How 'The Daily Show' creators were 'erased' from its legacy

Entertainment

Los Angeles Times 22 July, 2021 - 07:00am 4 views

But the Great Man Theory of “The Daily Show,” which also includes Stewart’s predecessor and inaugural host, Craig Kilborn, and successor and current host, Trevor Noah, overlooks the contributions of two women essential to the series’ success: its creators.

The story of one of the most influential programs of the last 25 years can be traced back to the day, circa 1994, when TV producer Madeleine Smithberg and comedian Lizz Winstead moved into the same building on West 20th Street in Manhattan, a brownstone where Jack Kerouac had written some of “On the Road.” When given the opportunity to develop a late-night show on a shoestring budget for what was then a cable backwater, the neighbors-turned-friends created an enduring and surprisingly adaptable new form of satire that remains ubiquitous in late-night TV.

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And they’d be happy if their contributions were more widely acknowledged.

“It’s astounding how many people don’t know that two women created ‘The Daily Show,’” says Winstead, who gathered with Smithberg and several original correspondents for a virtual reunion this week. “Madeleine and I did a lot of work to lay out this cool show. It exists for a reason — because we worked for hardly any money to make it happen.”

Doug Herzog, who commissioned the show while president of Comedy Central, agrees: “They put this thing on the air, they brought it to life, they nurtured it. There’s obviously no ‘Daily Show’ without Madeleine and Lizz,” he says. “This was a show led by two women at a time when late night was a boys’ club.”

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Smithberg recruited Winstead, a stand-up comedian who specialized in politically charged material, to work for her as a segment producer. “The Jon Stewart Show” was soon canceled, going down in actual flames when Marilyn Manson started a fire onstage.

But Smithberg and Winstead were on to their next idea: a scripted series, inspired by “The Larry Sanders Show,” set behind the scenes of a fictional cable network.

They pitched the idea to Herzog. At the time, Comedy Central was “a network in search of an identity and an audience,” he says. It had a few original productions, including the panel show “Politically Incorrect” and the animated series “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” but other than that it was mostly “Absolutely Fabulous” reruns and old Gallagher specials. When Bill Maher unceremoniously decided to take “Politically Incorrect” to ABC, Herzog had a void to fill.

Herzog thought the “Larry Sanders"-style show Smithberg and Winstead were developing would be too expensive to make. Instead, he urged them to focus on what he’d started referring to as “The Daily Show” — a nightly broadcast that would function as the network’s home base. His fuzzy idea was for something “part ‘SportsCenter,’ part Howard Stern, part ‘Weekend Update’” featuring someone at a desk, he says.

When Herzog guaranteed Smithberg and Winstead a year on the air, with no pilot necessary, they could no longer refuse.

“Just knowing that you’re not going to be canceled tomorrow, which I’ve had on almost every other show I’ve ever worked on, takes that weight off of a creative team,” says Smithberg, who had spent six years as a talent producer at “Late Night With David Letterman” before branching out on her own.

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Resisting pressure to focus on pop-culture headlines, she and Winstead came up with the idea to turn “The Daily Show” into a parody of the news.

At the time, the hyper-partisan media landscape we now take for granted was still years away — Fox News and MSNBC launched in 1996, the same year as “The Daily Show” — and newsmagazines were in the ascendance. The major broadcast networks had discovered they could pad their lineup with inexpensive shows like “48 Hours,” “20/20" and especially “Dateline NBC,” which aired as many as four times a week in the mid-1990s.

The tone of these shows — and the local news broadcasts that still garnered big audiences — was relentlessly alarmist, Winstead recalls: “Every piece was like, ‘Your mattress: What you don’t know might kill you!’”

She had enlisted her then-boyfriend, Brian Unger, early in the development process. A former producer for CBS News who had grown disillusioned with broadcast journalism, Unger would vent about the business. They studied “Dateline’s” anchor, Stone Phillips, taking note of his earnest listening face and other self-important mannerisms.

In the middle of one of those sessions came “the aha moment of all aha moments,” Smithberg remembers. “We all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God, we can pretend that we’re them. And if we pretend we’re them, we can make fun of them while we’re also delivering the news!’”

“I often say that Stone Phillips deserves a ‘created by’ credit with me and Lizz, as does Brian Unger,” she adds.

For the joke to really land, “The Daily Show” had to look just right. The goal, according to Winstead, was that “if you turned the volume down, you would have no idea it was a satire.” Unger taught the other correspondents, including former “Saturday Night Live” writer A. Whitney Brown, to light and shoot their segments.

I think that the first 2 ½ years of the show, where the bones were being built, have been systematically and intentionally erased from public record.

‘The Daily Show’ co-creator Madeleine Smithberg

In this regard Kilborn, a “SportsCenter” anchor, was perfect for the job: tall, blond, looked good in a suit, understood the cadence of TV news. He didn’t have a very strong political point of view — his trademark bit was the cheeky “Five Questions” — but Smithberg, as showrunner, and Winstead, as head writer, didn’t necessarily need that.

“He was like Ted Baxter,” says Smithberg, comparing him to the newsman played by Ted Knight on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “It was like our writers had a ventriloquist’s dummy. They could put any words into his mouth.”

The show’s slogan was “When news breaks, we fix it,” and from Day One it offered sharp commentary designed for a media-savvy audience.

A recurring segment called “Trial of the Century of the Week” skewered the very ’90s obsession with high-profile criminal cases. Beth Littleford did Barbara Walters-style celebrity interviews with a literal soft focus: The lens was so blurry you could hardly make out her features.

Winstead and Smithberg looked for correspondents with improv training because they were nimble enough to do the deadpan interviews that instantly became a “Daily Show” hallmark. (In the show’s very first field piece, Unger interviewed a woman obsessed with her dead cat.)

Stephen Colbert joined the show in 1997 and elevated the correspondent shtick to an art form, Smithberg says: “We saw what comedy genius was up close.”

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“The Daily Show” was not a massive hit, but it caught on with younger male viewers — even more so once “South Park” premiered on Comedy Central in 1997 — and, of course, the self-obsessed news media.

“It was like this thing that was missing from our lives that we never knew was missing,” says Winstead, who also appeared as a correspondent.

Kilborn quickly became a star, but the attention also led to trouble. A story published in Esquire in January 1998 detailed the behind-the-scenes tensions between Kilborn and the show’s female creators. After several rounds of Scotch, Kilborn referred to some of the women on staff as “bitches” and said that Winstead would perform oral sex on him if he wanted. He later issued a public apology and was suspended for a week.

Soon after, Winstead walked away from the show she had created. Even now, she declines to elaborate about the decision. “I hardly ever talk about it,” she says. “This show was my passion for a reason. And every single thing that I’ve done since has been a reflection of that.”

Smithberg stayed on as showrunner, convincing her old friend Stewart to step behind the “Daily Show” desk. (Herzog says he tried unsuccessfully to get Jimmy Kimmel to take the job.)

Smithberg steered the show through the extended chaos of the 2000 election — “the moment where the show became ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ that everybody knew and loved,” she says — and eventually left the show in 2003, just as the war in Iraq was ramping up.

“The Daily Show” won the Emmy for variety series for the first time that September, but Smithberg was not onstage to receive the award.

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“He bought a house and renovated it,” Smithberg says of Stewart’s role in transforming “The Daily Show,” “but he didn’t build the house.” (Stewart did not respond to The Times’ request for comment on this story.)

Over the next 12 years, millions of fans would look to Stewart as a voice of reason in an increasingly skewed media landscape. “The Daily Show” became a legitimate platform for politicians, authors and even sitting presidents to reach the public. NBC even considered offering Stewart a job anchoring “Meet the Press.” When Stewart announced in February 2015 that he would be stepping down later that year, it overshadowed the news that an actual anchor, NBC’s Brian Williams, had been suspended from his job the same day.

Though widely revered, Stewart also faced occasional criticism for enabling a boys’ club atmosphere at “The Daily Show.” For much of his tenure, the show had no female writers, a fact that became glaringly apparent every year at the Emmys.

“I think that the first 2½ years of the show, where the bones were being built, have been systematically and intentionally erased from public record,” she says. (You can still watch 20-year-old episodes of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on the Comedy Central website, but clips from the Kilborn era are not available online except through a few dubious YouTube accounts.)

Smithberg now lives outside Seattle and recently started a cooking show on YouTube called “Mad in the Kitchen.”

Winstead, who went on to co-found Air America, the liberal talk radio network that helped launch Rachel Maddow’s career, and Abortion Access Front, a reproductive rights organization, still watches “The Daily Show.” And she’s surprised whenever people are surprised by this.

“I’m so excited it didn’t fizzle out,” she says. “I love seeing my instincts pay off.”

The sheer longevity of “The Daily Show” — and the many shows it inspired — proves “you can be factually accurate, funny, and punch up,” she says. And Winstead doesn’t buy the idea, put forward by many, that “The Daily Show” sowed distrust in the media.

“Don’t say, ‘Oh, “The Daily Show” is creating cynics.’ No, the news media created the cynics,” she says, “and those cynics created ‘The Daily Show.’”

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Meredith Blake is an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times based out of New York City, where she primarily covers television. A native of Bethlehem, Pa., she graduated from Georgetown University and holds a master’s degree from New York University.

Read full article at Los Angeles Times

The 7 guests that explain why 'The Daily Show' became a place to make news

Los Angeles Times 22 July, 2021 - 10:22am

In the 25 years since, it’s become a vital voice in the late-night landscape in part because it’s a site for intriguing conversations with the well-known, the hardly known and the completely unknown in the worlds of entertainment and politics, and everywhere in between.

We look back at some of the notable guests who’ve passed through “The Daily Show” over the years, focusing on the show’s higher-profile eras under Jon Stewart and his successor, Trevor Noah — with insights from executive producer and showrunner Jen Flanz, as well as producers Beth Shorr and Shawna Shepherd, who handle booking on the show.

Barack Obama has appeared on “The Daily Show” as a senator, a presidential candidate, the U.S. president, and a former president.

“I do worry about the hype — the only person more overhyped than me is you,” he told Stewart in his first appearance, as a senator from Illinois, in November 2005. He’d sit with Stewart six more times — and they weren’t all favorable appearances.

His first visit as president in October 2010, after a tumultuous 18 months in office and with the midterm elections in view, resulted in a peppery three-part interview in which Obama defended his achievements as Stewart expressed his disappointment in the Obama administration over its “timid” legislation on healthcare.

“Jon, I love your show. but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you,” Obama said, calling Obamacare a crowning achievement of his presidency. “This notion that healthcare was timid — you’ve got 30 million people who are gonna get healthcare because of this.”

Obama’s first appearance under Noah’s tenure came at the end of 2016, in the final days of his presidency. Noah had met Obama at the 39th Kennedy Center Honors just months before and implored Shepherd to try to secure the president as a guest before his term was up.

“I was asked to follow up with my contacts at the White House after that ... and I happened to be in labor at the time, but I continued with the call, and I’m glad I did because we were able to book the interview that day,” Shepherd said. “But I never told the White House team that I was in labor. I felt weird. But we had been trying for so long, I wasn’t going to give up.”

It was Noah’s first remote interview — taking place inside the White House — and would be critical in establishing the host, who was still being measured against Stewart’s imposing shadow.

The two discussed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, how Obama navigates racism, and the future of Obamacare. The crew was limited because the interview took place in a small room in the West Wing. The show’s editors also worked on site in D.C. for a quick turnaround to get the interview ready for that night’s episode.

“It took much longer than we expected to edit the interview,” Flanz said. “We ended up missing our train and missing all the flights. We wound up staying in D.C. that night because we just got the show on the air, at 11 p.m. We were like, ‘Forget it, we’re not going to drive back.” I slept in the dress I met Obama in.”

Conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren rose to prominence during the 2016 election through a series of provocative viral videos as host of “Tomi” on Glenn Beck’s conservative network, the Blaze, in which she lambasted the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s activism.

And Noah wanted to invite her on the show.

“I think he saw her out in the zeitgeist and had wanted to know, like, ‘Why is she saying this?’ and wanted her to elaborate on her opinions,” Shorr said, “as opposed to just like dropping a clickbait sort of bomb-thing. [He] wanted to try to come to an understanding of where she was coming from.”

There was some internal discussion about whether they would be recklessly giving a platform to Lahren’s incendiary views or presenting an illuminating conversation with someone with opposing viewpoints. Ultimately, she was booked for an appearance in December 2016 in what became one of Noah’s most talked-about interviews, with some praising it as a high point that was reminiscent of Stewart’s legacy, while others called it a disgrace.

Noah did a lot of prep for the conversation, Shorr said, making sure he was clear on all of Lahren’s talking points. (That involved Shorr and some of the show’s writers reviewing footage and reading transcripts of Lahren’s commentary.)

Noah kicked off the segment by asking Lahren: “Why are you so angry?” before launching into a lengthy debate on policy, recently elected President Trump, and race. When the conversation turned to Kaepernick, Lahren said she didn’t believe the quarterback’s decision to kneel during the national anthem was “the right way” for him to protest — prompting Noah to press her on her logic.

“What is the right way?” he said. “So here is a Black man in America who says, I don’t know how to get a message across. If I march in the streets, people say I’m a thug. If I go out and I protest, people say that it’s a riot. If I bend down on one knee, then it’s not [the right way].”

“I think that we knew it was going to be a tough interview,” Shorr said. “But I don’t think that we thought it was going to blow up online.”

Added Flanz: “I feel like it was a big turning point for us, in getting guests [during Noah’s tenure]. People really saw the kinds of conversations that [Noah] wanted to have, even with people that are just coming out to talk about a movie or something — really getting into these in-depth conversations. So it was a pretty big moment, in terms of people seeing who Trevor is and who he was becoming.”

Remember back to late March 2020, when the uncertainty and fear of a pandemic in the early days of its grip on the U.S. seemingly intensified by the hour. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, quickly emerged as a trusted voice. And “The Daily Show” was his first stop on the late-night circuit.

Fauci’s team did the reaching out to “The Daily Show,” according to producers.

“Our understanding was they wanted to reach our young audience,” Shepherd said.

The program was a week into producing episodes remotely from home — under the title “The Daily Social Distancing Show With Trevor Noah” — and producers, like many of us working from home, were contending with technical challenges.

“It was a long interview — they talked for, like, 20 minutes,” Flanz said. “Trying to edit that down in time to get it on the air, it was a very close call. And if you go back and watch it now, the video quality is not great. Our editor who worked on it still wishes they had another two hours. But there were definitely nerves of, ‘Wow, we landed this huge interview and we might not get it.’ That was scary. The edit was rocky because we had just started doing shows this way. It never got to where we’d want it to be. ... There were technical glitches galore in that interview.”

During the conversation, Fauci described the virus as “insidious” and stressed the importance of social distancing and frequent hand-washing: “It’s a respiratory-borne illness that easily spreads from person to person but that has a high degree of morbidity and mortality,” he said. “And unfortunately that’s the worst nightmare you could have, to have something like that.”

Meanwhile, Noah asked the sort of questions we all were asking about the elusive virus: whether younger people are immune to it, if it’s safe to touch packages, how long coronavirus hangs in the air.

“We were holed up in our apartments and our homes, and we were scared,” Shepherd said. “We finally had this expert on, so Trevor was not only thinking of our viewers, but he was asking as a legitimately concerned human being.”

Much like Stewart helped introduce Elizabeth Warren to a wider audience — even before she expressed political aspirations —Noah has continued the tradition of tracking the evolution of a rising political figure.

When Georgia’s Stacey Abrams made her debut on “The Daily Show” in 2018, to promote her book “Minority Leader: How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change,” the Democrat was the first Black woman to run for governor as a major-party nominee in any state.

Noah asked Abrams how she felt about the focus on the history-making aspect of her run for governor, rather than what platform she was running on.

“I think sometimes there is a Crayola version of policymaking that happens where they do focus on color,” said Abrams. “My mission is to talk about issues, to talk about education and to talk about why it is so critical that we create jobs for everyone that pay a good wage, to talk about expanding access to Medicaid so poor people don’t get sick in Georgia.”

Her eventual narrow defeat in the race didn’t stop her from fighting for equal voting rights in the state and beyond.

“She’s just a really inspiring political figure,” Shepherd said. “We saw her just become an even bigger and bigger political figure and activist. We look back and we’re grateful that we had her on early. Because she’s just the type of person that we want to showcase on the show.”

And although Warren has talked about the nerves she had ahead of her first appearance on the show — which included bouts of vomiting — producers said Abrams didn’t seem as fazed by her inaugural visit.

“She’s a Fulbright scholar,” Shepherd said.

Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist, was on producers’ radar after her impassioned speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2019.

While Thunberg was in New York City in September 2019 to speak at the U.N., she made “The Daily Show” her only late-night appearance to promote the Global Climate Strike. And, like the true teenage climate activist that she is, she opted to travel by boat — a 15-day journey.

“Even though she wasn’t in the U.S., I just started reaching out and trying to get in contact with her,” Shepherd said. “Fast forward, we’re getting closer to September, she’s gonna sail to the U.S. [Before that], we kept joking — I said, she’s not going to fly so I don’t know when she’s ever going to come to the U.S. I don’t know how she’s gonna get here.”

In an illuminating moment in the conversation, Noah asked Thunberg if she sensed a difference in how Sweden and the U.S. viewed the climate crisis.

“I would say yes,” Thunberg said. “Because here, it feels like it is being discussed as something you believe in or [do] not believe in. And where I come from, it’s more like, it’s a fact.”

“It was a big deal,” Shepherd said. “Trevor really wants to have people on the show and showcase their activism and what they care about. And she’s the perfect example of that.”

It was a notable enough conflict in “The Daily Show” canon to warrant its own Wikipedia page. In the lead-up to his now-famous 2009 interview with CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, Stewart had been making weeklong jabs at the financial news network and some of its hosts, including the stock market pundit, for their deferential coverage of Wall Street in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Cramer’s 15-minute appearance is best classified as a skilled takedown, with Stewart pummeling the financial analyst for being too chummy with bankers, using clips of Cramer’s questionable takes against him: “I understand you want to make finance entertaining. But it’s not a f— game,” Stewart tells Cramer at one point.

“I expected a cordial discussion,” Cramer later said in an interview for New York Times Magazine. “They promised they wouldn’t use any clips, and they lied.

“I should have known this was coming because of how vicious Stewart had been all week,” he said, “but I really thought it was just going to be a friendly show.”

As Flanz remembers it, Cramer’s visit entailed a copious amount of prep work that they didn’t typically do for interviews.

“It was the first one I remember us prepping footage for — like, having tape ready in the control room — like, ‘You said this, you said this, do you remember when you said this?’” said Flanz, who had roles as supervising producer and coordinating producer during Stewart’s run. “And our director [was] calling the rolls on the fly as Jon would say a key word, and then when Stewart said ‘roll to 12,’ I was in the control room for that and I was like, ‘OMG’ [with a shriek]. The tactical part of making sure we had the right clip ready — it was really tense.”

As for Cramer’s claims that producers promised no clips would be used, Flanz says: “We never make promises like that.”

Not only was Bill O’Reilly a frequent target of ridicule on “The Daily Show” during the Stewart era, the former Fox News host was also a frequent guest, with his first appearance in October 2004. In fact, O’Reilly and Stewart appeared on each other’s show’s many times during their respective on-air runs, often sparring with an air of respect. The O’Reilly-Stewart friendly feud even led to a mock presidential-style debate in 2012 to raise funds for charity.

But with some hindsight, Stewart has reflected on O’Reilly’s visits with regret. In a recent New York Times article, he characterized it as “the worst legacy of ‘The Daily Show.’”

“Those moments when you had a tendency, even subconsciously, to feel like, ‘We have to live up to the evisceration expectation.’” he said in the interview. “We tried not to give something more spice than it deserved, but you were aware of, say, what went viral. Resisting that gravitational force is really hard.”

“I know that Jon feels that way now about it,” Flanz said, “but I think, at the time, it seemed like somebody that we should be having a conversation with because Jon was challenging him on his [O’Reilly’s] views and what he was saying on the air — it felt important.”

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Yvonne Villarreal covers television for the Los Angeles Times.

Trevor Noah worried he'd 'break' 'The Daily Show.' Instead, he's made it his own

Los Angeles Times 22 July, 2021 - 07:00am

As Trevor Noah, the guy who eventually won the gig, put it in a 2019 interview with The Times: “Only an idiot would take over from Jon Stewart as the host of ‘The Daily Show.’ And luckily, I was that idiot.”

Comedy Central announced Noah would succeed Stewart in 2015 after he made just three appearances as an on-air contributor to the show. Suffice it to say, it was an unexpected choice. Noah wasn’t widely known outside of his native South Africa, where he grew up as a child of a mixed-race union, then illegal in that country’s apartheid system. (Noah titled his 2016 memoir “Born a Crime.”)

“I never looked down on any type of decision that was made because someone said ‘no’ to somebody else,” Noah said. “We are all a ‘no’ to somebody else’s ‘yes.’”

Times television critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd discuss the profound influence of “The Daily Show” in its 25 years on air.

Noah’s six-year run with “The Daily Show” has expanded the ranks of women and people of color both behind and in front of the camera, evolving the staff beyond what Stewart once called a “Harvard Lampoon school of pasty white guys sitting in a room.” It has grown in other ways too, standing as the No. 1 late-night show in digital and social media and podcast downloads.

But the changing of the guard wasn’t smooth. After Noah took over, the show lost nearly 700,000 viewers a night from Stewart’s final year. And it took a long time for Noah to understand what Stewart had told him (“Jon is my Jewish Yoda”) before the transition: The program is an extension of the host. Noah was at a loss in making an imprint on a show that had become a national institution.

“How do you break what was one of the most lauded shows in American history? Who has the right? Nobody,” Noah said, remembering his early struggles. The breakthrough came about eight months into his tenure, when he took “The Daily Show” on the road to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia leading up to the 2016 election. Then Donald Trump was elected, and Noah found an adversary, along with an increased sense of urgency.

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“This is it, the end of the presidential race, and it feels like the end of the world,” Noah said on air the night Trump won. “You know, I’m not going to lie, I don’t know if you’ve come to the right place for jokes tonight, because this is the first time throughout this entire race where I’m officially s— my pants.”

“Satire works best when it has targets,” Noah told The Times. “Once Trump came into office, the show immediately had its relationship with the White House. And it [was] an interesting relationship, like Harry Potter had with Voldemort.”

That said, Noah defines his primary goal moving forward — he’ll return from a three-month hiatus on Sept. 13 to a “Daily Show” that, per Comedy Central, will boast a “brand new look and feel” — as engaging viewers in a way that will bridge divisions. “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. thinks he might succeed.

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“There’s an even keel to Trevor that helps you maintain a north star and have a conversation that can get lost in a bunch of yelling and screaming on both sides,” Wood told The Times.

Prior to leaving on his summer hiatus, Noah laid out his hopes for when he returns to work.

“We have to acknowledge that we may have differing opinions on things and then go from there,” he said in a Zoom call from his Manhattan apartment. “But man, I can’t expect everyone in my audience to share every single viewpoint. And I think that’s slowly where we’re getting to. People are discarding other people and creating brainwashed factions of thoughts. You have to tick all these boxes, then you can be my friend. If not, then I don’t want to see your voice on social media.”

“So I’ll try to breathe in the summer months and then come back and try and be a part of that. And I’d rather fail at least trying to be a part of that. I do not wish to succeed in the shouting match. I can’t spend all my time in pandemic land away from humans and then not figure out how to talk to humans when I come out of this thing.”

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Glenn Whipp covers film and television for the Los Angeles Times and serves as columnist for The Envelope, The Times’ awards season publication.

Timeline: Looking back at 25 years of indelible 'Daily Show' moments

Los Angeles Times 22 July, 2021 - 07:00am

Whether you want to know more about “The Daily Show’s” origins, its transformation under Jon Stewart, the passing of the baton to Noah or where the series is headed in its next 25 years, The Times has you covered. Read on:

Times television critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd discuss the profound influence of “The Daily Show” in its 25 years on air.

Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg created the beloved news satire, which premiered 25 years ago. Why haven’t they gotten credit for it?

‘Daily Show’ correspondents Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, Dulcé Sloan and Roy Wood Jr. take us behind the scenes of the ‘comedy PhD program.’

Jon Stewart’s successor struggled to put his stamp on “The Daily Show.” Then he found his stride — and began shaping the show’s next quarter century.

For the series’ 25th anniversary, we look back on a few of its most memorable guests, with insights from ‘The Daily Show’ bookers and showrunner.

The 5-year-old cable network tries to solidify its audience with more original programming, including the Craig Kilborn-hosted news satire.

A December 1998 profile of Jon Stewart, whose first episode as ‘The Daily Show’ host came the following month.

With their shows hit first by the strike, TV funnymen like Jon Stewart worked to make sure nonwriting workers were paid.

Stewart’s sendoff brought the longtime correspondent, now host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” to tears.

Jon Stewart’s decision to step down as host ended a 16-year run that changed the way Americans viewed the news.

After the “Daily Show” host announced he was leaving his post, The Times examined the future of the cable network where he made his name.

Noah’s announcement as successor to Jon Stewart heralded an era in which issues of diversity and representation would define both TV and the wider culture.

Stewart’s interviews with Obama are reminiscent of a love story, from the meet-cute to the worn-out sniping to the age of comfort and security.

The series’ longtime host bids adieu in this Times profile.

That the Republican candidates’ debate took place on the same day Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” was not something “The Daily Show” would fail to notice.

On the eve of his first episode, Noah, a self-described “cultural chameleon,” sat for an interview with The Times.

TV critic Robert Lloyd reviews Noah’s “Daily Show” debut.

Noah had his work cut out for him going into the live election-night edition of “The Daily Show.”

‘The Daily Show With Trevor Noah’ is tossing out all the old rules. And it’s going viral because of it.

What made 'The Daily Show' the most influential late-night comedy of the last 25 years

Los Angeles Times 22 July, 2021 - 07:00am

But it did. Twenty-five years later, The Times looks back on the series’ legacy, including its creation by Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg; its halcyon years under the leadership of Jon Stewart; its history of news-making political guests; and its current iteration hosted by Trevor Noah and marked by the most diverse cadre of correspondents in its history. Here, Times television critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd reflect on what “The Daily Show” has meant for comedy, culture and politics, and how the series achieved its unmatched reach.

Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg created the beloved news satire, which premiered 25 years ago. Why haven’t they gotten credit for it?

Robert Lloyd: It’s been 25 years since the “The Daily Show” premiered, a quarter-century ago — a mathematical redundancy that somehow feels appropriate, expressing its year-by-year slog on the one hand and the huge hunk of history that it represents on the other. It has only had three hosts in that time, with the third surely not going anywhere soon. (If Trevor Noah stays in the job as long as Jon Stewart did, he will be announcing his retirement in 2031, around the time Echo Park becomes beachfront property.)

By contrast, the United States is on its fifth president, and uncountable nervous breakdown, since Craig Kilborn came on the air with a show I’m going to guess few people remember well. It was a different world. In 1996, Netflix did not exist. Amazon was 2 years old and still strictly in the business of destroying independent bookstores. No one was talking about a New Golden Age of Television. “Macarena” was the No. 1 song and grunge was just about completely dead. Simone Biles was not yet born; Trevor Noah was 12 years old and living in Soweto. Still to come: impeachment, hanging chads, 9/11, endless war, the complete breakdown of reality, and the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the first Black president and the first Black/Asian/female vice president. (Also: “Veep.”) Facebook was not a thing. Twitter was not a thing. Instagram was not a thing. Climate change was already happening, though.

But most importantly, “The Daily Show” made the increasingly toxic news churn feel a little less soul-crushing. I barely remember Craig Kilborn, but Jon Stewart got us through some really tough times — 9/11, the war in Iraq, Sarah Palin, the rise of conspiracy-theory politics. And as social media ramped up, so did the firehose of news, real or fabricated. “I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever’s going on,” Stewart once said of the onslaught. When Trevor Noah took over in 2015, he had his work cut out for him. The Lock-Her-Up election. Trump. Russia. The pandemic. White supremacists storming the Capitol. Caitlyn Jenner running for office. Yet he’s managed to make the tortuous hell ride a little less terrifying — and, yes, even fun. “The Daily Show” has had its ups (Aasif Mandvi as a Middle East Correspondent) and downs (too few women), but it’s incredible when you consider the influence it’s had on popular culture.

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Lloyd: Especially given that it’s a show on Comedy Central — basic cable! — though undoubtedly it was the fact that it developed in relative obscurity that allowed the program to find its voice, build a following and a reputation and become part of the national political discourse. That Stewart always claimed he was an entertainer and not a journalist — accurate, after all, given the show’s mix of fact with satirical fancy — did not stop viewers from making it part of their news diet. Irony is a great revealer of truth; Colbert made a career out of it on “The Colbert Report.” The difference between “The Daily Show” and a highly disingenuous program like Tucker Carlson’s is that “Daily Show” viewers can tell a dessert from the entree.

I can’t swear that Stewart or his writers coined the term “fake news,” but it’s the first place I remember hearing those words put together, as part of “fake news show,” not a show full of “fake news” but a “news show” that was fake. Now it’s become a finger pointed at anything reported that doesn’t jibe with Trump-ian unreality.

Ali: Oh, the irony (“Daily Show” fans get it). Another aspect of the show that differentiates it from a sketch-comedy forerunner like “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” segment is that there’s a sense of activism, or at least of righting some wrongs, in between the jokes and the guest interviews. Stewart was relentless in questioning the intelligence and motives that got us into the Iraq war, a conflict he referred to as “Mess O’Potamia.” He supported and hired veterans of that and the Afghanistan wars. He spent many a night shining a light on the subprime mortgage nightmare that contributed to the 2008 economic collapse. And Iran, wow. Just look up “Rosewater.”

Noah, who is South African, has continually taken on bigoted politicians and policies around immigration, race and policing. He mopped the floor with race-baiter Tomi Lahren in 2016 and delivered one of the most powerful monologues about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed that I can recall from the worst year ever — then he turned around and helped us laugh through a pandemic and a stressful election campaign. Masterful. On the downside, “The Daily Show” was an early marker in the splintering of American media, when the landscape began to polarize around political beliefs, and Stewart was skilled at mining those divides.

Stewart might have been a comedian, heading a show written by and featuring comedians, but his passion was real enough. I wonder how he would have survived the job in the Trump years? Trevor Noah’s coolness — not that anyone was actually expecting a President Trump when Noah was hired — might have been the necessary attitude.

Ali: But five years of covering Trumpism is equal to 25 years in the Before Times, so Noah has served longer than Stewart and Kilborn combined, and the show has really been going for half a century. Damn, Trevor looks good for his age!

Now, what are your predictions for the next 25 years?

‘Daily Show’ correspondents Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, Dulcé Sloan and Roy Wood Jr. take us behind the scenes of the ‘comedy PhD program.’

Lloyd: Besides that Noah will continue to age handsomely? (It’s a rare safe bet in an imploding world.) Obviously, given the insane political climate with its conspiracy theorists and truth denialists, 8 million books from inside the Trump White House, and various suits, prosecutions and investigations, there will be, sadly, no lack of material. I’ll be interested to see what happens when the show returns from hiatus in September — are they planning to get back in a studio with a studio audience? I’ve liked the “Social Distancing” conceit; I think Noah’s been great in the job almost since the beginning, but pandemic rules have been good for the show. He’s literally let his hair, not down, but out. Taking away the spaceship news desk set and putting him in a corner of his apartment sacrificed the “comedian newsman” element he inherited from Stewart, but without an audience to play to the rhythms feels more original, the presentation more personal, the intent (funny voices notwithstanding) more serious. Just Trevor and his Zoomed-in guests. Something of the same has benefited Seth Meyers on “Late Night,” which is in many ways a stepchild of “The Daily Show” and is closer to what its alums like Bee and Oliver and, in large part, Colbert are doing than to the work of other network late-night hosts — Fallon, Kimmel, Corden. But, really, it’s all past predicting. All I know is that, here in the world, things are going to get worse before they get better, if they get better, and we’re going to need “The Daily Show” for some time to come.

Ali: If only I could promise you a future of rainbows and unicorns instead of voter suppression and neo-Nazis. Either way, “The Daily Show” and its disciples will surely be there to cover, expose and lampoon whatever comes next. Collectively they’ve made political satire mainstream, and Americans more aware of the myriad ways they’re being swindled, cheated and hoodwinked. Here’s to the next quarter-century — and beyond.

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Lorraine Ali is television critic of the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was a senior writer for the Calendar section where she covered culture at large, entertainment and American Muslim issues. Ali is an award-winning journalist and Los Angeles native who has written in publications ranging from the New York Times to Rolling Stone and GQ. She was formerly The Times’ music editor and before that, a senior writer and music critic with Newsweek magazine.

Robert Lloyd has been a Los Angeles Times television critic since 2003.

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