10:18am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Daily Show' Reunion on 'Late Show' Was All-Too-Brief
For me, the best part of Tuesday (May 9) night's small reunion of The Daily Show veterans on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert came late in the final segment as they flashed an old picture of Jon Stewart in an oddly fitted suit.
"They actually made you wear Craig Kilborn's suits," Colbert cracked.
It was here that I breathed a sigh of relief.
Craig Kilborn was not something hallucinated.
I'm repeatedly on the record as saying this and I'll do it again: The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn was a very good TV show. I watched it every night and it was chock-filled with memorable segments, tremendous correspondents, and a dry and smart, if occasionally obnoxiously fratty, sense of humor. It wasn't a show that was going to change the face of television, as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart of course did (on some level), but The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was built on the foundation of what Kilborn did, not on its rubble.
I only bring this up because of Colbert's observation to Stewart, "There is no proof that The Daily Show existed before you got there."
He was clearly jesting, but still I worried that Kilborn had become the Voldemort of the Daily Show annals, since there they were talking about how Colbert's Daily Show run preceded Stewart, but nobody was actually using Kilborn's name. I went so far as to worry that not only had Comedy Central effectively erased Kilborn from the record books, but CBS did the same for the former host of The Late Late Show.
In conclusion, there's no shame in acknowledging that Craig Kilborn played a role in the birth of The Daily Show and he didn't do a bad job.
Tuesday's semi-reunion wasn't, of course, about Craig Kilborn, so enough about him.
It was a nice chance for Colbert to chat with old buddies Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry in an orderly setting, properly announced a week in advance to give Colbert a May ratings sweeps bump of the type that a surprise Stewart appearance like those he's done a bunch of times just wouldn't have done.
The result was both longer and more meaningful than I had initially feared it would be — I expected the gang gathering for a post-monologue hug and little else — and yet not even close to long and meaningful enough.
Sitting on two couches wedged into a V — "This arrangement we have right now is exactly something we would have made fun of on The Daily Show," admitted Colbert — the six colleagues had what could best be described as the start of a bigger conversation. They joked about memorable field pieces — "Do you remember the guy who was homonausic?" Bee asked in what has to be one of the all-time great return-from-commercial segues — and about why Stewart looked so old now while the rest of them still look somewhat unchanged.
Nothing ever got deeper than small-talk, and I guess I wanted more than small-talk if you're going to bring the former king of late-night political comedy together with the two current rulers of late-night weekly political comedy and the resurgent prince of nightly political comedy, plus Ed Helms and Rob Corddry. It wasn't that they didn't talk about Donald Trump, because it's not like anybody has lacked for Bee, Oliver and Colbert's thoughts on our president, but they didn't talk about anything of substance.
They didn't talk about the show's tangible legacy. They didn't talk about comedy's potential, or lack thereof, to change the landscape. They didn't talk about the superficial viral pleasures of a comedy evisceration — the "Jon Stewart decimates Fox News!!!" takedowns and subsequent clickbait online stories — and the limits of those pleasures in the world at large.
After a joke from Stewart about the limited diversity on the stage, they didn't talk about the changing faces of late night and the progress that still needs to be made. They also didn't talk much about their creative process in the years they worked together or the different ways and reasons that they exited The Daily Show or what aspects of The Daily Show experience steer their current processes today. Honestly, they talked about absolutely nothing that I would have wanted to ask these intelligent, hilarious people about if I had them all on a stage together.
I guess that's what Chris Smith's The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests is for, but I can't apologize for wishing I was watching a Paley Center primetime tribute to The Daily Show or something.
Colbert and Stewart had more meat in their desk segment, the most formal of Stewart's The Late Show appearances thus far.
Stewart talked about what he missed about his TV platform saying, "The process of making the show somehow became entwined with my process of making sense of things that I didn't understand and the two sorta merged at some level, so I miss that and I miss the people like you and all the great people who were around it."
He also danced a little on Bill O'Reilly's TV grave and stood up for Colbert amidst the empty souffle of controversy about his Trump joke from last week, distinguishing between their role in the discourse and the power of the president: "We can insult, he can injure."
Stewart added, "For the life of me I do not understand why we in this country we try and hold comedians to a standard we do not hold leaders to."
I think if you polled a room of Jon Stewart fans, the question probably 90 percent of them would want to have answered first and foremost is, "When is the next Stewart project coming? When are we finally going to see that HBO thing that was announced years ago?"
Somehow that just never came up.
Maybe there would have been more time for Stewart questions and for the full panel chat if we hadn't needed to waste an interminable amount of time on an opening skit set around Colbert's The Daily Show departure in 2005, a litany of hair jokes and pop culture references that played as A Child's Guide To Giggling About Dramatic Irony. The only worthwhile part of that sketch was Oliver standing in for Steve Carell, down to superimposing Oliver's face on The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Anyway, there was nothing so very wrong with Tuesday's The Late Show and its hyped The Daily Show reunion. It was good to see those guys together again. It's probably my own darned fault for wanting more, or maybe Colbert, Stewart, Bee, Helms and Corddry's fault for being so good that I knew they could have done more.