Jon Stewart Looks Back at 1,000 Years of History

Last Thursday, America said goodbye to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. In his final episode he welcomed back a number of correspondents from his 16-year tenure behind the desk as faces both old and new said goodbye. Now, I know what you’re expecting. You think I’m going to take a look back and explore Stewart’s first episode as host of The Daily Show, or maybe even go back to an episode of his original talk show. I’m going to do you one better. Today we journey back to December of 1999, when Stewart was less than a year into his run on the show. As the world was getting ready to move into a new millennium, Jon hosted a one-hour tribute to the thousand years that had just passed (and make a then timely reference to a Tom Brokaw book) entitled The Greatest Millennium.

Just prior to Stewart’s final Daily Show, Comedy Central produced a special hosted by the three current correspondents entitled News Your Own Adventure, in which a number of audience-selected clips were shown. However, the Daily Show special episode used to be a regular occurrence. Individual correspondents would get their own specials to highlight their own segments, wrapped around new material. Originally airing on December 15th, the hour-long Greatest Millennium special instantly feels different from a regular episode. For one, there’s a live band, They Might Be Giants, performing as the show goes in and out of commercial. And second of all, the entire set has been redone to give the show a Cosmos-style space feel.

Following an overwrought highlight reel of the events of this Millennium, Jon stands on a slowly descending cherry picker in the center of the studio (this is pre-Inconvenient Truth). He then walks down a staircase of pillars that illuminate individually as he steps on them, leading him to a brief dance to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and an attempt at replicating his “He he!”

The bulk of the show is made up of correspondent pieces, as opposed to the usual balance of segments and Stewart’s commentary. The first segment comes from Vance DeGeneres who gives an overview of the role of the media in the previous millennium, from town crier to 24-hour cable news network, which actually has a surprising amount of factual historical information in it. Next Stephen Colbert is in studio where he kind of presages his next move in comedy by saying that in the new millennium, he’s simply going to create news stories. He tests it out by announcing that “the big one” has finally hit the West Coast and California has become separated from America, but everybody’s okay.

Next Steve Carell, in black turtleneck and brown suit jacket, gives an overview of religion’s role in history, with a definite focus on televangelists yelling things and calling Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies gay. My favorite beat of the piece happens with Jon clarifies something he heard in the piece about the apocalypse coming soon, and Carell, unfazed, intones, “Well, then I should be getting home then.” Next, Lewis Black appears to give his take on the apocalypse, citing natural disasters, hurricanes, and Pamela Anderson’s breast reduction as our signs that we are currently living in one. Instead of locusts and frogs as harbingers of doom we have Pat Buchanan, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. (Okay, so I left out Jesse Ventura from the list, but it’s pretty crazy that this was 15 years ago and 3 out of 4 of those people are currently running for president.) Black leaves us with a thought about Y2k: “If you don’t realize that this is the hell we’re going to be living in forever, you deserve to die broke and thirsty.”

In the next segment, Beth Littleford interviews Ted Nugent about guns and hunting in a segment that may have originally been designed to be about disaster prep, but turns into a montage of clips of Nugent firing weapons, riding a four-wheeler, and demonstrating how to turn a ballpoint pen into a weapon. I don’t know if this is a segment being repurposed for this special or an interview that went off the rails, but Beth and Jon’s recap following the piece speaks volumes.

Jon: Huh.

Beth: Yeah!

Jon: ‘Kay!

Beth: Yeah.

The strongest piece was also the last one of the evening in which “The Person of the Millennium” was named, and as you’ve probably already guessed, it was Charlton Heston. In what would become a common practice on the show, we are then shown a montage of clips from a wide variety of sources, explaining that Heston was present at so many important moments in history, such as the painting of the Sistine Chapel, to the declaration of the 10 Commandments, to five different apocalypses if you count Earthquake.

The most interesting thing I found in watching this special was the realization I felt as it becomes clear that this is a show that has not yet evolved into The Daily Show it will eventually become. The jokes are still funny, and Jon’s style of humor is there, but the targets are a little different. The focus isn’t so much about examining the media’s portrayal of information, but rather, just presenting some jokes around the theme of the future. If you look at Wikipedia’s List of Daily Show Episodes over the years, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. Each year is charted in a three-column grid with the date of the episode, the guest, and what they were promoting at the time. Following September 11, 2001, there are a lot of blanks in the “what they were promoting” column. More and more, the guests started to come from the world of politics, writing, and the media, reflecting the change in the show. I recognize that I’m comparing a silly one-off New Year’s special to the regular show, but there’s a definite difference in tone as the world changes the show.

Thank you, Jon, for not just piloting the Daily Show, but transforming it when it needed to, and for leaving it in good shape for the next guy.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

Jon Stewart Looks Back at 1,000 Years of History