At one point in Chris Smith’s capacious oral history of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart — recalling the short-lived agreement among late-night TV’s top hosts to go dark during a 2007−8 writers’ strike — jokingly calls Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, and himself “the five families,” as in The Godfather‘s Mafia clans. It was tongue-in-cheek, but also a rare and interesting slip. As a rule, few things make Stewart squirm like conceding that he’s got any sort of power.
So far as I can tell, he’s the one who instigated the move, then convinced the others to join in. That shouldn’t only remind us that Stewart works overtime to be one of the good guys; it also underlines his clout. Except to Comedy Central’s audience of “slackers and stoners,” as Bill O’Reilly huffily miscalled them, The Daily Show had barely been on anybody’s radar when Stewart took over from original host Craig Kilborn in 1998. Less than a decade later, broadcast TV’s late-night big enchiladas — all with much larger audiences than his — treated him as not only their peer but a moral compass.
Don’t blame me if I got entranced with picturing Stewart as Michael Corleone: the nebbishy college kid who somehow ended up as capo di tutti capi. True, this means imagining a Michael Corleone who is a) Jewish, b) impish, and c) on the side of the angels, three improbable new wrinkles. But Stewart’s ascent from a gadfly comic on a cheesy cable network to Generation X’s version of Walter Cronkite was fairly improbable too. No one would have bet on him to end up as the first late-night TV star since Johnny Carson to invent an original cultural role — one that, like Carson’s, is now the template his multiple successors try to emulate.
Unsurprisingly, he comes off awfully well in Smith’s cast-of-dozens chronicle. He has a few bad moments, true — including his eventual return to the air during that same strike, which some of his writers apparently never forgave him for. But he’s often the one who beats up on himself the most in these pages. With a few disgruntled exceptions, practically everybody who ever worked for The Daily Show — and Smith seems to have talked to almost all of them — lauds his decency, creative smarts, and constant drive to bring out the best they had on tap. One word that comes up an awful lot is mensch.
It’s easy to forget that Stewart’s takeover of Kilborn’s slot was on the bumpy side. Thinking they had a pretty good thing going without his creative input, the team he’d inherited balked at Stewart’s determination to reboot the show’s priorities from random spoofery to satire with a distinctive point of view — his. “What I needed most,” he says, “were accomplices.”
He found them soon enough, especially in the hires of writer-producers Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum. But the most prominent turned out to be Kilborn-era holdover Stephen Colbert, who took to the new regime like a duck to water. Considering that Stewart was an untested quantity who’d never been the boss of much of anything up to then, his sure-footed resolve seems remarkable, especially since Comedy Central execs were a long way from convinced their newbie was on the right track. The stakes just weren’t high enough back then for them to hit the panic button.
Thanks partly to then-correspondent Steve Carell’s antic pursuit of candidate John McCain in New Hampshire, the 2000 election (a.k.a. “Indecision 2000”) was the making of the new Daily Show — the moment when people outside Comedy Central’s target audience began to sit up and take notice, from New York’s sherpas of chic to D.C.’s own movers and shakers. Then 9/11 was almost its unmaking, or so it seemed at the time. “I don’t even know if we have a show anymore,” one staffer recalls DS co-creator Madeleine Smithberg saying.
Stewart didn’t go back on the air for over a week. When he did, his tearful monologue about his old view of the WTC towers being replaced by a view of the Statue of Liberty struck many people, me included, as, well . . . sweet, but not what we wanted from Jon Stewart.
Wrong again. From then on, his comic persona — aggrieved, disbelieving, roguishly sassy — was merely one facet of how Stewart manifested in public. That was what made him the most engagingly human of guides to the Bush era’s iniquities along with one of the shrewdest, but only The Daily Show’s puckishness kept his moral seriousness in balance. When he tried to convert his dandy cockpit into a bully pulpit and did so without the protection of the show’s mordantly ironic context, he floundered.
That was the case when he went on Crossfire in 2004 to upbraid Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for “hurting America” with their reductionist sparring. Widely admired at the time, this Mr. Stewart Goes to Washington moment hasn’t aged all that well; an America that could be damaged by Crossfire deserves to die of the common cold. On the other hand, Crossfire did get canceled just months later, and every little bit helps.
Six years later, a more ambitious attempt by Stewart to put his influence to concrete use — the “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” that he and Colbert staged on the Mall before the 2010 midterms, simultaneously burlesquing Glenn Beck’s Tea Party rallies and hoping to peddle a rational alternative to the politics of hysteria — was an unmistakable misfire. Uncharacteristically for him, its goals just didn’t seem well thought out, leaving an unwelcome impression of vainglory. “I feel like it stood against everything we thought — we never thought we were anything but a TV show,” says executive producer Rory Albanese, who begged Stewart in vain to reconsider.
All the same, it’s hard to imagine either Dubya’s or Obama’s presidencies without Stewart and The Daily Show‘s invaluable palliative. Sure, in a sense, he and it were preaching to the converted. But putting it that reductively misses the point. For one thing, there are limits to what satire can do, and helping people cope with lunacy is one job that’s inside satire’s wheelhouse. For another, like most good pop culture — not just the political kind — DS didn’t cater to an established community so much as it created one.
Attitudes that might have stayed amorphous and private otherwise got crystallized once Stewart defined how to express them, and knowing you were part of an audience of kindred spirits was exhilarating.
Colbert’s 2005 departure for The Colbert Report, along with Ed Helms’s and Rob Corddry’s exits the following year, led to another bumpy transition. But that may have been a blessing in disguise — by providing a bigger platform for Samantha Bee’s talents, just to start with. Then a formula that might have gone stale otherwise got refreshed by new hires, from Larry Wilmore to The Daily Show’s latter-day MVP, John Oliver. Predictably, Oliver — who was on track to be Stewart’s successor until Comedy Central let him slip away to HBO — is the most entertaining contributor to Smith’s collage: “I’m English,” he moans of his emotional farewell to DS. “I’m dead inside. I don’t have any echoes of feelings. What I have might be from ancestors centuries ago.”
The ultimate measure of The Daily Show‘s beneficial impact, of course, is how many of its onetime correspondents went on to front shows of their own — each with its own distinctive character but nonetheless all originating in a shared sensibility that was barely aware of itself as such before Stewart came along. DS was so obviously the signature TV series of its generation that this book’s rare carping voices are almost a relief, in that keeping-things-honest way. If damn near everyone else sounds a bit in awe of what their unlikely Godfather wrought, no wonder.