My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The inevitable success often seems inevitable only in retrospect.
The Beatles were this provincial guitar band until they weren’t. “All in the Family” had been rejected by ABC before it became, in almost the same form, the dominant show of the 1970s for CBS.
And Jon Stewart was a standup comic taking over a marginal fake-news cable show until he became JON STEWART and the show became, of course, “The Daily Show” we know today.
“The Daily Show (The Book)” is an oral history, ably compiled by Chris Smith, chronicling the groundbreaking satirical broadcast.
When the show debuted it was just this sometimes-clever, sometimes-smarmy comedy program with Craig Kilborn – one that had its moments, but wasn’t going to make many people forget “Not Necessarily the News” or the best “Weekend Update” segments of “Saturday Night Live.” What Stewart did, upon his arrival in 1999, was gradually turn “The Daily Show” into a satirical machine – pitting George W. Bush against himself, taking on the absurdities of cable news, and every so often removing his host persona to flat-out editorialize, particularly on tragic occasions.
There had never been anything quite like it. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and David Letterman had had their moments, and such shows as “That Was the Week That Was” took clever potshots, but nobody had ever put it together the way that Stewart (and producers such as creators Madeleine Smithberg and former Onion leader Ben Karlin) did. This was often satire of a high order, the kind that TV was often afraid to do.
“The Daily Show (The Book)” is at its best in the early years, when the show was still finding its feet. It’s amazing the talent that was already there – Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, in particular, were creating their personas. But it took time for Stewart to install the mix of writers and performers he was looking for, just as it took time for the technology the show needed to catch up with its ideas. And, not to put too fine a point on it, for the TV news industry to fall apart into something that practically required “The Daily Show’s” mockery. It just wouldn’t have been the same during the Huntley/Brinkley or Cronkite days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “The Daily Show” needed the kind of local-news-writ-large bloviation cable does so well.
For me, it also brought back a lot of memories of the G.W. Bush years. Take this dialogue from from Colbert and Stewart as the 2004 election results became apparent:
“It’s too late to turn back,” said Colbert. “Ours is now an anger-based economy. I see a glorious tomorrow where hybrid vehicles run half on gasoline and half on seething hate! I call it rage-o-hol! Join me in the future, for the future belongs to the furious.”
Added Stewart, “(The map) looks very red, and there’s some blue there at the top where many of us will most likely spend the next four year, I would imagine huddled together and, in fact, weeping.”
History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes with “brotherlucker.”
(Incidentally, in one of the many intriguing tidbits of the book, Stewart talks about a man who called him afterwards to cheer him up. That man? Boston Celtics great Bill Russell. This is not a joke.)
Also interesting are the recollections of Karlin and other producers, such as an indispensable woman named Jen Flanz, as the show became bigger than all of them. We the viewers may have seen 30 minutes of often clever comedy each night, but these people worked their asses off for us and sometimes paid in blood. Stewart suffered from insomnia. Flanz’s marriage to a fellow producer broke apart. Karlin left on bad terms with both Stewart and one of his oldest friends, playwright David Javerbaum.
And yet what emerges is how … healthy the show was. Stewart could fly off the handle, but he generally treated people compassionately. He also had an eye for talent, as the elevation of Carell and Colbert, and the rise of Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Trevor Noah makes clear. Others talk about how his grasp of comedy made their work better, even if they had to rewrite it several times.
Like many oral histories, the book starts to run out of gas as events draw to a close. The high points are all there – the 2000 election, Stewart vs. “Crossfire,” various interviews – but as Stewart got tired, I did, too. I’m not sure there’s anything Smith could have done about that, unless he wanted to drop the oral history format and wrap up with three or four chapters of subjective observations.
But who needs that? Everybody already had their say.
What I was left with was thanks. Without “The Daily Show,” it’s likely that the sharpest regular topical TV comedy we’d have, outside of the occasional “South Park” episode, would be some 2010s version of the “Dancing Itos.” Instead, as we march into the Trump Era, there’s “This Week Tonight,” “Full Frontal,” Seth Meyers’ “Closer Look,” Noah’s “Daily Show” and many others. We’ll need them all.
Because, as a certain president-elect could tell you, nothing is inevitable until after the fact. And that president-elect, Jon Stewart would have you know, is named Fuckface von Clownstick.
Thank you for your service, Mr. Stewart.