History doesn’t just favor the winners. In some instances, it can seemingly turn everyone who isn’t a winner into a loser by default. For two and a half years, The Daily Show existed without Jon Stewart at the center of it, but as Stewart prepares to pass the torch to Trevor Noah, you’d be forgiven if you weren’t aware of Craig Kilborn’s version of the show. After all, it’s been 16 years since Kilby dance, dance, danced his way off the Daily Show stage on the way to The Late Late Show and greener network pastures, and that’ s a lifetime in the digital age. Especially when all anyone (understandably) wants to talk about is Jon Stewart’s legacy as the most trusted name in news.
At its inception, though, The Daily Show was supposed to mock, poke, and even impersonate the newsreaders, not outdo them in matters of trust and purpose.
“We were going to make fun of them by becoming them. We would operate as a news organization while acting like a comedy show,” wrote Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead in her book, “Lizz Free or Die Hard” according to CityPages.
As an inspiration for the kind of oblivious mannequin that the developing Daily Show was in search of, one mid-’90s news staple seemed to be the perfect model: Dateline anchor Stone Phillips. So vital to the development of the Daily Show‘s initial tone was Phillips that Winstead’s producing partner and former neighbor, Madeline Smithberg joked to Dame Magazine that he almost deserved his own co-creator credit.
“We studied that guy. It became, Okay, we pretend we’re him and mix it with stories that are much more absurd.”
Of course, finding a fake anchor is a lot harder than it may seem. Winstead and Smithberg sifted through comedians (too jokey and too eager to comment on the material) and local newsmen and features reporters (too wacky) during the nearly one-year run-up from pitch to air. They even thought about bringing in Jon Stewart, who they had both worked with on The Jon Stewart Show, but he was unavailable at the time. Craig Kilborn, on the other hand, was interested and able to be snatched up, and he had the eye of Comedy Central executive Doug Herzog, making the former Sportscenter anchor a slam dunk to lead the team.