The untold truth of The Daily Show

The Daily Show is a cultural institution that changed the late-night TV landscape with its scathing takes on politics and media culture. However, the show wasn't always that way; in fact, early iterations struggled to nail down a tone and dig deeply into important topics while still finding the humor. Through hard work and perseverance, the series was able to develop into something that's launched the careers of dozens of comedians, producers, and writers—and begin a new generation of satirical talk shows. This is the untold truth of The Daily Show.

The first host

Many people associate The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he wasn't the show's original host—it debuted in 1996 with Craig Kilborn, a stand-up comic best known for anchoring ESPN's SportsCenter. Kilborn's version of the show was much more focused on celebrity gossip than politics, but there were a few familiar elements, including correspondent Stephen Colbert, who debuted on the show in June of 1997.

When Kilborn left to host The Late Late Show in 1998, Comedy Central decided to pursue Stewart as the new host. He already had experience with distributor Viacom as the host of the short-lived Jon Stewart Show on MTV, but following the cancellation of that series, he focused on film projects and was wary about a return to television. Stewart's agent James Dixon pushed him to take the project, saying he could make the show "smarter and different than what it's been."

Stewart obviously ended up getting behind the desk, although not without a little ribbing from Colbert, who showed up at the press conference where Stewart was announced as the host to question why he didn't get the job. "You told me he wasn't funny," Colbert says Stewart told then-Comedy Central president Doug Herzog at the time.

Growing pains

When Stewart took over, the staff wasn't immediately ready to accept him as their new leader. In fact, there were quite a few conflicts during Stewart's early tenure, with Stewart saying that while he viewed it as a new show, Kilborn's staff viewed it as an exact continuation of what they'd been doing before. The conflict bubbled over several weeks after Stewart started, when the writers came to him and told him to stop changing their jokes. "After a weekend of pacing and smoking and having tremendous Lincoln-Douglas debates on the couch by myself, I went back in, and it was horrible," Stewart said. "I basically told them all to f— off. 'You work for me. And if you don't like the direction, okay. I get that. Don't work here.'"

Part of changing the office culture meant hiring his own staff of writers and correspondents—including Steve Carrell, recruited by Colbert, who he'd worked with on The Dana Carvey Show. As the staff started to turn over, the show felt more like Stewart's own, but he didn't feel true ownership until the craziness of the 2000 presidential election.

It started with a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, where Carrell managed to find himself on a bus with John McCain, lobbing a bunch of softballs before hitting McCain with a tough question about pork barrel politics and the Commerce Committee. "Our defining moment, with John McCain, represents both the triumph and the failure of our show," said head writer Ben Karlin. "McCain was caught in the headlights. But we punctured it with a joke, so all you're left with is funny and awkward. It's bittersweet." (This is something Stewart ribbed Carrell about on air, jokingly telling him to "do better" when it came to asking hard-hitting questions and getting answers.)

Despite its dropped response, this moment started the show on a path toward covering more important stories with a humorous slant, something they had the chance to refine during the months of "hanging chad" insanity surrounding the aftermath of the Bush/Gore election. As a result, The Daily Show enjoyed a surge in popularity and cultural relevance, with the show earning its first Peabody Award and continuing to refine its point of view throughout the Bush presidency.

Fighting and feuds

The Daily Show has ruffled many, many feathers throughout its run—especially through its long-running rivalry with Fox News, which Stewart has dubbed "a cyanide factory," "shockingly terrible," and "truly a terrible, cynical news organization," among many, many other insults.

The feud was brought to a head in a 2010 interview on The O'Reilly Factor in which Stewart called Fox a "cyclonic perpetual emotional machine" that has "taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic about the coming of Chairman Mao." The real confrontation came after he left the show, though, when Fox chairman Roger Ailes asked Stewart to a secret meeting in his office. Stewart recalled that the meeting got "heated," noting Ailes called him a "Communist a—hole" and he responded by saying the network "mainstreamed this bile in a way that people can take it without it blistering their skin." Stewart later said that he thought Ailes and the others at Fox News "carried themselves like thugs," and claimed that Ailes said he would deny the meeting ever took place if Stewart told anyone about it. Ailes, for his part, called Stewart a "brilliant comedian" following his Daily Show departure, but said Stewart would never reach Fox's level of influence.

Fox wasn't the only media network Stewart criticized on its own channel. He also made a very memorable appearance on CNN's Crossfire, during which he accused the show of "hurting America" by making issues divisive and only showing extreme points of view. According to co-host Paul Begala, while the confrontation on air was highly charged, Stewart's real critiques came during a sit down conversation afterwards in which the pair discussed his problems with the show. While Begala says he hasn't spoke to Stewart since, he did acknowledge that he agreed with some of Stewart's points, although he noted he thought many were "naïve." Crossfire was canceled shortly after, but, according to then-Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless, Stewart's appearance helped bolster The Daily Show by making him a type of "figure."

Controversy

The Daily Show's ascension to cultural institution status wasn't without controversy, and two of the biggest issues came later on in the show's run, amidst accusations of racism and sexism stemming from two highly publicized incidents.

The first issue came in 2010, when Jezebel writer Irin Carmon penned an article titled "The Daily Show's Woman Problem," which alleged that the show had a history of keeping female correspondents off the air and claimed they hired Olivia Munn partially because of her looks and appeal to male viewers. The piece featured comments from a few former correspondents and writers who felt they'd been marginalized in the workplace. One former female correspondent said a producer told her to imagine The Daily Show as her "pilot boyfriend" who she has a great time with while he's in town, but then never sees again. More than 30 female staffers at the show responded to the article with a letter of their own, calling the article "a vivid and dramatic narrative" that was "not our office."

The Daily Show weathered that storm, but Stewart was touched much more personally by another incident involving correspondent and writer Wyatt Cenac. After Stewart did an on-air impression of then-presidential candidate Herman Cain in 2011, some on-air Fox personalities accused him of racism. Cenac sided with Fox, saying that the impersonation reminded him of racist caricatures on The Amos 'n' Andy Show. He and Stewart got into an argument at the office that resulted in Stewart getting up and leaving the room, something he believes Cenac took as him saying "I'm done with you." The two later reached a peace, and Cenac stayed at The Daily Show for another year before departing. However, the incident would come back up shortly before Stewart's departure, when Cenac made the dispute public on an episode of comedian Marc Maron's podcast. "I represent my community and I represent my people," he said. "And I've got to be honest if something seems questionable."

The show's producers responded to his comments in an interview with The New York Times, saying the show had "blind spots" they were trying to fix. Cenac and Stewart also exchanged emails after the podcast, eventually reaching an agreement and leaving Cenac comfortable enough to return to the show for the final episode. Stewart says he also floated Cenac's name as his possible replacement after he left the show, although that never came to fruition.

Real-life achievements

Stewart has said on numerous occasions that The Daily Show is comedy and not real news, but many have fired back, saying the show does have a real effect on policy. While Stewart has denied this and downplayed its role in shaping policy, there was one point when they did attempt outright advocacy: pursuing a bill to subsidize medical care for 9/11 first responders.

Stewart devoted the entirety of his final 2010 episode to the Zadroga Bill, which was being stalled in the Senate despite, as Stewart claimed, the body finding the time to pass a bill that included a tax cut to the rich. Stewart brought four 9/11 first responders on to talk about their experience, and the bill was passed shortly after. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with many others, credited Stewart's involvement, with White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs saying at a press briefing that Stewart "put the awareness around this legislation." Stewart's coverage also brought the bill to the attention of the major news networks, who he accused during his show of ignoring the legislation, despite their heavy focus on the aftermath of 9/11.

Stewart threw his considerable weight behind the bill again in 2015, when it needed to be renewed and the former first responders were once again having trouble being heard. Even though Stewart was no longer hosting, he decided to make an appearance on Trevor Noah's version of The Daily Show to fight for the bill, slamming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and saying he "doesn't give a s— about anything but politics." The episode also featured an uncomfortable field segment in which Stewart talked to senators who tweeted "Never Forget" on 9/11 but had yet to support the bill's renewal. The bill was eventually renewed for an additional 75 years, and, while McConnell claimed it would have been passed even without his involvement, many credited Stewart for placing the issue in the public eye again.

Correspondent craziness

Some of the more famous Daily Show graduates include Colbert, Carrell (and his wife, Nancy Walls Carrell), Rob and Nate Corddry, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Oliver, Josh Gad, Aasif Mandvi, Matt Walsh, Rob Riggle, Jessica Williams, Munn, Cenac, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, Al Madrigal, and Michael Che—all of whom returned to see Stewart off during his final episode.

Some of the group (Carrell, Gad, Munn) went on to become movie stars, while others have enjoyed very successful careers in television (Jones, Schaal, Riggle). It all started with The Colbert Report, which Stewart helped his former correspondent develop when he realized it was time for Colbert to move on to bigger things. The two initially developed a sitcom based on Colbert's life growing up in South Carolina; however, when CBS declined to pick up the show, they decided to create a partner for The Daily Show utilizing the persona of Colbert's "conservative blowhard" correspondent. Although Colbert was unsure if he could sustain the persona for four nights a week, Colbert quickly became a success. "It came out of the box fully formed, episode one," said Ganeless. "Which is—especially as we watch all the other late-night shows evolve today—incredible and extraordinary. He had a very specific idea of what he wanted to do with the character he had evolved on The Daily Show."

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report changed the TV landscape, opening the door for late-night satire shows to follow, many hosted by Daily Show alums. There was Last Week Tonight at HBO with John Oliver (more on him later), Colbert replacement The Nightly Show featuring Larry Wilmore (and the Nightly Show replacement featuring correspondent Jordan Klepper), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee at TBS, and a more politically focused Weekend Update featuring Che at Saturday Night Live.

Colbert spoke to Stewart on his final show and expressed the gratitude that he, the other correspondents, and the staff of the show felt for the host, and said what he taught them made their future careers possible. "We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect," he said. "All of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours, and we are better people for having known you."

The heir apparent

Stewart decided to take a hiatus from The Daily Show in the summer of 2013 to direct his first feature film, Rosewater, based on the life of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was arrested and held prisoner for 118 days—partially due to an appearance on The Daily Show, which the government used to accuse him of being an American spy. To sit in for him during the break, Stewart chose the man he envisioned as his replacement when he left the show for good—John Oliver, who joined the staff in 2006. "I knew I was going to be on my way out when I got back," Stewart said. "And I knew Oliver couldn't just return to just being what he was."

Oliver's turn as host was successful, garnering positive reviews and keeping up Stewart's ratings. Stewart says that, as a way of keeping him around, he asked Comedy Central to offer Oliver a contract to host every summer. However, he says the network wasn't able to make him a reasonable monetary deal, and, during negotiations, the offer from HBO for Oliver to host his own show, Last Week Tonight, came in. "[Stewart] was a little bit of a mother bird pushing me out of the nest," Oliver said. "When I mentioned the offer from HBO, his face changed, and he said, 'You would be insane not to take that.'"