ON THE SCENE week of 02/23/06


This just in – Jon Stewart wins Oscar as best comic actor!

Nah, not true; just some fake news about a fake newsman.

What is true is that the host of Comedy Central's acclaimed "The Daily Show" will be spending his Sunday night trying to burnish the Oscar broadcast with those broadsides he's brought to the public arena.

Bring it on, Jonny boy! Whoever said the age of irony was over after Sept. 11 was selling Stewart short.

Well, he is 5 foot 7. But in Hollywood terms, he's at the height of his career – collecting awards with such ease it's as if they were quarters falling out of Uncle Jake's pockets after he drank too much Manischewitz at the family seder.

Just try playing four questions with the former Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz; it turns into 21.

As he prepares to fill the shoes of former famous Oscar broadcast hosts – well, maybe in David Letterman's case, sneakers – everyone's favorite Jewish imp improvises once more. The Jewish leprechaun who specializes in all the news that's fit to prick is going reel.

Sure, taking over hosting chores is important – that's one big matzah ball hanging out if he doesn't do well – but the Lawrenceville, N.J., native son knows from pressure. Hey, he is want to tell you, as the only Jewish kid in a town where his surname was declaimed and spat out with surliness by bullies who badgered him trying to tarnish his Star of David … now that's pressure.

But, then again, he said of being harassed by Jew-haters, maybe it was because he was so short.

The author of America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy in Action and the one man who acted on bow-tie fans' fantasies everywhere by twisting Tucker Carlson's into a knot, Stewart and his stewardship of the Academy Awards ship is much anticipated.

He may be host of the Oscars, but movie mania doesn't manifest itself much in the Stewart house, which includes his wife and two kids – the latest member born just weeks before he delivers the Oscars.

"It's a big night," he says, "and anyone who's seen my career knows I should not be here."

A Life of Goals

Is the star of "Half Baked" – Mr. Hot Potato himself – talking Oscar-night? Kick that one to the side for now; he's talking … soccer?

Indeed, here is Stewart being named honorary All-American at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, meeting in Center City, where scores of soccer stars talk about goals past and future.

For someone known for putting his foot in not his but others' mouths, Stewart would seem an oddball choice. But, no; he played for William and Mary College's team from 1981 to 1983, and kicked the solitary goal in the school's championship ECAC title game against Connecticut in his last year.

Soccer as succor in a sucky world?

"I was the George Bush of the soccer world," he says, intending that not as a compliment, but as a self-dig for not being able to find the weapons of mass destruction that he needed to turn pro.

"I am honored to be recognized as one of the all-time great Jewish soccer players."

It is a foot fete that would have been hard to predict. After all, if Stewart were to go into the family business, he would have been a physicist like his long-estranged father (who left the family 35 years ago) or teacher, like his much-adored mother, an educational specialist who raised the son who would one day raise the roof of clubs and the humor bar of TV comedy.

Maybe he has the field to himself as a soccer Star of David. But Jews do have advantages in this game, he says, sporting that sense of self-deprecation that he wears as a smirk passing off as a smile. "It is a sport that can be played by people of squat stature," he says. "Luckily, our people are conveniently sized."

Sizing up his sportsmanlike conduct, Stewart says there's no news like good Jews on the soccer field. How mediocre was this new honorary All-American? "My college coach was also the coach for the Maccabees – and I still didn't make the team."

But he did make it to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where Stewart's college team played ball. Field of dreams? Field of cement! "My basement was a better field than Veterans Stadium," he recalls.

Luckily, he toes the line these days on TV – well, actually, he doesn't toe the line as much as kick the stuffing out of overstuffed Washington and, yes, Hollywood. So why was Stewart chosen to anoint – and maybe annoy – the chosen people of Hollywood this Sunday night on ABC? It must be his own stellar movie career. "My film work," he deadpans of "Death to Smoochy," "speaks for itself."

That's not saying much, he agrees (and maybe that's why his latest film role in the animated "Doogal" only requires his voice). But then, Stewart does most of his talking on "The Daily Show," where he's the class act of iconoclasts, as well as numerous TV appearances (the "Daily" star is a favorite of the "Today Show" gang).

He is far from speech-impaired; indeed, one speech he gave at his alma mater two years ago is still the talk of the town. Receiving an honorary doctorate from William and Mary, Stewart gave the school and himself the third degree: "As a person I am honored to get it," he said of the doctorate. "As an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better."

No one bests him at humor, wit and honest takes on topics. Just ask CNN's Carlson – who got sniped at infamously by Stewart in 2004 – caught in the cross-hairs of "Cross Fire," in which Stewart slimed the neoconservative with a liberal attack on his credentials. Shortly after Stewart attacked Carlson and co-host Paul Begala as "partisan hacks," CNN chopped the long-running show from its schedule.

Cause and effect? Effectively, Stewart's skewering didn't help its cause for renewal.

But will Oscar get a sense of renewal from a shot in the arm by the 43-year-old Stewart? The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences knows from experience that hosting is not down to a science. But, more than anything, maybe what they need is what Stewart can provide – the talents of a self-taught "tummler," as he calls himself.

While his Comedy Central show is sort of an arch bunker, a fearless fortress where sarcasm sears the air and hypocrisy is hooted down as anti-hip, Stewart knows that his Oscar audience – due to outnumber his "Daily" crowd by mega-millions – wants him to walk a finer line as he talks about "Walk the Line."

Not that he's going to be a choir boy, synagoguely speaking, of course. One can only imagine what he'll have to say about Hollywood's 2005 theme song of "Homoeroticism on the Range." Will this caustic cowboy have to have his mouth washed out with saddle soap? As Stewart recently revealed riffing on the clash of "Crash" and "Munich" in best picture category: "I've always said, if I can't make fun of the Holocaust, at least I can make fun of the Olympic massacre."

If he kills on stage, he'll be added to the pantheon of punchliners that includes Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal; fail, and feel the specter of Letterman lingering above him.

But the one-time psychology major knows how to psych an audience. And he knows when putting himself down is the best way to up the ante.

At the podium, will Stewart be a stranger in a strange place? Wouldn't be the first time. As he said when accepting his doctorate: "I came to William and Mary because as a Jewish person, I wanted to explore the rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia. Imagine my surprise when I realized 'The Tribe' " – the school's mascot – "was not what I thought it meant."

The tribe has spoken, but not before Stewart makes his own prediction for this year's best picture. "My choice is … 'Marty,' " he exclaims with confidence if not characteristic smugness.

But, uh, Jon, "Marty" won for best picture in 1955.

"Well," he says with nary a sense of being nonplussed, "I just saw it."



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