“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 center-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 Jan. 11, 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.”
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?”
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.
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 humor. 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 Oct. 15, 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 program 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 canceling the show. The “Crossfire” incident solidified Stewart’s status as cable news’ most prominent critic.
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.
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.
Persians of Interest
In the late spring of 2009, “The Daily Show” sent correspondent Jason Jones to Iran to unearth whatever comedy could be found in the not-so-hilarious Green Revolution protests. Jones helped bring back a different story: Among the sources who appeared in his segment “Persians of Interest” was Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested in Tehran and imprisoned under suspicion of being a spy one day before the segment was shown in June.
Following months of protests and awareness campaigns, he was released after 118 days in captivity. Bahari wrote a memoir about his experience, “Then They Came For Me,” which Stewart adapted as a film in his 2014 directorial debut, “Rosewater.”
Bahari: I’ve heard people say, “Jon Stewart is retiring because he made one film and he’s become more interested in filmmaking and he wants to be a filmmaker, and you’re responsible.” I’m sure that they’re joking. But it hurts, even as a joke.
I’m just joking. It doesn’t hurt.
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 Oct. 27, 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 galvanize 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.
The Zadroga Act
As the 111th Congress neared its end, the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — designed to aid those who fell ill from working at ground zero — was stuck in the Senate. Then Stewart took up the cause in December 2010.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.: We had hit a brick wall in the Senate. Nothing was working. And then Jon Stewart really took it up. A victory has many authors. There are a lot of us who worked on this bill and fought for it daily. I had events every week for nine years practically. Letters, petitions, lobbying, meetings. But it was Jon Stewart who brought that bill to life.