NEW YORK – Jon Stewart just won the Heisman — the comedians' version.
As host of the Academy Awards, Stewart joins an elite group that includes Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.
"It doesn't mean you're going to have a good pro career, or even do well in the bowl game," Stewart says, sitting in his Manhattan office behind a desk cluttered with papers. "But to get to that point means something. Now you're in the club."
Membership requires entertaining a television audience of more than 40 million, plus getting laughs from some of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
Stewart's up for the challenge. It's why he took the gig. The huge audience. The intense glare.
"For a comedian," he says, "it feels like the ultimate stage."
But between preparing for the Oscars, hosting Comedy Central's award-winning fake news program "The Daily Show" and caring for his newborn daughter and 19-month-old son with wife Tracey, Stewart is going for a record-breaking season.
Punctuated with a smirk.
"Some people will burn themselves to the nub," says the 43-year-old. "I've decided to exist in a sea of mediocrity. That's allowed me to do all my tasks, but to in fact do them poorly."
He's even allowed his familial obligations "to suffer and absolutely corrode."
"What we're hoping is, in my daughter's first two weeks, she's not going to remember a whole lot of this," he says. "So instead of me being there, I just take my deodorant and jam it in her crib. She'll have the faint smell of me but won't really know I haven't been an influence."
In reality, Stewart and his "Daily Show" writing team are putting on the nightly program while preparing material for the big night on March 5. They'll do that until the week before the Oscars, when Stewart will land in Los Angeles with just a handful of writers in tow. He hasn't even had time to see all the nominated films yet.
But if he's nervous, he's not showing it.
"If I had to go out there and surf, that would be a problem," Stewart says. "But you know, it's just comedy."
The New Jersey native started doing stand-up in New York in 1986. He moved to television in 1990 as host of Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theater." Stewart also hosted his own show on MTV and appeared in such films such as "Half Baked" and "Big Daddy" before taking on hosting duties at "The Daily Show" in 1999. Since then, the program has become a cultural touchstone, even the main source of news for many young people.
"Hopefully I've done enough things that prepare (me) to walk out in front of an (Oscar) audience and do the jokes," he says.
Besides, what he's really excited about is "getting to use the same bathroom Steve Martin did" and enjoying "refreshments" in the green room.
"My sincere hope is that there are some fun-size chocolate bars backstage, in say, a wicker basket," Stewart says. "Whether they be Musketeers or Milky Way, not really the issue."
Though he's known for his irreverent approach to comedy and current events — Dick Cheney's recent shooting incident was like "a gift" — Stewart says he won't get too topical, even in this year of highly political Oscar contenders.
It's not "The Daily Show," he says. Accepting the gig means abiding by Oscar convention.
"He's 78, I'm 43, I will defer," he says. "I'm not an anarchist. I'm a comedian."
Stewart and his staff have free comedic rein and plan to focus their jokes on the Oscar pomp, he says. But the serious subject matter of the year's best picture candidates — revenge, racism, injustice, murder and doomed romance — could present some challenges.
"You're gonna see a ton of 'Munich' stuff. Lots of hilarity to be mined there," Stewart deadpans. "This would not be the easiest song parody in the world to pull off. Not a whole lot rhymes with 'Syriana' or 'Capote."'
The comedian's reputation for cracking wise on political affairs adds interest to the Oscars, says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, who called Stewart a "public intellectual."
Time magazine named Stewart one of its most influential people of 2005. Outside the United States, "The Daily Show" is broadcast on the news channel CNN International.
"To have a public intellectual host the Oscars, that doesn't happen too much," Thompson says. "My biggest worry would be that he'd upstage the entire night."
Stewart says he's just hoping to deliver a competent performance. He hopes to avoid "doing something so screwy," a la David Letterman's infamous Oprah/Uma, that it's repeated every year as Oscar lore.
Besides that, even bombing would be OK, he says.
"I've bombed in front of many fine audiences filled with many talented people," he says. "And if this is that night, well, that's the way it goes."