Jon Stewart

Not your ordinary Jewish funny man (okay, maybe he is).

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There is a voice that Jon Stewart trots out on certain occasions. High-pitched, wheedling, and nebbishy, it immediately summons to mind legions of nerdy young men wearing glasses. It is less an original impression and more an homage to every contemporary Jewish comedian's hero, rival, and guiding star, Woody Allen, the comic genius who shucked his last name while retaining his famously conflicted stance toward Judaism.

Like Allen (born Allen Konigsberg) Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz transformed himself into the more gentile sounding Jon Stewart without actually becoming any less Jewish in affect or sentiment.
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Any comedian with a Jewish last name (or the remnants of one), and a literate, bookish shtick, will inevitably face the Woody comparisons. Jon Stewart's Woody voice is a small, telling indication of his willingness to not only attack those comparisons head-on, but make it a part of his own persona. The same could be said of Stewart's relationship to Judaism as a whole.

In many ways, Jon Stewart is only nominally a Jewish comedian. His enormously popular Comedy Central series, The Daily Show, is a comedic take on current events and public affairs--a sort of alternative front page for an audience who prefers Stewart to the New York Times.

Stewart rocketed to fame during the lowest years of the Bush administration, when liberal wrath at the excesses and incompetency of Republican leadership propelled The Daily Show's brand of snarky outrage into cultural ubiquity.

The Road to The Daily Show

Born in 1962 to a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey (his father was a physicist, and his mother a teacher), Stewart has served longer in the trenches of comedy than many Daily Show enthusiasts might be aware. Debuting as a standup comedian shortly after graduating from William & Mary in 1984, Stewart scuffled through various low-profile gigs before becoming a featured presence on MTV in the early 1990s. Graduating from writing sketches to hosting his own show, Stewart took the reins of his pleasingly lackadaisical talk show--named, conveniently enough, The Jon Stewart Show--in 1993, with B-list celebrity guests like John Stamos sharing time with the comedian's off-kilter musings.
jon stewart
The MTV series was a cable hit, eventually making the leap to syndication, where it was forced into competition with the big boys of late night. Stewart's show flopped in its new time slot and was canceled in 1995. Following his show's cancellation, Stewart filled his time with mostly forgettable roles in movies like Half Baked, Playing for Keeps, and The First Wives Club (from which his scenes were ultimately deleted).

Meanwhile, Comedy Central had debuted a new program of its own called "The Daily Show" in 1996. Hosted by former SportsCenter anchor Craig Kilborn, it was meant to be a snarky news roundup with an emphasis on entertainment reporting. The show was popular, and when Kilborn took a job hosting CBS' Late Late Show in 1999, Stewart was hired as his replacement. Under Stewart's guardianship, The Daily Show brought in a remarkably gifted group of correspondents (including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, and Ed Helms), and shifted the focus from popular culture to politics.

The timing was ideal; with the contested 2000 election, the September 11 attacks, and the war in Iraq just around the corner. The Daily Show would tap into a growing public desire to stay abreast of current events without being bored stiff by the nightly news. The Daily Show not only has come to fill in it viewers in on the news, but also offer its own deliciously witty, rip-roaring take on the day's events, often leaning on cleverly culled video footage to poke holes in the well-maintained façade of public discourse.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.