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.