Exploring The History And Legacy Of ‘The Daily Show’

Jon Stewart turns 52 years old today, and on the occasion it’s fascinating to look back on how both he and The Daily Show have grown in the almost sixteen years they’ve been on the air. Stewart went from a funny-but-obscure comic to the nation’s most important political satirist, and the show itself gradually grew from a simple parody of a TV news show, to a program that had more to say about current events than the actual news. This fall, Stewart was reportedly offered the hosting duties on Meet The Press, but turned it down, likely because he didn’t need it. He already has The Daily Show, which says a lot about just how important it’s become. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how we got here.

When Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as the host of The Daily Show in 1999, the show didn’t immediately appear all that different. It was a takeoff on shows like Nightline and doubled as a talk show. Stewart would discuss politics but he was more likely to crack jokes about whatever was going on, and mock the process as a whole rather than present a real opinion about the subject at hand.

What changed The Daily Show forever — and what took Stewart beyond comedian — was the first show after 9/11. His opening monologue is one of the most touching moments in television history. Stewart avoids cliche during his speech, and simply speaks honestly about his perspective on the attacks. He breaks into tears more than once, and you don’t doubt his sincerity for a second. Of all the commentaries that emerged in the wake of 9/11, Stewart’s might gave been the most essential. It proved he was not just a great comedian, but an outsanding orator as well. From their, the show truly took off, becoming the satirical-but-not-afraid-to-be-serious voice that America would prove to sorely need during troubled times.

It was in the early years of the Bush administration that The Daily Show found itself. Stewart had come into his own as a political satirist, and the correspondent bench was loaded, with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry all part of the cast. Seriously, read that list again — the Big 3 on the Cavaliers has nothing on these guys.

With the 2004 election approaching, it was becoming increasingly clear that Jon Stewart was one of America’s most important political voices, even if he was a bit reluctant to accept such a position. Studies were coming out showing that more teenagers got their news from The Daily Show than from actual news shows (I was one of those teenagers at the time), and in October 2004, he made his legendary appearance on Crossfire, where he accused the hosts of “partisan hackery,” and famously called Paul Begala a d***. When that show was canceled not long after, it was undeniable that Stewart’s fiery appearance had led to its downfall. He mattered more than the old guard at that point, and given the opportunity, he was gleefully unafraid to put them in their place.

But as the show was reaching the peak of its powers, there were problems brewing. Namely, that superstar cast of correspondents was moving on to bigger things. Colbert left to do his own show, Carell left for a movie a career, and a starring role on The Office, where Helms would later join him. Corddry eventually left, too, leaving the roster somewhat bare. If The Daily Show was going to stay at the apex of political satire, it would have to re-load its supporting cast.

Thankfully, the program was more than up to the challenge. The husband and wife duo of Samantha Bee and Jason Jones helped stabilized things, as both have been part of the cast for over a decade now. In subsequent years, The Daily Show added talents like John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi, and Wyatt Cenac. After losing his dream team, Stewart rebuilt his supporting cast, and the show lost little, if anything, in the humor department. At this point, The Daily Show felt a bit like Saturday Night Live in its prime years; it could shuffle its cast year-after-year without losing its comedic edge.

But how would The Daily Show handle the transition into a new presidency? Jon Stewart rose to prominence during the Bush years, when he had a glorious target to make fun of night after night: a president who often made easily mockable malapropisms, and also happened to be involved in some highly dubious foreign policy decisions. With Obama, it wouldn’t be so easy. Obviously, his administration has had low points, but taking him to task required more precision than going after Dubya.

Luckily, that didn’t seem to be a problem for Stewart and his supporting cast. Throughout Obama’s presidency, The Daily Show has pointed out the ridiculous, unprecedented opposition that he has faced from the Republicans, while also not letting him off the hook for his own mistakes. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but for the past six years, Stewart and company have managed it nicely.

Of course, you can never please everyone, and Stewart has had some harsh critics over the years, even from the left. Last month, Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny published the book #Newsfail, in which they dedicate an entire chapter (republished on Salon) to what they consider to be the downfall of Jon Stewart as a satirist.

It’s a worthwhile read, and it offers a different perspective, but I do respectfully disagree with some of their points. In asserting that Stewart no longer speaks truth to power with the vigor that he once did, they cite the Rally To Restore Sanity. The 2010 event Stewart and Colbert hosted on the National Mall meant to spoof the rally Glenn Beck held at the same spot two months earlier. During the rally Stewart stated has disdain for the lack of civilized discourse in America, and in doing so, played clips from both Fox News and MSNBC, as well as negative ads from both political parties. Kilstein and Kilkenny see this as drawing a false equivalency, partly because Fox News is more conservative than MSNBC is liberal, and partly because they view vitriolic discourse from the left as being less harmful than similar discourse from the right, because the message is more valid.

So yeah, The Daily Show will always have it detractors, but even now, in its 16th year on the air, its satire has stayed remarkably fresh. Once again, Stewart has thrived by finding another set of hilarious, sharp correspondents. With Oliver heading to HBO Last Week Tonight, the torch has been passed to talented folks like Jessica Williams, Jordan Klepper, and Al Madrigal, all of whom have had huge impacts on the show this year (Williams has been especially strong). Even Michael Che’s brief stint produced one particularly brilliant segment, where he explains just how hard it is for a black man to find a place where he won’t be hassled by the police.

After all this time, The Daily Show is still important, with plenty to say about the state of America. It would have been a crying shame if Stewart had taken that Meet The Press job, because as so many great episodes from just this past year have proved, he’s right where he needs to be.