Welcome to our Fall Comedy Reads series, where we take a closer look at some of the newly released comedy-related books worth checking out this month.
When it began in 1996, The Daily Show was nothing like what it would become. Hosted by Craig Kilborn, the show dealt mostly with light entertainment news and had a mean-spirited reputation. There was tension behind the scenes between the host and the show’s writers, particularly between Kilborn and women like co-creator Lizz Winstead, who served as the show’s first head writer. By 1998, Kilborn had taken a job hosting CBS’s The Late Late Show and Comedy Central needed a new Daily Show host. Auditioning David Alan Grier, Michael McKean, Greg Proops, and others, they finally landed on Jon Stewart. It could have been anyone.
While The Daily Show (The Book) doesn’t explicitly say so, it is much less about the entire run of the show (1996-present) and much more about Jon Stewart’s tenure on the show (1999-2015). It’s an understandable choice to make – under Stewart’s stewardship, the show became a vital part of the political landscape, a necessary voice of dissent during the Bush administration, and a launching pad for an almost uncountable number of today’s stars (including late night hosts John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert). This book does a fine job of examining what went into the show’s construction and how a process of trial-and-error kept the show improving. Even so, its focus on Stewart (a likely necessity for the book to be published with Stewart’s cooperation and a foreword he wrote) can feel a bit sycophantic at times.
Early on in his tenure, Stewart rankled at the show’s tone set by Kilborn. A specific field piece that was Kilborn-style mean to someone inoffensive led to Stewart telling his staff, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.” This edict would take some time to implement, but it was indicative of the type of host Stewart was – he was reshaping the show to make it his own. This led to staff shake-ups. As Lizz Winstead puts it, “Once Jon realized he needed to take charge, you can’t afford to have people who are not in the Jon Stewart business. And so there’s a bit of Kool-Aid drinking that has to take place.” The interviews that make up this oral history certainly can feel a bit Kool-Aid-y. Even those whose Daily Show experience was negative (and few of them were interviewed for this book) call Stewart a “genius.”
The stories that make up this book do suggest what Daily Show viewers of the Stewart era already suspected, though – that Jon Stewart was a hard-working and dedicated host who was never satisfied to let the show rest on its (well-earned) laurels. The show’s wildly talented writers and producers worked daily on adjusting the personas and assignments of its impressive cast of correspondents. They also go into great detail about the processes behind these adjustments. Stewart cites his time working with Garry Shandling in explaining how that evolved:
One of the things I learned from Garry Shandling when I was working on Larry Sanders was the difference between caricature and character… To look at how character would motivate the scene as opposed to caricature. … The early years, we basically dried the well of looking askance. So later we gave the correspondents more leeway to be themselves, … moving them from caricature to character.
Some of the book’s most interesting details come from the field pieces. The Daily Show sends comedians all over the country to pretend to be serious reporters and make strangers look ridiculous on television. Multiple people cite advice from Stephen Colbert like “Check your soul at the door” and “Make sure you spend all of your per diem.” Those trips could be awkward and draining, and different correspondents handled it differently. Colbert would engage everyone he met in slightly absurd conversations to practice keeping a straight face under strange circumstances. Rob Corddry found he was more comfortable walking around in public dressed as Hitler than as a Klan member. Ed Helms got a reputation for being more comfortable than other correspondents looking gross.
For the most part, the book is the story of how The Daily Show evolved from a show where asking a celebrity five questions was the best-known proprietary content to a show on which John Edwards announced his candidacy for president in the 2004 election. This change owed itself to Stewart’s push for the show to engage more with a young audience that was politically knowledgeable, but it was also the work of the show’s editors, and their evolving technology, that made the show what it was.
The story of an early segment called “Bush v. Bush” is described by writer Steve Bodow as a “Rosetta stone” and with good reason. The Daily Show realized that the strongest commentary on a politician lying was just juxtaposed footage of the politician saying two contradictory things on different occasions. This became a trademark of the show and drove the technology that would make this kind of work easier in years to come. For that 2003 segment, the staff had to pore through hours of VHS footage to get the clips they needed – it took weeks to put together. Beyond the VHS tapes the staff kept, they could request footage from companies that recorded news and politics clips. Soon, they began using TiVO, recording cable news constantly. Different writers and producers watched different news shows so they could bring in suggestions. They started growing a clip library they could refer to to point out hypocrisy, with interns and assistants transcribing footage to make it searchable. In 2010, the show began using SnapStream, which made searching for specific quotes in hundreds of hours of footage even easier. This technology has allowed the show remain a go-to for audiences who felt like they were getting context-free stories from mainstream news outlets.
The Daily Show (The Book) barely touches on Trevor Noah’s current run on the series. Like the books produced collaboratively by the show’s staff (America (The Book) and Earth (The Book)), Jon Stewart’s name is right on the cover; it’s about him. The moments that staff members felt less enthusiastic about his leadership stand out. Writers interviewed disagree about his motivations during the 2007-2008 WGA strike – he went on the air during it but paid his writers out of pocket to keep them picketing. Some suggest that he did so out of a paternalist need to be in charge; others describe him as a “naturally benevolent person.” His now-famous disagreement with Wyatt Cenac about Stewart’s Herman Cain impression is addressed by many people insisting that Jon Stewart is “not a racist.” Cenac did not comment for this book. Stewart could be benevolent, but he didn’t appreciate being challenged.
It’s in spots like these that some of the cracks show. This book is excellent and full of fascinating details about the production of an incredibly, surprisingly important television show. But the moments where its subjects escape Stewart’s thrall are few and far between. In that way, of course, those of us who watched the show can relate.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.