January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Let’s examine the career options recently faced by an underemployed stand-up comic named Jon Stewart. There was always the sitcom route. But no. ”I never felt I had the right idea,” says Stewart. ”I’d say to the networks, ‘Imagine Mary Tyler Moore with a penis.’ And they would, and I couldn’t get their attention back.”

There were the persistent rumors he’d replace Tom Snyder on CBS’ The Late Late Show. Nope to that, too. ”I’m too short to host a late-night talk show,” says the 5’7” Stewart. ”It’s like the bar at an amusement-park ride. You have to be six foot two or over.” And wasn’t he also heir apparent to Garry Shandling in the latter’s late, great HBO series The Larry Sanders Show? ”Um, that was a little something called fiction. Next you’ll be asking me if I can twinkle my nose and make Darrin disappear.”

So what did Stewart up and do? He threw us a career curveball: Come Jan. 11, the New Jersey-born 36-year-old will take over Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (the current host of the news-parody program, Craig Kilborn — who does meet the height requirement — departs to replace Snyder). Basic cable? Isn’t that small potatoes to a budding movie actor, author of the humor book Naked Pictures of Famous People, and former host of the nationally syndicated Jon Stewart Show? Uh-uh. Stewart insists he belongs ”on the dial somewhere between Animal Planet and the guy in the bee costume on Sábado Gigante.”

Oh, that Stewart, the stravinsky of self-deprecation. Talk to the chain-smoking comic for a couple hours and he’ll discuss everything from his overabundance of body hair (he has to shave his neck) to the new petite desk they had to install on the Daily Show set (”looks like doll’s house furniture”).

So it’s left to his new bosses to do the boasting. ”To us, Jon’s the second coming,” praises Comedy Central executive VP of programming Eileen Katz.

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