart. He’s been the host of The Daily Show so long it’s hard to picture the mediascape without it at this point, but Stewart’s been actively in the comedy scene the late 80s and had a notable career before working out of Comedy Central World News Headquarters.
Long before The Daily Show became a household name, however, Stewart was the irreverent chain-smoking host of one of Young America’s most popular talk shows. Here’s a look at the history of the oft-forgotten gem.
How it started:
Despite several years grinding out his routine in the New York comedy club scene, Stewart’s time on the stand-up circuit was relatively quick. He became a popular figure in the comedy world, and TV networks started picking him up.
From about 1990 to 1993, Stewart co-hosted comedy clip show Short Attention Span Theater on The Comedy Channel. From 1992 to 1993, Stewart also hosted MTV’s You Wrote It, You Watch It, where comedy troupe The State acted out stories and scenarios viewers submitted. While it wasn’t too bad a show (The State have uploaded many of the sketches to their Vimeo page, so you can be the judge) it had awful viewership and was cancelled after one season. Stewart later quipped, “you wrote it, you just didn’t watch it!” After Letterman bolted from NBC in 1993, Stewart auditioned for the vacant desk on Late Night but lost out to Conan O’Brien.
Not long after, MTV offered Stewart his own talk show, and the first episode of The Jon Stewart Show was broadcast on October 25th, 1993.
What it was like:
This demo reel is probably the best way to get a sense of the show. Supposedly it was made to show guests that it was safe to come on the show:
1994 was a weird year. At 1:05 you can see one of the most famous moments of the series: Stewart sitting in Shatner’s lap.
There was no house band. The sidekick/announcer was one Howard Feller, who looked like a combination of a Costanza and an Addams, who was the butt of many a joke, as shown here:
The show was notoriously low budget, but they used that to their advantage by having fun with it. The set was full of unorthodox pieces of furniture. The desk was originally a Nok Hockey table, and I’ll let you stop reading for a second so you can add that to your “future apartment furniture” Pinterest board. Land Rover car seats served as the interview couch.
Staff writers included noted comedians Dave Attell (marking this article the first time you’ve thought about him since 2006) and Brian Posehn. Coincidentally, future co-creator of The Daily Show Lizz Winstead was one of the producers.
Eschewing the late night talk show tradition of “being awful at first before finding its voice,” The Jon Stewart Show was an instant hit. At its peak, it was the second highest rated show on MTV, right behind Beavis & Butthead.
The show was noted for its high energy, fast pace, and unpredictability. Whether it was eighty-year-old cheerleaders, a stilt-walking Elvis impersonator coming on set to change a light bulb, or an interview with a three-year-old who loves toothpaste, viewers never quite knew what to expect in the best possible way. The show also made a name for itself as a comfortable environment for guests. Interviews were casual, and many guests praised the atmosphere.
One of the hallmarks of the show was the excellent musical guests, one of the benefits of being on MTV. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Sunny Day Real Estate, Guided By Voices, Warren Zevon, and Deadshirt’s recommended dessert metal Slayer all performed on The Jon Stewart Show. Crash Test Dummies even performed that song “Weird Al” parodied. You know the one.
There’s two in particular that are worth highlighting First, a rare TV appearance for The Notorious B.I.G.:
Second, and probably the most notorious performance the show ever had, is Marilyn Manson. The band wrecked the stage, and Marilyn himself rode off the stage on Stewart’s back.
Critical reception during its entire run was sparkling. People Magazine gave it an A. Entertainment Weekly called it “the loosest, hippest talk show since the early days of Late Night with David Letterman.” The Jon Stewart Show launched around the same time as Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and comparisons were common. Conan’s first few years were notoriously rough, which gave a bit of a critical edge to Stewart. A mere month after the show launched, the New York Times said that Stewart “may displace Conan O’Brien as television’s coolest young host.”
In the spring of 1994, Arsenio Hall quit his syndicated talk show, and Paramount started looking for a host to take his place. As it just so happened, the company had started merging with Viacom, MTV’s parent company. Paramount used this opportunity to syndicate The Jon Stewart Show and bring the hip MTV show to a wider audience. There were some minor changes–the show expanded from half an hour to a full hour, and the guests were a little more mainstream–but the show was for the most part the same. At least 19 of the 20 biggest national markets bought The Jon Stewart Show and about 90% of the country had access to his show.
Notable moments included:
– This interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic, which is decidedly… weird, and has a solid dig at Prince. The audience was NOT ready for the knife bit. (This marks Al’s second appearance in the Talk Show Graveyard. One more and he becomes our inaugural Guest Hall of Famer.)
– This interview with child actress Natalie Portman and her puppy. I could describe what happens in this clip, orrrr I could remind you that it’s baby Natalie Portman with a puppy.
– In the middle of the national obsession with the OJ Simpson murder case, Stewart had a sketch where he made the whole case a reworked version of Clue.
– Kelsey Grammer showed up for an interview in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. He then faced Stewart in a game of foosball, which Stewart won 3-0.
– This interview with Quentin Tarantino. He was on the show promoting Pulp Fiction, and this interview perfectly captures his essence and offers some fascinating insight into his writing. The aforementioned eighty-year-old cheerleaders are briefly shown in the background. Tarantino was a big fan of the show, saying “I’ve been doing other talk shows in the past few days and I said this is the one where I have fun. These are my people.”
– This sketch of Stewart entering a Cronenbergian hallucination after licking a toad. It’s the weirdest thing you’ll see today.
– Baseball player Bobby Bonilla did a stand-up routine. If his name sounds familiar, he’s the guy the New York Mets are paying $1.19 million each year until 2035 despite the fact that he hasn’t played professionally since 2001. Now THAT is funny.
– During Banned Book Week, Iggy Pop read passages from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Stewart once listed this as his show’s “top-dog moment overall” and called it “insane.”
– A guest brought trained condors onto the show. One of the condors flew into the crowd and bit an audience member’s back. Stewart was pissed. (I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to see a video of ANYTHING as much as this, and that includes The Day The Clown Cried.)
Why it ended:
Low ratings and the economics of syndication.
The show received little publicity when it went to syndication. While Stewart had carved out a nice niche for himself, his brand wasn’t strong enough to support the jump to a wider market. As such, the show’s quiet launch into syndication started with low ratings and never got much better despite the critical acclaim. Word of mouth and critical notice can only take you so far, which is doubly true for 1995, before fans could organize online campaigns for #sixseasonsandamovie.
The final episode featured an interview with David Letterman. As luck would have it, the entirety of that episode is available online.
All things considered, Stewart seems to have handled the cancellation well. Years later, he indicated previous failures, such as not getting the Late Night spot, made the ending of his show easier to accept:
The disasters build a sort of odd Diacid feeling. When my syndicated show got cancelled, the next day I still knew how to write jokes. That was a huge revelation. Because at first you think, “I won’t have any shelter! What am I gonna do? The sun is hot. Very thirsty.”
Even though his show was gone, Stewart’s stock in showbusiness was higher than ever. Four months after getting cancelled, Stewart signed a three year movie deal with Miramax Films.
Even with the movie deal in place, the TV industry wasn’t done with him. NBC openly showed interest in him )perhaps as a replacement for Later host Greg Kinnear, who was starting to make his way in Hollywood) before signing with Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants in June, 1996. Worldwide Pants and CBS planned to develop a variety of projects for Stewart and opened up the possibility of his own talk show at 1:35 AM. Speculation immediately run rampant that Stewart was signed to replace Tom Snyder on The Late Late Show at 12:35 AM upon his retirement, which CBS took every opportunity they could to shoot down.
A few months later, Stewart became a regular sub for Snyder, but was too busy making films to commit to a talk show. (See him conduct a solid interview with Ben Stiller here.) Rumors that he would replace Snyder were intensified when Letterman let slip that he wasn’t too pleased with Snyder’s performance, but as the months went by not much came of the deal. While Stewart and Worldwide Pants were still on solid ground, little to no programming had been made for him. Stewart had a budding film career and was still deciding on what direction he wanted his career to go. The option for the 1:35AM show was still open, but Stewart seemed to have no interest in the timeslot. He would later admit that he didn’t want to push anyone out of their timeslot.
Around this time, Stewart became a regular on The Larry Sanders Show, playing a version of himself who frequently threatened to replace Larry. This led to some actual real life rumors that Stewart was going to take over the show, but he dismissed them.
In 1998, Stewart released his book Naked Pictures of Famous People. It’s an anthology of short stories and essays, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s writing. It’s worth your time.
Stewart’s break came in 1998: Worldwide Pants selected Daily Show host Craig Kilborn to replace Snyder. Kilborn was itching to jump ship, but Comedy Central held him to his then-current contract until a replacement was found. Comedy Central, already familiar with his work, decided to make Stewart that replacement. Everything worked out–Kilborn got out and hosted the Late Late Show until 2004, Stewart got back on TV without pushing anyone else out, and Comedy Central had its host. Kilborn left the Daily Show in December 1998, and Stewart got started at his most famous job in January 1999.
As tempting as it is to slap an “and the rest is history” onto this, Stewart’s history with network talk shows isn’t quite done. Stewart hated The Daily Show‘s work environment for his first few years on the job. He describes the people he worked with at the time as “assholes” and was “talked down from a modestly high cliff” from quitting. Stephen Colbert, a holdover from the Kilborn era, acknowledged the early atmosphere was toxic.
In 2002, ABC was looking to develop a new late night program after nuking Politically Incorrect, possibly even to replace Ted Koppel and Nightline. They came close to wooing David Letterman over, which led to a few rumors of Stewart taking his place if it came to that, before Letterman re-signed with CBS. Koppel stayed on air, but ABC decided to create a talk show for the midnight slot. Stewart was the top candidate and expressed strong interest in the slot, but it was ultimately given to Jimmy Kimmel.
Things eventually worked out for Stewart. Not long after getting rejected by ABC, the “natural winnowing process” left him with a fully supportive staff. A few Indecisions later, he’s now such a fixture on TV that he’s capable of headlining a rally in DC. (Fun fact: I attended the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear. It was crowded.) Three of his former disciples either have their own show or are getting one.