9:27am PT by Andy Lewis
'Daily Show' Oral History: Jon Stewart’s Ruthlessness, Steve Carell’s Motorcycle and 8 Other Reveals From the New Book
It is hard to believe that almost 16 months have passed since Jon Stewart gave up the anchor chair on The Daily Show in July 2015. (Hey, that’s almost one month for each of the 16½ years he was host). Fans missing that epic run of sharp-witted political humor can now relive the glory days in a new history of the series.
The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History (Grand Central, Nov. 22) by Chris Smith, a contributing editor at New York, is a comprehensive telling of the story of the show from when Stewart took over in 1999 to the present in the style of other great TV oral histories like James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York (about Saturday Night Live) and Those Guys Have All the Fun (about ESPN).
Everybody talked — from producers to production assistants to the famous ex-correspondents (Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee). Stewart even contributed the introduction. But this isn’t a sanitized history. There’s plenty of warts and all (and some fun hijinks as well).
It’s also a smart look at the business of TV and how 24-hour news channels and the rise of conservative media have changed our political culture. Indeed, The Daily Show (The Book) stands right alongside the other classics as one of the best books about TV to be published in 2016.
It’s also really, really fun. Here’s 10 great tidbits from the book:
1. Craig Who?
This is about The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Craig Kilborn’s two-year run from 1996 to when Stewart took over in January 1999 is almost totally absent from the book except as a counterpoint to the greatness of what came later (which is a shame, because in its time Kilborn’s version was well-liked by critics and fans) and to introduce writers and producers who hated Stewart and serve as the book’s villains (besides the usual suspects like Roger Ailes, Jim Cramer, etc.)
2. Thank you, Stone Phillips.
Pre-Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert based his early character on NBC host Stone Phillips. Early executive producer Madeleine Smithberg explains: “Stone Phillips deserves a “created by” credit. We studied his listening-face expressions, we studied the different ways he put his fist to his chin, we studied his self-aggrandizing way he inserted himself into the story.”
3. Carell’s debut went badly. (Also, he rides a motorcycle).
When Carell’s first piece aired in 1999, the producers and production assistants in the control room were unimpressed. “All of us were saying, “Who is this guy? He’s just like, fat Brian Unger,” recalls then production assistant (and later executive producer) Rory Albanese. As an aside to this story, Carell’s wife Nancy revealed that back in their Second City days in Chicago his transportation of choice was his motorcycle. Steve doesn’t really seem like a Harley kinda of a guy, does he?
4. Stewart can be tough and ruthless.
One of the most surprising things in the book is how tough and ruthless Stewart could be in defense of the show. Nice guy Stewart being tough is a recurring theme. Two examples: When he first took over The Daily Show in 1999, Kilborn’s writers hated him and told him he couldn’t change their jokes anymore.
“After a weekend of pacing and smoking and having tremendous Lincoln-Douglas Debates on the couch by myself,” Stewart recalls how he reacted: “I basically told them to f— off. 'You work for me. And if you don’t like the direction, I get it. Don’t work here.'”
A second story: Ben Karlin was one of Stewart’s first hires in 1999 (as head writer) and later became executive producer. He was Stewart’s right-hand man and his alter ego. By 2010, though, Karlin had gotten married and after a decade on the show was burned out. Colbert wanted him to come to The Colbert Report. Karlin personally felt closer to Colbert as a friend. The end didn’t go well. “Given the history of our relationship,” recalls Karlin, "I was kind of thinking that it would be something we would plot out over a period of several months. I remember Jon just saying, 'No, I think it's better to just cut it clean.'” Cold.
5. Drugs at Saturday Night Live vs. drugs at The Daily Show
“Our work ethic and the SNL work ethic were very different," says head writer Elliott Kalan. "For a long time, the SNL philosophy was, 'People have to loosen up and get crazy and that’s when the crazy ideas come out.' Our feeling was, 'It’s so hard to make this show. Why would we make it more difficult by staying up late and doing drugs?'"
6. The Daily Show vs. Dateline
Field producer Kahane Corn Cooperman’s husband worked at Dateline from 1996 to 2005. When he left the show, he told her, “When I first started at Dateline, we were the news and you guys were the jokes. And then by the time I left, you guys were the news and we were the joke.”
7. Colbert’s advice to other correspondents: “Check your soul at the door.”
Rob Corddry and Ed Helms call it “invaluable” advice for doing the kind of field pieces the show was famous for. “When you’re in the field, you’re in the character of a correspondent. You are going to suck them dry like a lamprey until you get everything you can out of this interview,” explains Colbert. “That behavior has to be cold-blooded. What you’re doing might get on you — the badness of what you are doing — and you don’t want to get it on your soul.”
8. John Oliver wears Men’s Wearhouse.
Oliver thought his first day in July 2006 was going to be slow — so slow he hadn’t even had his suits shipped yet, but at 9 a.m. on the first day he got an assignment (it was the day George Bush was caught on a hot mic saying “Yo Blair” to British Prime Minister Tony Blair). He needed a suit. And quick. Corddry told him to go to Men’s Wearhouse. “It was trousers and a jacket that didn’t match,” he recalls.
9. Stewart has no regrets about the infamous gutting of Crossfire or Jim Cramer.
Two of the most famous Daily Show-related segments were when Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire and ripped the show (“It’s hurting America”) and he took CNBC’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer to task for offering bad stock advice before the 2008 recession. Stewart makes no apologies for either. “I thought there was something true and absolutely crucial about the conversation” with Cramer, he says. Adds writer Jason Ross: “If there’s anything The Daily Show was an antidote to, it was the culture of talking on TV without any accountability.”
10. Stewart and Colbert almost left in 2012.
Stewart was negotiating a new contract in 2012. He wanted time to make a movie [Rosewater]. The negotiations were going fine until Viacom chairman Phillippe Dauman got involved. First, he took a hardline over money with Colbert, who also was negotiating a new deal, so Colbert and Stewart decided to negotiate in concert. Dauman didn’t want Stewart to do the movie. Stewart quit. Colbert was ready to go with him. After a tense weekend, Dauman caved (pretending it was other executives who had taken a hardline). But one interesting tidbit: Colbert says he was ready to sign for four years (through the 2016 election) but at the last minute Viacom wanted only two. Colbert called the decision “head-scratchy” but he signed. It turned out to be fortuitous. “Thank God they said no to four years,” he recalls. “If they had taken our offer, I would not have been available to cover for Dave [Letterman].”