Jon Stewart is a much shorter and more nervous version of Craig Kilborn, which is to say he's hardly Craig Kilborn at all. Whether this will matter once Stewart takes over for Kilborn hosting Comedy Central's satirical "The Daily Show" on Jan. 11 is uncertain. For now, Stewart jokes, all he knows is that "a team of expatriate Russian engineers from the breakdown of Chechnya" have installed a booster seat on Kilborn's chair, and a tailor is busy hemming Kilborn's suits to fit a much smaller man.
"It is Comedy Central," he says. "It's not like they go out and get a whole new wardrobe for God's sake."
Since it debuted in the summer of 1996, "The Daily Show," which airs weeknights, has become a welcome antidote to the rise in self-important TV newsmagazines, blustering pundits and celebrity-worship programming. Regular "Daily Show" segments include parodies of the day's headlines, parodies of newsmagazine exposes, parodies of soft-focus Barbara Walters specials. It's a show for media-saturated people such as executive producer Madeleine Smithberg, who at home likes to play a game with her husband called "MSNBC roulette," built around the theory that any time you turn on MSNBC the name Monica Lewinsky will appear on the screen within four seconds.
Kilborn -- with his frat-boy good looks and self-parodying smirk -- was an appropriately arrogant comedy pitchman for the show, in which digs at newsmakers can at times feel punitive.
Stewart doesn't have the same mean bones in his body. He's a stand-up comedian from New Jersey whose act has always been marked by literate, self-deprecating swipes at his own Jewishness, for one. He dresses in black, and his comic hero is Woody Allen. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, the 35-year-old Stewart sat on a patio at the Four Seasons Hotel in West Hollywood, drinking a Coke and progressing through a pack of cigarettes. It was an overcast day, which made sense -- Stewart has a way of obscuring his good looks with a perennially darkened expression.
"It won't be the same show. Some people will like it less," he says of taking over Kilborn's post. But a change in host won't entail a change in content, Stewart says. True, correspondents A. Whitney Brown and Brian Unger are leaving, but Beth Littleford and Stephen Colbert are staying and, more important, so are the writers -- the ones who truly drive the show's point of view.
"That show existed before (Kilborn) did. He came on to host it, now I'm coming on to host it. If I wasn't doing it, someone else would be doing it. I'm a cog in a machine, and hopefully, because of the writing, I'll be able to help evolve the creative part of it."
It's fitting that Stewart should be taking over an existing entity, because he's practically made a career out of almost hosting other people's talk shows. After two efforts of his own, first for MTV and then a syndicated show from Paramount, Stewart was in the running for the "Late Night" spot on NBC that went to Conan O'Brien, balked at NBC's "Later" slot at 1:30 a.m., and then signed a deal with David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, to host a 1:30 show following Tom Snyder. That deal expired with no show, and then Kilborn announced in August that he was leaving "The Daily Show" to take Snyder's CBS slot at 12:30, which he'll turn into a comedy-variety hour (Kilborn's last "Daily Show" was Dec. 18; Comedy Central is airing reruns until Stewart's debut in January).
Stewart insists hosting "The Daily Show," for which he will be paid $1.5 million a year, is no booby prize. True, it's cable. True, the audience is relatively minuscule, and he wasn't happy to learn that network chief Doug Herzog, with whom Stewart worked at MTV, was stepping down to take over as president of Fox Entertainment.
"Having Doug leave was a blow," he said. "That's a guy I've known for years. He was one of the reasons that I felt comfortable going (to Comedy Central)."
But Stewart says "The Daily Show" will leave him freer to pursue other facets of his career. This year he published a book, "Naked Pictures of Famous People," that's more than just punch lines with chapter titles. They're closer to humorous essays.
There's also Stewart's burgeoning film career, which includes a co-starring role with Gillian Anderson and Gena Rowlands in "Playing by Heart," scheduled to be released Jan. 22. Stewart also just finished shooting "Big Daddy," Adam Sandler's next vehicle.
Meanwhile, "Daily Show" executive producer Smithberg doesn't think fans of the show will suddenly lose interest once Stewart takes over.
"Our show has this thing where if people see it three times in a row, they either hate it or they become addicted," she says.
Smithberg was part of the original creative team that created "The Daily Show" to fill the political-humor void Comedy Central faced when Bill Maher took "Politically Incorrect" to ABC.
Today, with the saturation coverage of the Clinton impeachment hearings in full flower while sober newscasters such as Ted Koppel find themselves intoning the words "oral sex," "The Daily Show" is more therapeutic than ever.
"During that whole scandal, I would love to have talked to another White House intern," Stewart says of how he would have handled the Clinton-Lewinsky event. "Or, when the dress came out, perhaps a dry cleaner. Somebody to give us some insight into what could she have done other than save it in a plastic bag to make that dress usable again."