The Jon Stewart Show Debuted 20 Years Ago Tonight

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Twenty years ago this evening, late-night viewers of MTV caught a glimpse of the future of talk television when The Jon Stewart Show—a frenetically paced mash-up of celebrity chats, musical performances, and comedy sketches—made its debut. Stewart, then just 30 years old, was a mostly unknown face at the time. But his reputation on the standup comedy circuit caught the attention of MTV executives, who were looking to make their first foray into late-night television terrain.

In honor of the show's 20th anniversary, here are 12 facts about the show and its legacy.

1. STEWART WAS CONSIDERED AS A REPLACEMENT FOR LETTERMAN

When David Letterman announced he would be moving his show from NBC to CBS in 1993, Stewart was actually a contender to replace the late-night great. The gig, of course, famously went to Conan O’Brien and Stewart instead launched The Jon Stewart Show.

2. THE SHOW WAS AN INSTANT HIT ON MTV

The Jon Stewart Show quickly became one of the most-watched programs on MTV, second only to Beavis and Butt-Head in the channel’s ratings. Courteney Cox, Conan O’Brien, Alicia Silverstone, David Blaine, and Quentin Tarantino were among of the show’s celebrity guests.

“Letterman's got a show he's doing, whereas this is much more casual,” Tarantino told a reporter for Entertainment Weekly in 1994, when he appeared on The Jon Stewart Show just one night after doing Letterman. “This wasn't like doing a talk show. It was like we were just bulls---ting." (During the interview, Stewart had asked Tarantino whether he got his acting role in Pulp Fiction by sleeping with the director.)

3. STEWART'S DREAM GUEST: HELENA BONHAM CARTER

In a 1994 interview with People, Stewart confessed his desire to have actress Helena Bonham Carter appear on the show. “She’s adorable,” he said. “I’m waiting for her to get fed up with this whole English accent thing and come home to Papa.”

4. THE SHOW MADE A HABIT OF INTRODUCING HOT MUSICAL GUESTS

When Stewart described the show to USA Today as “Just an odd show with really cool music,” he wasn’t kidding. Being on MTV, music was a given. But Stewart helped to give a more mainstream platform to dozens of musicians who never would’ve made the cut on a network late-night show.
Among his menagerie of guests were Blind Melon, Slayer, Warren Zevon, Buffalo Tom, Naughty by Nature, White Zombie, Faith No More, Notorious B.I.G., and Marilyn Manson (who famously ended his set by trashing the musical stage and getting a piggyback ride from Stewart).

5. THE SHOW WAS REVAMPED AS A SUCCESSOR TO THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW

Based on its popularity with MTV audiences, at the end of its first season The Jon Stewart Show was revamped by parent company Paramount to replace Arsenio, whose show had been cancelled in May of 1994. The show was extended from 30 minutes to an hour and put into syndication. A poster of Arsenio hung on the wall of Stewart’s office at the time, with a word bubble that read: “Good Luck, Motherf---er.”

6. STEWART DID NOT WANT TO MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT THE SHOW’S ARRIVAL

Not a lot of publicity was given to Stewart’s move from MTV to syndication, and that was by Stewart’s design. “Some people here wanted to do a big press conference and make some announcement,” Stewart told the Sun Sentinel in 1994. “And I said ‘Why? Are we invading someone?’ I didn’t think fanfare was appropriate.”

7. STEWART’S LIFE IN SYNDICATION DID NOT LAST LONG

Stewart quickly learned that success on MTV does not necessarily translate to success with the masses. The Jon Stewart Show was cancelled in 1995.

The show’s failure was not a complete surprise to Stewart, who shared his mixed feelings about the move to syndication with the Chicago Tribune. “There are going to be people in the audience who are 20 years old that think it sucks and don't get it or don't like it. And there are going to be people who are 50 and do,” he said. “I had to make peace with the fact that if this works, great, and if it doesn't, you have to be OK with that, too. You can't go into it thinking, ‘If I do this and they take this away, what's going to happen to me?' You have to know that you can always open an ice-cream store.”

8. STEWART ANNOUNCED THE SHOW’S CANCELLATION ON LETTERMAN

Stewart used an appearance on The Late Show on June 7, 1995, to announce that his own show had been cancelled.

9. LETTERMAN RETURNED THE FAVOR BY APPEARING ON STEWART’S FINAL SHOW

Two weeks later, Letterman was sitting on Stewart’s couch as a guest on the final episode, which aired June 23, 1995. Buffalo Tom provided the musical sendoff. Guests were served margaritas and given taxi rides home.

10. RUMORS ABOUNDED THAT STEWART WOULD BE HIRED BY ABC OR FOX

But the rumors turned out to be just that. The Larry Sanders Show poked fun at this common talk show scenario by casting Stewart—as himself—as a possible replacement to the series’ fictional host (played by Garry Shandling).

11. THE SHOW’S WRITERS AND DIRECTOR WENT ON TO DO GREAT THINGS

The Jon Stewart Show’s cancellation was only the beginning for many of the talented writers and directors behind the scenes: director Beth McCarthy-Miller has gone on to receive eight Emmy nominations for her work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Writers Chris Albers and Janine Di Tullio were quickly hired by Conan O’Brien, and Brian Hartt went to Jay Leno. Dennis McNicholas, Andrew Stelle, and Steve Higgins (also Jimmy Fallon’s announcer) went to Saturday Night Live. Tom Hertz, Alan Higgins, Josh Lieb, and Cliff Schoenberg moved into sitcoms and film. Brian Posehn, one of the Comedians of Comedy, and Dave Attell, host of Insomniac for Comedy Central, stepped in front of the camera.

12. STEWART HASN’T MADE OUT TOO BADLY EITHER

In 1999, you might recall, Stewart took over hosting duties on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn. The now-married father of two—who took a 12-week hiatus from the show this summer to direct his first movie, Rosewater, starring Gael García Bernal—is also a bestselling author, producer and occasional actor. He's hosted the Grammys and the Oscars and won a total of 19 Emmys. Not bad for the guy who once caused a scene by sitting on Captain Kirk’s lap.

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October 25, 2013 - 8:50pm
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