HE HAS FAITH IN HIS JOKES : The Irreverent Jon Stewart Believes We Shouldn’t Take Ourselves Too Seriously

<i> Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live! </i>

Comedian Jon Stewart, who is headlining at the Irvine Improv this week, targets everything from sex to politics and the day’s news in his act. But religion is one of his favorite topics.

“It’s one of the things I was hung up on in childhood that I sort of worked out,” he said by phone from New York last week. “It always baffled me. I tend to need logic in my life; I’m very poor with faith.”

In other words, he said, “I believe in God. I just don’t think he’s still looking out for us. I mean, if you think about it, he created the world in six days-- five billion years ago! Don’t you think by now he’s moved on to another project? Maybe we’re just something he threw together for his third-grade science fair in the first place.”


Stewart said with a laugh: “Watch, I’ll get picketed-- ‘The Last Temptation of Jon Stewart at the Improv.’ ”

Stewart, whose credits include “Late Night With David Letterman,” “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” and HBO’s “Young Comedians Special,” was once described by Entertainment Weekly as “a sharp social commentator, in the honored tradition of Lenny Bruce.”

And how does Stewart describe his comedy style?

“A bitter little hairy man of comedy,” he joked. “I guess it’s sort of irreverent--that people not take their dogma too seriously. I talk a lot about religion and politics, so hopefully I’m irreverent and sarcastic on stage--I guess it’s sort of like every New Yorker you ever met.”

Stewart has been doing stand-up for six years. Before that, “I was a sanitation specialist in a Mexican restaurant,” he said, explaining that he bused tables. He also had a job working in a friend’s catering business: “I was kind of like their mule, picking things up and cutting thousands of asparagus tips and things like that.”

So what prompted the move into comedy?

“As far as career advancement, if you’ve ever bused tables in a Mexican restaurant, you’re searching at that point,” he said.

As a kid growing up in Trenton, N.J., Stewart said, “I always liked comedy. I sort of moved (to New York) to do it.”

It nevertheless took him about a year before he got up the courage to get on stage, he said, “and after the humiliation of that first time, it took another four months before I actually got up there again.”

Although Stewart had no previous stage experience, humor came naturally.

“I’m 5-7 now, but I was very small in high school. So my role in every social interaction was always the wisecracking runt who had big friends,” he explained. “I think that’s sort of where I got it. That was my role in the group: basically to get my friends into fights.”

For Stewart, the appeal of doing comedy is that “you’re on stage and everyone has to look at you.

“When I first got into it, it was sort of like bronco riding: ‘How long can I stay up here?’ But there’s an excitement of being uncensored and just speaking your mind. It’s like one of the most exciting raw kind of forms of (performing) because you’re out there every night. In some ways it’s gladiatorial. I think that’s what drew me to it.”

Stewart, whose first big break came about a year ago when he was chosen to host the Comedy Channel’s “Short Attention Span Theater,” is now hosting “You Wrote It, You Watch It” on MTV (Saturdays at 6 p.m.), in which suggestions from viewers’ letters are turned into sketches by a troupe of young actors.

“It’s an odd cross between a reality-based show and a sketch show,” said Stewart, who is currently working with MTV on developing a talk show because, he cracks, “we need another talk show.”

He said it would have the standard talk-show format, “but with a pretty irreverent viewpoint.” Like his stand-up act, “it’s going to be topical and fresh.”

Stewart acknowledged that his frequent exposure on MTV has definitely raised his public recognition quotient.

“I was really shocked at the high profile that MTV has. You find yourself in situations you’ve never been in before.”

He recalled buying condoms at a 7-Eleven in Seattle when a group of teen-age skateboarders came in and one of them said, “Hey, you’re the dude from MTV!”

“Here I am buying rubbers, a ‘role model,’ ” he said. “You sort of feel like responsible for some reason, so you think of changing it (and saying), ‘Actually, what I wanted was a Slim Jim . . . . And stay in school . . . don’t do drugs.’ ”

* Who: Jon Stewart.

* When: Thursday, May 27, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, May 28, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 29, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 30, at 8 p.m.

* Where: The Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

* Whereabouts: Take the Culver Drive exit off the San Diego (405) Freeway and go south. Turn right on University Drive and left on Campus Drive. The Improv is in the Irvine Marketplace.

* Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

* Where to call: (714) 854-5455.