“People are asking me about the legacy that Jon Stewart is leaving behind,” exclaims the Back In Black contributor who has been on the Comedy Central show since 1996, “Jesus Christ, it feels like a U.S. president is leaving office!”
Prior to Stewart’s fingerprints on the headlines, TV viewers’ primary source for satirical news was Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update. Audiences still indulge in Weekend Update, but it’s a completely different style when compared to The Daily Show. Stewart distinguished himself by ensuring he had a voice in the news. He didn’t just set out to rip up headlines like David Letterman or Jay Leno, rather he became part of a chorus that policed and deconstructed the right-wing news machine. Former field correspondent Vance DeGeneres points to “Indecision 2000” as the turning point for The Daily Show, when the show catapulted itself from being a pop culture parody show to a pungent news organization that pricked up the media’s ears. For Black, it was the Iraq War that set the tenor.
Asserts Black, “That’s where it all began. That’s when the job that the news was suppose to do, let everyone down.”
Proof of this was seen as recently as late April when Stewart blamed former New York Times reporter Judith Miller for the Iraq War, specifically buying into the Bush administration’s Weapons of Mass Destruction propaganda. “I believe that you helped the administration take us to, like, the most devastating mistake in foreign policy that we’ve made in, like, 100 years,” Stewart said.
For Black, the interview was quintessential Stewart: “Judith was truly someone who led us down a Primrose Path. Jon took a turn, and came at her more aggressively. During the time of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, somebody had to parody what was going on, and no one was critical enough. Jon did it.”
When Stewart took over The Daily Show chair in 1999 from outgoing three-year host Craig Kilborn, it was a breath of fresh air for some. “Jon had a comedic mind, Craig didn’t,” Black points outs. Kilborn was a former ESPN anchor, but Stewart was a stand-up comedian with talk-show chops, having cut his teeth on MTV’s syndicated The Jon Stewart Show. Having fizzled on that show, no one really knew what to expect with him.
What would remain intact during the early part of his administration, and only prospered, were the famed Daily Show field reports; slice-of-life news segments reminiscent of those on 60 Minutes, but with a mockumentary flair on par with Fred Willard’s bits on NBC’s Real People. Similar to that series, nothing was staged on The Daily Show. The on-camera reporters were sarcastic, but their subjects were real. It’s what made improv impresarios such as Upright Citizen Brigade’s Matt Walsh and Rob Riggle prime correspondents: They already had a knack to fly by the seat of their pants and improvise in tight situations.
When it came to the final run of stories on the show, many of the former Daily Show correspondents tell Deadline that the buck always stopped with Stewart. However, he possessed a deft ability to match on-screen talent with the show’s editors, producers and researchers; the latter of which were the seeds to hatching zany stories culled from small-town newspapers.
DeGeneres, who originally auditioned to host The Daily Show prior to Comedy Central selecting Kilborn, became a correspondent during Stewart’s tenure. During those days, The Daily Show reaped the spoils of flying under the radar. During the Republican debate in New Hampshire leading up to the 2000 election, DeGeneres and his fellow anchors Mo Rocca and Steve Carell were put in the reporters’ pool. “We were asking all these ridiculous questions after the debate and the candidates would answer like we were from a legitimate news organization,” said DeGeneres. Sen. John McCain took a liking to the trio, with Carell getting the opportunity to ride McCain’s bus back to New York City. “That piece solidified our coverage of the candidates,” says DeGeneres.
But as The Daily Show gained notoriety, it became harder to hide. DeGeneres recalls the time when a field story about the KKK was shut down after the show’s cover was blown. The Daily Show was sent into Cincinnati to report on the local KKK putting up crosses in the downtown area. DeGeneres’ news team ultimately came face-to-face with the local KKK leader in his house, only for him to say, ” ‘We know you’re a comedy show and you’re not going to make fun of the Klan,'” remembers DeGeneres.
Nate Corddry, who would host a bit with Rob Corddry “Brother vs. Brother – The War on Terror,” says one of the takeaways from working with Stewart was “playing your correspondent character at the top of your intellect.”
Details Corddry, “On my first day there was a ‘Correspondents Class’ that Stephen Colbert taught where he insisted that ‘We hang our conscience at the door.’ Our job was to get the best footage possible, not to feel bad for these sources. They signed the release and if they made it to us, odds are something odd was going on…there was no such thing as bad publicity for them.”
“Asking inappropriate questions and making them squirm — that was our job. We have the AVID, we’ll always win. We’ll always be able to turn the story,” said Corddry about the show’s high comedy standards.
Adds the comedic actor, “Jon sat in edits and gave hard notes, but he also gave you confidence…Jon would get bored with easy jokes. He liked jokes that step up to the line. There’s a chance you will fall and tip over, but that’s why people watch the show.”
What amazed former Senior Asian Correspondent Olivia Munn about Stewart was watching him shave jokes down moments before taping. “There’s a 45-minute window before the audience shows up where he walks back and forth in a small room and naturally takes apart his jokes, finding out what will have the most punch,” remembers Munn.
Munn was handpicked by Stewart to be a correspondent on the show from 2010-2011. Stewart caught Munn’s zany clips as the host of G4’s fanboy news series Attack Of The Show! One of the consistent flaws Stewart and his team would see from those auditioning for correspondent spots, was that they would mimic former Daily Show reporters. Munn’s voice was fresh. Her hire set off a nasty Jezebel article, which screeched that The Daily Show was sexist toward women, and that Stewart was only selecting Munn for her looks. “It was the antiquated discussion of empowering women, while shutting down other women,” explains Munn. She weathered the controversy, and Stewart stood by her. Eventually, Munn left The Daily Show after landing a role on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom which taped in L.A.
One of Munn’s signature Daily Show reports was “Tiger Mothering,” which addressed Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, a controversial book which defended the notion that tough love — both physical and emotional — leads to success in older children. Munn comedically put her own mother in the hot seat during the interview, asking her about the times when she hit Munn’s against the refrigerator. The clip exemplified how Stewart & Co. paired talent with topics that were personal to them. This was previously seen with Riggle, the Senior Military Affairs Correspondent. He was a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and served in Afghanistan. Stewart and team sent Riggle to Iraq in 2007 where he goofed off with American soldiers in the piece “Operation: Silent Thunder.”
After the establishing a politically conscious precedent on The Daily Show, many wonder whether new host Trevor Noah will carry this torch forward. At TCA last week, Noah exclaimed “I’m not in the news business. I’m in the comedy business.” The previous night, Noah delivered a stand-up set that avoided dinging D.C., which only heightened the media’s suspicions that the stand-up was bound to strip The Daily Show of its spinal cord. Black points to the fact that Stewart’s stand-up material heading into The Daily Show post-Kilborn wasn’t necessarily political either. Having spoken with the frosh host, Black says that Noah “is smart enough to know to ask the writers the right questions.” We don’t need to worry about The Daily Show losing its bite as long as “the same writers and producers; most of that engine are intact. Then it will be funny,” says Black.
But with the current state of the world, it would seem as though we’re losing Stewart too soon.
“The news will continue. The world will continue to produce more Donald Trumps and more ISIS. Jon has to get off that wheel. He’s leaving at the right time. It’s nice to see him go before he loses his passion in the job,” said Daily Show Women’s Issues Correspondent Kristen Schaal.
“Jon has said that he has grown as much as he can. When an artist stops growing, it’s time to move on. He’s done everything within the structure that he’s been given.”