A lively oral history of The Daily Show focused on Jon Stewart’s improbable transformation from basic-cable comic to progressive conscience.
New York magazine contributing editor Smith deftly combines narrative with the recollections of people involved with the show at every level, ranging from boldface names like John McCain to correspondents like Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. Stewart contributes the foreword, concurring with Smith that the show’s popularity resulted from its gradual development of an ethical center: “We never forgot what a privilege it was to have a platform.” Yet the show’s cultural impact was unforeseen when the fledgling Comedy Central network determined to create a parody news show to follow the show’s previous Craig Kilborn–hosted iteration, which “could be mean-spirited.” When Stewart took over in 1998, he ruffled feathers by trading the snarky persona for a political bent that “punched up” at powerful targets. As correspondent Mo Rocca recalls, “[Jon] had resolved that the show needed to have a point of view and couldn’t just be the kid at the back of the classroom throwing spitballs.” Following this backstage drama, the show found its voice during the 1999-2000 presidential contest, during which correspondents like Steve Carell and key writers like Ben Karlin added memorable guerrilla theater–style ambushes to both the torpid campaign and the ensuing tense deadlock. The election of George W. Bush and the horror of 9/11 and the increasingly absurd terror wars that followed set the tone for the show’s dark intensity and explosive popularity over the next decade. As John Oliver recalls about the show’s creative rigor, “Jon’s saying is, ‘If you take your foot off the throat of the show for a second, it will just get up and walk away.’ ” Smith effectively combines these reminiscences with an overall arc covering the show’s technical innovations, high-stakes internal negotiations (including spinoffs like The Colbert Report), and staffers’ contentious relationships, friendships, and shenanigans.
An intimate and entertaining look at a fake-news program whose caustic, witty alchemy remains missed by many.