Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’: 16 years thinking outside the box

As Stewart’s tenure as host ends, writers, producers and others look at his best moments

President Barack Obama on The Daily Show in July 2015. “I think we’ve done a very good job of making fun of Obama. It doesn’t get as much traction, because so many of the fans are left (leaning) and loved our (George W) Bush stuff,” said former executive producer and writer Rory Albanese. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama on The Daily Show in July 2015. “I think we’ve done a very good job of making fun of Obama. It doesn’t get as much traction, because so many of the fans are left (leaning) and loved our (George W) Bush stuff,” said former executive producer and writer Rory Albanese. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

 

The Daily Show began in 1996 as a snarky chat-show parody hosted by Craig Kilborn, a place of breezy celebrity interviews and human interest segments goofing on pet psychics. But after Jon Stewart took the chair in 1999, that Comedy Central show began transforming into something more substantial: a nightly comic dissection of current events, politics and the media that was required viewing for a certain centre-left segment of the population. As Stewart’s tenure comes to a close on Thursday, several Daily Show writers, producers and others look back on moments from his 16-year run.

The first Stewart show

When Stewart took over the anchor’s seat of The Daily Show on January 11th, 1999, nobody was sure what to expect.

Michael J Fox, first guest: I don’t remember much about the appearance aside from being a smart ass. I knew he was a smart, funny guy. But I had no idea the weight that he’d carry going down the line. I’ve watched the show religiously. It was the water cooler. He can have an opinion, but you always sensed an openness, like: “Convince me. Tell me I’m wrong. Show me where I’m not getting it. But I’m a smart guy and I think that I’m getting it, and I think that it smells.”

‘Even Stevphen’

Under Stewart, The Daily Show became a farm system for comedic talent. Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, who first faced off in “Even Stevphen”, a recurring segment in 1999, proved that a stint as Daily Show correspondent could lead to stardom.

Rory Albanese, a former executive producer and writer of The Daily Show; showrunner of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore: It was my third day, and they were doing a summer spectacular shoot on the roof. Steve and Stephen were in a kiddie pool just goofing around together, and I remember thinking: “I can’t believe these two guys are on this show. How are these two guys not the most famous comedians on TV?”

Youtube

Indecision 2000

The show started to veer more toward political satire after Stewart took over. The 2000 election was the show’s first opportunity to cover a presidential campaign. The “Indecision” coverage would become one of the show’s signature features.

Rory Albanese: That’s what put The Daily Show on the map. People didn’t know how to process what was happening. What the hell are hanging chads? The whole thing was so crazy. It was just perfect for satire. Jon found his rhythm in that moment. You could tell he had a lot to say, and a lot of opinions.

Allison Silverman, former writer, The Daily Show; former head writer of The Colbert Report: There were magical elements of bureaucracy that definitely lent themselves to humour. I remember listening to the supreme court argue (Bush v. Gore) and wishing we had footage, and then deciding we would create our own footage and voices for the supreme court.

Stewart vs. ‘Crossfire’

Perhaps the best-known moment from Stewart’s run as host didn’t even occur on The Daily Show. On October 15th, 2004, he appeared on Crossfire, the CNN debate show hosted by Paul Begala, a former Clinton administration adviser and former Crossfire co-host, and Tucker Carlson, a conservative journalist and commentator. Stewart critiqued the programme and its hosts, whom he blamed for reducing complex social issues to two-dimensional grist for partisan bickering.

It’s not so much that Crossfire is bad, but “It’s hurting America”, he told the hosts. “Stop hurting America.” Several months later, CNN announced it was cancelling the show. The Crossfire incident solidified Stewart’s status as cable news’s most prominent critic.

Paul Begala: I believe he clearly came in there wanting to blow the show up. And he did so. He was very nervous in the makeup room. That was my first inkling that there was something going on. I went to meet him, because I’m a big fan. Also my cousin was in the army and Jon’s done a lot to entertain the troops. He never brags about it, never takes credit, never promotes it. He’s not Bob Hope. So I wanted to tell him, “My cousin is in the army and I wanted to thank you.”

I was trying to parse how much of this was serious and how much of this was comedic. When he (said that we were) hurting America and everybody laughed, I thought, that was obviously a joke. That’s hyperbole. Because I don’t think 30 minutes of debate, even if it’s bad, even if it’s shouting, I don’t think that hurts America. I think this is a pretty tough country.

Rory Albanese: He will get questions about Crossfire. “Is Tucker Carlson still mad at you?” My answer is, “Yes, probably, he is still mad.” He probably has a room in his house with a lot of Jon Stewart pictures with arrows through them.

Barack Obama interview

Barack Obama’s relationship with The Daily Show goes back to his time as a freshman senator from Illinois. But his visit on October 27th, 2010, was the first time a sitting president had appeared on The Daily Show. It was the most explicit sign that a show dedicated to shooting spitballs at the political establishment, as Stewart frequently put it, could now be seen as part of said establishment, a state of affairs underlined recently when a report was published detailing Stewart’s visits to the White House.

Albanese: There’s always that feeling people have about The Daily Show, that its mission is to drive some left-wing narrative, and it’s not. The goal of the show is to create a funny comedy show every night. I think we’ve done a very good job of making fun of Obama. It doesn’t get as much traction, because so many of the fans are left (leaning) and loved our (George W) Bush stuff.

David Axelrod, political consultant and former senior adviser to Obama: We were right on the verge of a really tough election. Part of the motivation was we wanted to galvanise the vote. The bully pulpit is something you have to assemble in the 21st century. It’s not there waiting for you. And you have to assemble it by putting many different pieces together. The Daily Show was one of those pieces, certainly for us. Jon Stewart, as a social satirist, is one of the incomparable talents of our time, but it was the audience who was important for us. – (New York Times service)

The Daily Show videos on Comedy Central channel, Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL084A0469320C57B1