Examining Jon Stewart’s Humble Late Night Beginnings

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

In terms of modern poltical satire, there’s no better source than the double-punch of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. From their recent skewereing of the SuperPAC system through creating their own to their massive Washington DC Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, over the years The Daily Show and its spin-off, have had deep impacts on the modern popular culture. But where did it begin? Let’s take a look an episode of the prequel to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: The Jon Stewart Show.

In 1992, MTV was in that transitional period that everyone likes to complain about, in which the 24-hour music video channel was beginning to introduce non-music video programming. First among these were The Real World, Liquid Telelvision, and then a little thing called You Wrote It, You Watch It , hosted by a young standup named Jon Stewart, in which sketch ideas submitted by viewers were acted out by members of The State. It was canceled after one season, but the following year, in 1993, The Jon Stewart Show premiered as a nightly talk show and became the network’s second highest rated program, right behind Beavis and Butt-Head.

Meanwhile, late night on the networks was exploding. Letterman left NBC and went to CBS, at the same time that Arsenio Hall’s very popular syndicated show was canceled by its distributor, Paramount Television. And, since Paramount and MTV were all part of the same corporate family, The Jon Stewart Show was moved from deep cable to nationwide syndication. According to the recently published oral history, I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, this was a frequent problem at the network during this time. According to Beth McCarthy, a producer, “MTV had a problem holding on to talent. They’d discover Ben Stiller and Jon Stewart, but couldn’t do talent-holding deals, because the budgets were so small, and talent would eventually leave.”

The Paley Center has a few episodes from the syndicated version of The Jon Stewart Show in their archives and I decided to go with the February 24, 1995 episode, which just so happened to be the show’s 100th. It is, of course, jarring to see the young, black-haired Stewart enter, wearing a leather jacket, but once he begins speaking, it’s clear that it’s the same Jon. “That’s very nice! Folks, thank you very much!” There is, however, some nervousness and a little bit of awkwardness as he tells his Urkel and Phil Collins jokes, but underneath, that same wry sense of humor is still clear.

When Jon announces that tonight is the 100th show, balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling, as will happen several times throughout the show, and he is greeted by “the mayor” (probably a writer in a top hat and sash that reads “mayor”) who presents him with a plaque and cardboard key to the city, before escorting Jon to a parade in his honor (a car in front of a bluescreen). As Jon and the mayor wave to the crowd a few people from the city approach the car. Dave Attell enters with a fake child on his shoulders, says he’s a huge fan, and then falls down, smashing his son on to the hood of the car. A young Brian Posehn, playing a pothead in tie dye enters and gives weed to Jon. This turns into a battle between Stewart and a group of Shriners. It ends in more confetti and balloons and we go to commercial.

Jon Stewart’s guests on the show either a) do not stand up against the test of time, or b) demonstrate how tough it could be to get guests as a syndicated TV talk show, but I’ll let you be the judge. From Wings, Steven Weber, from the upcoming Fox TV Movie, “Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story,” Patsy Kensit, music from Helmet, and from NBC’s sci-fi drama Earth 2, Rebecca Gayhardt. (Trick question! It’s both “a” and “b!”) Jon shows his relaxed interviewing style that he continues on the Daily Show today; he’s friendly and quick on his feet, charming throughout, and he did that thing where he shows a clip and reacts to it with a pithy phrase like “that’s scary” before bringing the guest out that he still does. However, as you might imagine based on the lineup, the modern viewer isn’t going to watch this show for the guests.

Between Steven Weber and the rest of the guests, Jon introduces a recurring segment on the show that was done most Fridays called “Talk Show Jon,” in which an action figure version of Stewart goes on some sort of adventure with the help of hands hidden below camera and the occasional wire. In this episode, President Clinton (portrayed by Mr. Potato Head) calls Talk Show Jon and sends him to rescue GI Joe and a doll of Saved by the Bell’s Screech from the Middle Eastern country of “Klafjstan.” As soon as the action moves to this fictional country, we are greeted by three Arab stereotypes who would not be out of place in the Trey Stone/Matt Parker movie Team America, and speak in subtitled phrases like “I will kill him! I am a demon!” Talk Show Jon saves Screech and GI Joe after the stereotypes shoot down Aladdin on his magic carpet. After the “episode,” Aladdin and Talk Show Jon do a public-service announcement regarding Arab/American relationships in which Jon informs us that “radical demons like Saddam Hussein will get their ass kicked every time.”

Okay, so, yeah. It was a different climate in 1995. It’s just a few years after the first Gulf War and obviously pre-9/11. And it’s important to point out that these are action figures doing and saying this stuff, so clearly it’s all a satire of the jingoistic GI Joe cartoons of the day, but still, it is very jarring to hear The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart speak so fervently about kicking Hussein’s ass, or to appear in the midst of gibberish spouting toys from a “blank-istan” country. There’s no question that the years that would follow would harden Stewart’s worldview and perhaps give him the character that would encourage him to think twice about such a bit. Also, he got rid of the leather jacket.

And now, in closing, I’d like to leave you with this: Steven Weber tells a story about doing a nude scene. Have a great weekend!

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Examining Jon Stewart’s Humble Late Night Beginnings