On October 25, 1993, late-night viewers watching 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, who was then just 30 years old, was a mostly unknown face at the time. But his reputation on the standup comedy circuit had caught the attention of MTV executives, who were looking to make their first foray into late-night programming.
Though it was canceled in 1995, Stewart’s unique abilities did not go unnoticed by the television world at large. From 1996 to 1998, Stewart—playing an exaggerated version of himself—was the guy being eyed as the next host of The Larry Sanders Show, HBO’s brilliant parody of the late-night talk show world. Perhaps it was prophetic, as Stewart did indeed land a real talk show of his own a year later when he took over hosting duties of The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in early 1999, and stuck around until 2015.
Now, Stewart is back as the host of The Daily Show—sort of. In late January, it was announced that Stewart would be returning to his old seat behind the desk on Comedy Central on Monday nights only. While fans await his return, we’re looking back at the MTV series that gave birth to a late-night icon.
1. Jon Stewart was being considered to replace David Letterman on NBC.
When David Letterman announced he would be moving his show from NBC to CBS in 1993, Stewart was a top contender to replace the late-night great. Ultimately, the gig went to Conan O’Brien and Stewart instead launched The Jon Stewart Show.
2. The Jon Stewart Show was an instant hit for 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 the show’s celebrity guests.
“Letterman’s got a show he's doing, whereas this is much more casual,” Tarantino told 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 bullshitting.” (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 for the show was 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 curated an amazing list of “really cool” 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 stage and getting a piggyback ride from Stewart).
5. The show was revamped as a successor to The Arsenio Hall Show.
At the end of its first season, based on its popularity with MTV audiences, The Jon Stewart Show was revamped by parent company Paramount to replace the late-night spot previously occupied by Arsenio Hall, who stepped down in May 1994. So Stewart’s 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, Motherfucker.”
6. Stewart did not want to make a big deal about the show’s move to syndication.
Though the move to syndication meant a much much larger audience for the show, the decision did not get a lot of publicity—and that was Stewart’s decision. “Some people here wanted to do a big press conference and make some announcement,” Stewart said in 1994. “And I said ‘Why? Are we invading someone?’ I didn’t think fanfare was appropriate.”
7. The show’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 canceled in 1995.
The show’s failure on that larger scale 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 his cancellation to David Letterman.
Stewart used an appearance on The Late Show on June 7, 1995 to announce that his own show had been canceled.
9. Letterman returned the favor by appearing on the final episode of The Jon Stewart Show.
Two weeks later, Letterman was sitting on Stewart’s couch as a guest on the final episode, which aired on June 23, 1995. Buffalo Tom provided the musical sendoff. Guests were served margaritas and given taxi rides home.
10. There were lots of rumors that Stewart would get his own network show.
But the rumors turned out to be just that—rumors. 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 directors 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 11 Emmy nominations for her work on a number of projects, including Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Writers Chris Albers and Janine Ditullio were quickly hired by Conan O’Brien, and Brian Hartt went to Jay Leno. Dennis McNicholas, Harper Steele, and Steve Higgins 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 didn’t make out so badly either.
In 1999, Stewart took over hosting duties on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn. The now-61-year-old father of two is also a bestselling author, producer, podcaster, activist, and occasional actor. He has hosted the Grammys and the Oscars and has won 23 Emmys (and counting), plus two Grammys. Not bad for the guy who once caused a scene by sitting on Captain Kirk’s lap.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2024.