‘The Daily Show’ At 20: Trevor Noah, Madeleine Smithberg, And Others Discuss Its Past, Present, And Future

Trevor Noah was 12 years old when The Daily Show made its debut on July 22, 1996. He had no clue that such a show existed, though, because television was heavily censored in South Africa at that time, so the American programs that he could watch were already five to 10 years old. It wasn’t until he moved to the U.S. in 2012 that the comedian became aware of Comedy Central’s flagship show by watching another one of its celebrated original programs.

“Becoming a fan of [The Daily Show] happened, ironically, thanks to South Park,” he tells us. “I started watching Comedy Central and watched South Park and then The Daily Show would come on and I was like, oh, what is this? And I’d watch the show and that’s when I became a fan of Jon Stewart.”

Today, he’s far more than just a fan. Noah has the distinction of being Stewart’s successor as the host of The Daily Show. That’s like being hired to coach Duke basketball after Mike Krzyzewski or run Apple after Steve Jobs. It’s an uphill battle on the steepest mountain, and criticism was swift and plenty for Noah before he even took a seat in the host’s chair.

But The Daily Show’s incredible legacy wasn’t built in a day, nor were Stewart and his predecessor, Craig Kilborn, instant hits. Just as they experimented and struggled at times to find their voices and styles, Noah has yet to even truly show us what he has to offer. For 20 years, The Daily Show has been more about taking chances than anything else, beginning with Madeleine Smithberg going against her instincts and desires to become the showrunner in 1996.

“The Most Important Television Show Ever”

Smithberg never wanted to work on Comedy Central’s idea for a “daily show.” Having already worked for David Letterman and Stewart, who broke into the talk show game with a short-lived and underappreciated MTV series in the ‘90s, Smithberg was looking for a weekly program so she could focus on other aspects of her life, including starting a family. But that never stopped Doug Herzog and Eileen Katz from relentlessly pursuing her to be the creative mind behind Comedy Central’s flagship program.

Smithberg had previously hired her friend and neighbor Lizz Winstead as a segment producer for The Jon Stewart Show on MTV, and around the same time that Comedy Central had been wooing Smithberg for a daily show concept, the duo came up with their own idea for a show. Herzog, now the president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, and Katz, then head of programming for Comedy Central, gave them a development deal. But after a few months it came back to that one lingering idea.

“Every couple of days Doug would say, ‘You gotta do The Daily Show,’ and I would say, ‘No,’” Smithberg recalls. “Then finally, one day, he said, ‘I can’t afford to produce the show you’re in there developing. You should do The Daily Show, it’s the job you were born to do. You don’t have to do a pilot, I will give you a year and I’m going to put the bulk of my promotional budget towards this show.’ I went into the office where Lizz and Elyse Roth, who was my business partner at the time, were and said, ‘We’re going to do The Daily Show. The plan is changing.’ I got a tremendous amount of pushback and then everybody agreed, so we took all the index cards for the scripted show down and we started trying to figure out what a daily show for Comedy Central could be. The first thing that we knew for sure was that it had to be based in truth and reality, but it shouldn’t be pretend-y kind of characters that weren’t anchored to something topical.”