‘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.”

There’s a reason newsman Stone Phillips was the first guest on The Daily Show’s spin-off, The Colbert Report, in 2005: Neither show would have existed without him. Smithberg explains how early on she and The Daily Show’s first staff used Phillips as their model for what they were trying to achieve. “Stone Phillips really deserves a creative bi-credit because we studied that guy: We studied his furrowed brow, we studied his swagger, we studied the way that his eyes stayed glued on the camera, and his listening poses. We studied the walk and talk,” she says.

More importantly, they realized together that the 24-hour news channels and “journalists” were making everything about themselves because there wasn’t enough news to “justify the existence of all these television news outlets.” The phenomenon even affected network television, as NBC’s ratings struggles forced the Peacock to put Dateline NBC on five nights a week, hence the overexposure to Phillips. But that’s how the attitude of The Daily Show was born. The show took on the slogan “The most important television show ever,” to mock the way TV journalists acted like they were infallible and could do whatever they wanted.

“The snowball started rolling,” Smithberg explains. “The more serious and self-absorbed and satisfied that we could behave the sillier we could be. And what it provided, which was instrumental to the show’s growth and eventual success, was a built in set-up for every news story that we did, and that makes it so much easier because you don’t have to do a lot of explaining. Everything we’re doing is mirroring — the crazy, funhouse mirror — the media and specifically television news media, and it gave us a reason for being and it gave us a context and off we went to the races.”

During the show’s three-year run under Kilborn, the creative team was comprised mostly of unknown writers, with Saturday Night Live veteran A. Whitney Brown as the exception. (People now recognize Daniel Goor as the co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and that Stephen Colbert fella went on to do a few things as well.) Kilborn’s deadpan style and confident swagger may have convinced his SportsCenter fans to tune in, but Smithberg says there was no star on The Daily Show.

“In the early years the star was the show, and I always say I love where the show went,” she remembers. “I can tell you exactly when the turning point was and it was remarkable to watch it evolve into what it became and to be a part of that. But in the beginning it was much more of an orchestra rather than a solo hit and the voices of the individual writer, the individual correspondent [and] producer were more woven into the fabric of the overall finished product.”

Her job as the executive producer and showrunner was to be the conductor of the orchestra. “If I wanted to work alone, I would have gone into poetry,” she says of her preference to work in the “collaborative sport” of television. As for The Daily Show, she referred to her creative duties as “playing slots with the world,” because she could come in one day and have five big stories to deal with, while the next day would simply be relegated to Shark Week news.

One of the advantages that Smithberg’s team had in those early seasons was that no one knew about The Daily Show. Being under-the-radar allowed for the show to get creative with stories and subjects, and while some people criticized the fake reporters for being mean, the show tried to earn its laughs within some boundaries.

“We had guidelines,” she says. “We couldn’t lie but we didn’t have to tell the entirety of the truth. I think that particular thing was an ongoing balance between wanting to be as cutting edge and as funny as we could be and also having to be face-to-face with people and not wanting to get hurt and not wanting to hurt anybody. We were accused of being mean but I feel like we really were just funny. A lot of people in America want to be on television, and a lot of times that desire clouds perception. I worked at Letterman for six years before The Jon Stewart Show, from ’86 to ’92, as the human interest producer, and everyone would always ask me, ‘Why would anyone ever come on this show if they know that Dave Letterman is going to make fun of them?’ I would say, ‘He’s not making fun of them, he’s making fun out of them. An important distinction.’ And I would say, ‘People’s desire to be on television outweighs their best judgment.’”

The greatest advantage of all, though, was that The Daily Show had no standards to meet. It didn’t have to live up to any expectations, other than simply being a funny show on a funny network, and so Smithberg and the staff were able to set their own expectations and experiment until they found the things that worked best.

“It was a magical time,” she says. “We were building a car but there were no rules so we could try five tires. We could put in waterbed seats. There was this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful feeling of collective creative inspiration that once it started really working was insanely gratifying to realize that the car with the waterbed seats could corner the market. Who knew? We were just having crazy inspired ideas because we had that freedom.”

Smithberg says her only regret is not paying much attention to diversity on her staff, but otherwise she wouldn’t change a thing about those first three seasons. The show did change, however, once Kilborn left to host The Late Late Show in 1999, and Stewart took over. Their styles were completely different, but few people would argue that the show took a hit in terms of quality once Kilborn took his Five Questions to CBS, Smithberg included.

“When Jon came on it made it better,” she says. “It’s sort of an empirical fact but it definitely became one coalesced point of view and it’s much easier to go, ‘Oh my God, yeah, Jon Stewart. Whereas, in the beginning, it was much more of a collaborative effort of a lot of different, really super-talented, smart people. Then it all sort of got skewed into something much clearer and stronger and pointed.”

“Craig Kilborn is on assignment in Kuala Lumpur, I’m Jon Stewart”

Smithberg knows the exact point at which The Daily Show with Jon Stewart became a “cultural force.” After the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush President of the United States, following the contested 2000 election, she says the world “went crazy.” Prior to that election, The Daily Show wasn’t on the political media map, but that chain of events helped establish Stewart’s role in the bigger picture. This show was no longer just a spoof of how news was delivered.

“The world went crazy and we were the only ones allowed to mirror that craziness,” Smithberg says. “There was nothing normal about it and it was during that span of time that we became the paper of record. We became the voice of everyone because we were the only ones that were allowed to laugh at how absurd it was and take that absurdity and build on it turning back on that absurdity in such a way that it rang true, and that was it. That’s when the Emmys started, that’s when all the magazine articles, that’s when I was in Vanity Fair and Elle magazine, and we were all on CNN, and suddenly 60 Minutes is spending the day with us. Really the dysfunction that happened in our political system, which is a tragedy and arguably created the mess that we’re in now globally, really helped our cable TV show.”

From that point on, The Daily Show only got bigger and more important in terms of how the news was presented, how the “real” media was policed, and how politicians and elected officials were held accountable for their behavior. Gone were the days of Colbert knocking on a portable toilet door to ask a man about his pee, because not only was The Daily Show well-known, but it had become the news source of a generation (even if Stewart was never really keen on people tuning in to get actual news).

The job of the head writer also evolved, as the role of defining and stretching boundaries to encourage writers and reporters to be funnier became more of a managerial position. Steve Bodow joined The Daily Show in 2002 as a staff writer, after 10 years as a magazine writer and theater director. He was a longtime fan of Letterman and fell in love with Stewart’s Daily Show when a friend introduced him to it, so it was serendipitous that he landed the writing gig at a time when it still hadn’t fully realized its potential.

While Smithberg thinks the turning point was after the 2000 election, Bodow believes that it really hit its stride in 2003 or 2004 when politics went from merely an interest to the main interest.

“When you’re in it at that moment you don’t think like, oh, I can see what this is going to be in three to four years, this is gonna be a big deal, because you’re doing it every day,” Bodow tells us. “For me that started to change around the time the Iraq War was starting because we started to do some pieces that were really beating the drum every day, and having a strong point of view about the war and the way the Bush administration was selling it and executing it and the way the media was doing that. Stuff that became, I think in later years, seen as our bread and butter. That also was, for me, where I really started to connect with what we were doing.”

In 2006, David Javerbaum announced that he was giving up his role as head writer to work on musical projects (he remained with The Daily Show as an executive producer), and Bodow was one of the writers who expressed interest in the gig. What Bodow offered wasn’t the status of the “best joke writer on the show,” as he simply and humbly puts it: “I’m pretty good, I’m not the best.” Instead, his advantage was managerial experience, particularly managing a group of people.

Bodow’s management experience, combined with his “good sense of story and organization” made him the next man for a very demanding job. He describes the change as going from being a staff writer at a magazine to being the senior editor, but he also faced an obstacle that no other Daily Show head writer had to deal with.

“It’s a big change and one that took me a while to figure out, and it took me especially a while to figure out because eight months into my doing it this threat of a Writers Guild strike started to come up in a really serious way,” he remembers. “With any new job it takes like six or 12 months for people to really get the job. You can be good on day one but you’re not really hitting your level for a year at least, whether you’re a host, a PA, or whatever. I was just figuring the job out and this strike thing came along and that was a huge drag and also a big rift temporarily for the writing staff. The fact that I was the head writer, I became, without asking for it or wanting it, the de facto leader of the striking group of people at the show. It was a drag. That just interrupted and set me back both in terms of figuring out what the job was and also how my relationships were developing for a while. It all got repaired eventually, but it was a tough time. It was not a fun time to be a writer here.”

The strike began on November 5, 2007, at which point The Daily Show took a break. It lasted through February 12, 2008, but the show returned with new episodes in January without writers and with Stewart, a WGA member, not allowed to write material for the show. (It was known during that period as A Daily Show.) If there was a positive aspect in the strike for viewers, it’s that it gave us the hilarious “feud” between Stewart, Colbert, and Conan O’Brien, but the writers probably didn’t share that joy.

Bodow and his staff, however, soon found joy in the 2008 presidential election’s ongoing gift to comedy: Sarah Palin. “It was a ball,” Bodow says of the show’s election coverage, and he used his experience from the 2004 election to make sure his writers had all of the important aspects covered. But it was really Palin’s presence that made Barack Obama’s first election such a special time, not only for him but for political comedy and satire in general.

“She is just a natural resource. She’s amazing and continues to be, too, and we felt that way about Trump for a long time,” he laughs. “It’s still true but he’s got me really worried at this point. We had a lot of fun with Lindsey Graham over the years, and who else has there been? Rick Perry, I always was a big Rick Perry fan.”

“Hey Trevor, could you give me about 20 more minutes?”

Like Bodow, Zhubin Parang didn’t have a strong background in comedy writing when he joined the show in 2011. In fact, he had worked in corporate law and at one point thought that he’d end up working in government. Instead, his love of The Daily Show and comedy led him to a job that was sort of related to the government, if you count mocking elected officials and making them look like idiots. By the time that he joined the staff, the show was already a huge success, and so he was naturally “starry-eyed and terrified.”

“The really good thing about the show is that the atmosphere is very collaborative,” Parang tells us. “There’s no real jealousy or competition among the writers. So, I really felt very quickly that they trust me and I could be free to turn in jokes that were not so great and learn on the job without being threatened with being fired or being asked to leave. The fear of letting down the show was always there, but the fear of failing I got over pretty quick.”

Stewart’s announcement that he was leaving The Daily Show was like a sucker punch to his longtime viewers. Almost two months later, Noah was revealed as his replacement and the criticism began almost immediately. Some dug up questionable jokes from Noah’s old tweets. Others wrote thinkpieces about the decisions Comedy Central should have made while pointing to a probably unavoidable ratings dip. But while detractors deal in hindsight, Noah and Parang, now the show’s head writer, are still focused on the new show that fans haven’t even seen yet.

“We’ve only been here for nine months and we’re in the midst of a political cycle, a general election, so if anything this is not the time for radical change, and I think over time evolution is better than revolution,” Noah says. “In terms of tone, I don’t think the tone, per se, has shifted other than the fact Jon was exasperated and this was something he loved because he was in it for so long and that’s partly why he left. Whereas I came in and I am fresh, I get irritated by some things, there are some issues that completely befuddle me because I’m thrown by the lack of progress on them or the insistence of people to back aside rather than to progress. The tone of the show has shifted slightly maybe because of how we approach satire and comedy. Jon and I are maybe slightly different. That would be the biggest thing really. But in terms of the general feel of the show, we’ve kept it up and slowly evolve and move it forward. It’s like if you look at it version-to-version it doesn’t seem that big, but when you take a step back and look at the big changes over a long period of time you realize there’s been a major jump in the operating software.”

“We’re still finding out,” Parang adds of the differences between Stewart and Noah. “I’m sure that will evolve. [Noah’s] style is much more rooted in a very loose, flowy stand-up than Jon was. Jon was very written and had very specific points he wanted to make and argue with. He wanted to challenge arguments he didn’t believe. Trevor is much more interested in telling story and going in and out of angles to look at problems and going off on a digression and coming back and linking it together. It’s a much more loose, thinking aloud process that mirrors his stand-up style. Adapting that for television and figuring out how to shoot it and write to it is the big project we’ve been undergoing for the past couple months.”

To Smithberg, who left the show in 2002, a lot of the show’s structural elements are still the same as The Daily Show’s first days. The headlines are still the first act, followed by a feature segment, and then the guest interview. It’s how Noah’s team will add its special signature to the format that has yet to be seen, but Bodow, who now serves as a writer and executive producer, reminds fans that everyone should be patient: “It takes a while for a show like this to evolve into what it’s going to be and we’re still very early days here.”

The impatience stems from that fierce loyalty to Stewart’s brand of The Daily Show, and his unparalleled ability to make people laugh in times of tragedy and inspired in times of stupidity. Noah’s crew isn’t trying to rewrite the Bible or repaint the Mona Lisa. They know what they’re up against.

“I think Jon Stewart was this generation’s comedian,” Parang says. “I think he redefined late night. When he came in ’99 it was one way and now that he’s left a majority of it is the vision he had. Not to mention he was one of the kindest, smartest, sweetest bosses and comics I’ve ever known. Definitely for me the best boss I’ve ever had in my life. And I’m hoping that Trevor is the same way, I hope he brings a vision and style to late night that is also revolutionary. I think changing the definition of late night is a good legacy goal.”

Bodow thinks Stewart’s legacy speaks for itself in terms of not only how successful the show was, but also the way his staffers have gone on to bigger and better things, as evidenced by the guest appearances on his final episode. “And that was only the on-camera people who you saw come back, who are out there and a big part of American comedy now,” he says. “There are writers and producers who came out of here who are just everywhere now and all of them learned a great deal from Jon. So, he’s got a lot of comedy descendants out there, both behind the scenes and in front.”

Noah is, of course, one of those descendants and he’s still learning just how influential and important Stewart was at a time when Stewart’s return as a guest on The Late Show gave Colbert a much-needed boost. The former Daily Show host’s shadow looms large and Noah isn’t trying to escape it as much as he’s trying to learn from it.

“My overall impression continues to grow and morph as times goes,” Noah says of Stewart’s legacy. “I don’t think I can ever fully truly appreciate and realize how much Jon did in terms of shaping the political discourse in the United States and in parts of the world as well. So, I think the impression is that a mountain was built, a really impressive mountain that was seen far and wide and many people have aspired to and you see its influence on television all over the world. It’s a really impressive thing that they’ve created.”

Comedy Central, Noah tells us, doesn’t want him to be Jon Stewart 2.0. The network encourages and pushes him to be his own late night host and move forward with the new identity that his Daily Show should have. For those that wish he could just flip a switch and get on with his version, that’s easier said than done.

“One show at a time, one day at a time,” he explains. “I used to go hiking a lot back in South Africa and the thing I learned when trying to climb a mountain is if you focus on the top you spend half your time tripping on what’s in front of you and then you just get tired. I just take one step at a time. I keep looking at my feet, I look at the path that’s right ahead of me and then I keep moving and then one day I’ll look back and go, oh, that is the legacy that I created, that is what I’ve left behind. But I feel like a legacy is a combination of all the small steps that you’ve taken to get you to that end point.”

Comparisons will still be made, which isn’t fair to Noah. But as he already showed with his response to the Orlando Pulse Night Club shooting, he can bring that same kind of comfort and strength of character that Stewart had to display too many times. Beyond that, Parang believes that fans of the previous Daily Show will soon see everything that Noah has to offer, everything that makes him believe that his new boss can be as great as his old boss.

“Trevor isn’t Jon. He doesn’t have Jon’s point of view, he doesn’t have Jon’s style of comedy, he’s his own guy,” Parang says. “I don’t think it would be fair to anybody, and especially not Trevor’s viewers, if he was trying to do a show that wasn’t his voice. We have found an audience for Trevor and will build Trevor’s audience. Trevor is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, I think his voice is brilliant and is interesting and is new in late night, and I think that is all we need to build an audience. People who love Jon’s show will love Trevor’s show. And if they don’t, that’s okay. Jon wasn’t Trevor. Trevor’s not Jon. I’m not really thinking about anything but how do we get Trevor’s voice and style out in the truest way possible to build the show? That’s the best thing we can do. And that’s the thing that I and everyone is aiming to do.”