When news broke earlier this week about the surprising return of Jon Stewart to at least a Rachel Maddow-like Monday presence on the show he helped establish as a late night staple, Comedy Central’s THE DAILY SHOW, the news was about as well-received as anything that’s come out of what is looming to be a hellscape of an election news cycle. For a show whose search for a permanent host was even more dragged out and roadblock-infused than the ill-fated quest for JEOPARDY! to replace Alex Trebek, and for a network whose ratings and zeitgeist presence have fallen dramatically since Stewart departed not long after a certain obese orange lunatic lumbered down that golden escalator to his predestined anointing, it was a rare chance to celebrate. THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Lacey Rose dropped an intriguing piece yesterday on the behind-the-scenes machinations that resulted in this Hail Mary coming to light. One of the more telling paragraphs reflects how even those ostensibly in charge of actually making decisions are often subservient to those who actually possess the skill sets required for the jobs they hold:
There was “a lot of pressure to just choose someone,” he told The Hollywood Reporter early last year, though he resisted naming an immediate replacement. Instead, the team, led by longtime showrunner Jen Flanz, lined up a stable of guest hosts, a mix of bold-faced names like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler as well as correspondents from the show. McCarthy also sought the counsel of James “Babydoll” Dixon, manager of late-night hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, and a previous Daily Show executive producer himself. In fact, in those early transition months, McCarthy spent “a lot of time with Babydoll getting his advice,” he said, “and we called Jon a couple times.”
And there again was that name that I’ve heard invoked on countless occasions on the many shows that make up my personal late-night lineup, especially those podcasts that feature Bill Simmons and his closest cohorts, especially “Cousin Sal” Iacono, a proud and talented SUNY Oswego alumnus whose isn’t primarily known for SportsCenter or weather reporting. Babydoll. Their agent, who is often the source of comic rants from those two, especially when their beloved Dallas Cowboys (Iacono) and New England Patriots (Simmons) both suck, which, of late, is often.
A quick visit to Dixon’s IMdB page reveals more that he’s also the agent of Sal’s true nepotistic in, his actual cousin Jimmy Kimmel, and the guy who followed Stewart in the 11:30 half-hour on Comedy Central when late night TV time slots actually mattered, Stephen Colbert, who now rules what is left of it in the 11:35 pm slot on CBS, where Kimmel goes head-to-head with him in a landscape where a 0.23 demo rating is now deemed worthy of press releases. In Stewart’s heyday, even Comedy Central would often beat that number.
But as the executive who preceded McCarthy as Comedy Central’s czar Doug Herzog confessed to Rose, that landscape has changed:
(“L)ook, the world’s changed a lot since Jon left that seat: there was Trump and #MeToo and George Floyd and Covid — it’s been a tumultuous several years. Plus, Comedy Central has changed, the TV business has changed and the world has changed, but even with all that, there’s nobody better than Jon Stewart to try and figure it all out. Indeed, Herzog is atypically bullish on this: “It’s a fucking baller move and everybody wins,” he says of an announcement that, admittedly, he didn’t have on his 2024 Bingo card.
So who is Baby Doll? Well, you have to dig deep to even find something objective that he consented to be interviewed for. THE VINEYARD GAZETTE, a local paper meant for the well-heeled New Englanders to read while they nibble on avocado toast complaining about the Red Sox on humid summer mornings, profiled Dixon in 2009. Sam Bungey described a figure straight out of central casting:
Talent agent James Dixon appears unflappable, which is perhaps not surprising given that he is lounging under an umbrella out by the swimming pool at his South Summer street home, every inch the Hollywood player with perfect tan, great hair and aviator shades.
Mr. Dixon’s job is about advocating on behalf of his clients for better compensation at contract time, improved budgets for shows and handling the nitty-gritty with network and studio executives.
For about five weeks in the summer Mr. Dixon finds he can do this from his Edgartown home.
“You need to keep up with their lives and their schedule, but it’s down to a science. I’m there when I need to be there . . . I’m always looking out for the client’s interest; that’s what I’m paid to do,” he says.
And in an hilarious 2012 piece that Iacono authored for Simmons’ breakthrough ESPN-backed journalists’ paradise GRANTLAND, where he describes how he was able to worm his way into a photo op with Dixon and Barack and Michelle Obama, Iacono offered up a bit more:
Baby Doll is James “Baby Doll” Dixon. He’s a tough-talking, tougher-smoking talent agent who represents, among others, me, Jimmy, Daniel, Adam Carolla, Sportsish Guy Simmons, and Stephen Colbert. Although no one would ever know it, because the only client he mentions in important company is Jon Stewart.
He’s a no-nonsense guy who is all nonsense. He owes his life to William Morris and his death to Philip Morris.
Anyway, we nicknamed him “Baby Doll” because he calls everyone else “Baby Doll.” And I mean everyone.
His daughters are all Baby Doll. His clients are all Baby Doll. The 75-year-old Pakistani man working behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts is Baby Doll. “I’ll take a large coffee. Oh, and make it light and sweet, Baby Doll.” Everyone in Baby Doll’s life is Baby Doll.
For as wonderfully as Jeremy Piven and Tom Cruise have respectfully tried to capture the essence of a fictional Hollywood agent, Iacono’s description of an actual player whose impact and essence eclipse even those performances is telling. Sure, Dixon’s likely made him one of the more well-off SUNY Oswego alumni of recent vintage (he’s certainly in better shape than me). But it’s patently obvious that Dixon has the utmost respect and reverence from a cadre of snarkers and comic genuises who don’t suffer fools easily. As well as the respect of the struggling executives desperately trying to make a deal to gain access to them.
And Dixon has some impressive partners in crime on the support side, as DEADLINE’s intrepid Nellie Andreeva reported back in 2015:
WME | IMG has acquired Dixon Talent Inc., James Dixon’s boutique firm that represents some of the top late-night and comedic talent, including Stephen Colbert, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Simmons and Jon Stewart. “James has built his business on two core philosophies that are intrinsic to WME | IMG: a belief in great talent and applying an entrepreneurial approach to representation,” said WME | IMG Co-CEO Patrick Whitesell. Added co-CEO Ari Emanuel, “We look forward to extending his business even further through the resources WME | IMG has to offer across each of its divisions.”
Go back to that IMdB page if you need further clarity as to who really rules a daypart that now is less viewed in real time that it is at other hours of the day. He has a presence in almost anything that’s successful or even attempted these days apart from NBC. The Charlamagne Tha God show that Comedy Central at least tried to mount recently? Dixon’s. That Damn Michael Che? Dixon’s. After Midnight, the Colbert-backed revival of another Herzog-era staple? Dixon’s.
Sure, NBC has a lot invested in Lorne Michaels, who I suspect even Dixon would admit still has some clout in late night TV, as none of his client roster even approaches the level of viewership or impact of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. But Lorne’s been also making movies and is pushing 80. Dixon has a considerably longer runway and now, with the return of Stewart to the 11 PM slot, now controls as much of a proportion of late night’s audience as, say, someone who once was known as the undisputed king of late night TV once did.
But do try to remember this, Babydoll. It was 19 years ago this week that the world lost that guy, in large part due to the cigarette smoking habit he wasn’t able to kick. I probably can’t offer you much advice or even counsel that you likely don’t already have at your disposal. (The research team at WME, incidentally, are personal friends and former colleagues of mine that are unquestionably best-in-class on that side of the business). Maybe as a New Year’s resolution you might want to consider some sort of program to help you wean off those cancer sticks? Believe me, the industry needs folks like you more than ever.
Until next time…