Over his 16-year run as anchor of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart wore the same clothes to the office every day: a uniform of ratty T-shirts, baseball caps, khaki pants and work boots. To hear it described, the stale ambiance of the studio was somewhere between a dorm room and a kennel, ripe with the smell of “free-ranging dogs” and congealed leftovers. For Stewart and his staff, a life in comedy was neither glamorous nor debauched, and anyone who thought otherwise was weeded out. It was more like a newsroom than a rock band. If the behind-the-scenes drama were any more colorful, “The Daily Show” would not have been possible.
It’s natural to suspect that the relative timidity of “The Daily Show (The Book),” Chris Smith’s oral history of the Comedy Central program, stems from the fact that it’s an in-house endeavor, the third in a series that includes “America (The Book)” and “Earth (The Book).” Yes, Smith argues for the satirical news show’s place in the cultural firmament, ticking through the highlights of Stewart’s tenure and hailing the ascendant careers of former correspondents Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee. But it wouldn’t be fair to question the candor of this history, which unpacks several ugly blowups between Stewart and his staffers.
Like a tamer version of James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’s oral histories of “Saturday Night Live” and ESPN, “The Daily Show (The Book)” assembles dozens of interview transcriptions about key moments in the show’s history, under cheeky chapter titles such as “Oh, For Fox Sake” and “When Barry Met Silly.” Writers, correspondents and crew members, along with a selection of key guests and prominent critics, talk freely with Smith, who provides some connective tissue when necessary. Although the day-to-day grind of producing the show often blinded Stewart and his team from the effect they were having outside the studio, the book gives a fuller picture of how their targeted outrage affected the culture.
Inside “The Daily Show” sausage factory, Stewart was determined to turn arguments about the follies of government into piercing comedy. Oddly, this oral history doesn’t say much about Craig Kilborn’s three-year stint as the show’s original anchor — nor does it include him among the scores of interview subjects — but Stewart’s vision for the show prompted an insurrection from the writers Kilborn left behind. To forge “The Daily Show” as we know it today, Stewart and his head writer, Ben Karlin, first had to weed out the malcontents, leading to a confrontation so titanic that it leaked to the New York Post’s Page Six column. “Jon and I used to have this thing: crazy out, sane in,” Karlin says. “We wanted to try to build a show of smart, funny, reasonable people with a similar vision who were hard workers.”
From there, “The Daily Show” scuttled the glib one-liners and down-punching field segments of the Kilborn years in favor of a rigorous focus on politics and a commitment to speaking truth to power. The book revels in the wonky details of creating a segment: the morning discussion of the day’s issues; the endless drafts and revisions, even the frenzied period after rehearsal. Stewart never let a line go through the prompter that he didn’t fuss over personally, and his writers learned not to get too precious about their work.
At the same time, Stewart had to do some evolving, too, particularly when it came to bringing more women and people of color into the writers’ room and diversifying the team of correspondents. Smith gives a full airing to the cast’s fractured response to a critical piece on the Jezebel website about the show’s gender problems. And he also includes a wide-ranging conversation about a shouting match between Stewart and correspondent Wyatt Cenac over Stewart’s treatment of race. The latter incident surfaced publicly just days before Stewart’s final show, in August 2015, but even now, after some reflection and healing, that wound apparently still throbs.
Along with all these minor detonations, “The Daily Show (The Book)” offers a satisfying highlight reel of the show’s achievements, from segments such as “Mess O’Potamia” and the “Indecision” election coverage to “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” and Stewart’s epic jeremiad against Fox News Channel. To the extent that the show altered American politics, the book savors smaller victories, such as Stewart’s persistent lobbying on behalf of 9/11 first responders.
“The Daily Show” under Stewart did what it could to illuminate, to outrage, to point out hypocrisies and, on most nights, to make us laugh in the process. Readers of this compelling history will appreciate the sweat behind every joke.
Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer in Chicago.
By Chris Smith
Grand Central. 480 pp. $30