Guests: Ethan Hawke, Jennie Garth, Public Enemy.
Former MTV talkshow host Jon Stewart moves onto broadcast airwaves with a relatively smart, witty program produced and distributed by Paramount in hopes of capturing at least some of Arsenio Hall’s old audience. Based on the first two episodes, show’s a potential winner that’s hampered in some markets (including L.A.) by a deadly timeslot. David Letterman doesn’t need to worry; Jay Leno might.
Dressed in his usual uniform of T-shirt and jeans (sweat shirt on Tuesday), and working on a set that looks like the officer’s lounge on the “Alien” spaceship, Stewart otherwise followed talkshow conventions, opening with a monologue, making small talk with celeb guests, and occasionally chatting with announcer/sidekick Howard Feller.
Feller, a holdover from Stewart’s MTV half-hour, is so loose he makes Conan O’Brien’s sidekick, Andy Richter, look like a prig; if “Seinfeld’s” Kramer got a talkshow gig, this is what it would look like. There’s no band other than any musical guests; theme, bumpers and other music is prerecorded.
Prefab talkshow bits worked well, for instance Stewart’s suggestion for an early Suzanne Somers show topic: “Guys who live with two women but pretend they’re gay to fool the landlord.” Another seg featured sound f/x added to spice up C-Span, including funny shot of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) mouthing to Peggy Lee’s recording of “Fever.”
Stewart aims for narrower demographic than his competition does, and — unlike virtually any other nighttime (or soon-to-be nighttime) talkshow host, he evidently reads his producers’ pre-interviews and, as with rap group Public Enemy, acts as though he’s familiar with their work.
He had trouble pulling anything coherent out of Ethan Hawke, ostensibly plugging his New York-based Malaparte theater troupe without telling much about it; even where it’s located.
Jennie Garth, of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” proved somewhat more eloquent, though intellectual level of show didn’t approach some of Dennis Miller’s old series or Conan O’Brien’s author segs.
Tuesday night’s show featured Jean-Claude Van Damme plugging his new pic, comparatively witty and articulate Laura San Giacomo, and performance by Mount Rushmore, personified by Johnny Cash.
Stewart handled the interviews well enough but — like O’Brien — gives the impression that he’s a lot smarter than he lets on.
If nothing else, it confirmed a prime axiom of TV comedy: if a pretaped bit doesn’t go anywhere, don’t use it. With luck, Stewart and his staff will quickly learn and profit from such rules.