Chris Smith’s new book about “The Daily Show” in the Jon Stewart years has a theory about the events that let the show find its voice. After Bush v. Gore in 2000 and just after the 9/11 attacks, real news became so surreal and television news so lathered that a fake news show could find its footing just by playing things relatively straight.
As an example, Smith cites a bit in which Steve Carell played a television news correspondent during the 2001 anthrax scare, asserting that “scaremongering isn’t the way to go” while a news crawl rolls beneath him. On the crawl: “Chicken Little: The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling!” And: “Poll: 91 Percent of Americans ‘Want Mommy.’ ”
The anchorman to whom Carell was reporting was Stewart, who pretended to embody the voice of reason and the audience’s point of view. As “The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History” reports, this was a role Stewart had carefully conceived and hammered out for himself in the face of scattered staff writers’ opposition.
It was 1998 when he was named the replacement for Craig Kilborn on a very different “Daily Show,” which had Carell and Stephen Colbert on board. They made a good team. Stewart was a guy in a leather jacket who had a good but not stellar résumé. And “The Daily Show” bore no resemblance to what it would become under his unyielding command.
Professionally hilarious people, Stewart included, aren’t necessarily funny when they talk about themselves. They needn’t be, and this book seeks a serious understanding of everything about him, especially the thinking that shaped the show. But Smith lets hero worship and repetition slow the book’s momentum. And doses of snark from embittered ex-staff members sound like exactly what they are.
Different editing priorities – filling in gaps, cutting out overlaps, keeping in mind a more general audience – would have made for a book that caught more of the lightning of “The Daily Show.”
So this otherwise detailed book (want to know Stewart’s opinion of the White House’s M&Ms?) requires a lot of acrobatics from Smith. He omits transcript material that’s important to the show’s history. For instance, he cites Stewart’s best-known disembowelings of guests or interviewers Stewart has found morally repugnant, but doesn’t describe what was said.
The Stewart rogues’ gallery includes Jim Cramer, Judith Miller, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson on “Crossfire” – though his equally memorable ambush of Chris Matthews goes unmentioned. It would have been worth the extra space to remind readers what Stewart sounds like when he’s in a cold fury. Or a heated one. That’s how Stewart describes a private showdown with Roger Ailes in which, accusing Ailes of disseminating “bile,” he said, “Kudos to you for poisoning people while they don’t even realize it.”
The book attests to how well loved Stewart is by most of those who’ve worked for him – although there have been angry exceptions, and the grousing is included here. (Is it underplayed? Hard to tell when a writer has been given an all-access pass.) It also features some of the show’s breakout stars in candid mode, with the bulk of the funny stories swirling around Colbert in his early years.
Colbert sounds like the most fearless of the correspondents when it came to getting interviewees to answer outrageous questions – and he was the first of them to be sued. His classic advice, which has been passed down among fellow correspondents: Check your soul at the door. Spend your per diem, preferably by drinking it. You can always eat free cereal in the break room when you get back to New York.
Among behind-the-scenes personnel, Rory Albanese is one of the best raconteurs. Albanese was with the show early, ran the video research department for a while (the show’s expertise with video clips is sensational, and would have warranted more space here), graduated to executive producer’s rank and became showrunner for the underrated “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.”
About the constant adulation “The Daily Show” began to receive, Albanese says: “I’m not diminishing people’s love of it, but we never walked around that building saying ‘We’re doing it, guys! Truth to power!’ We were just coming in every day and like, ‘What’s a fun thing to talk about on the show tonight?’ ”
Smith carefully follows the show’s arc to the start of the war in Iraq (which earned the “Daily Show” moniker “Mess O’Potamia” – though no one can remember who came up with it) and the video-clip milestone that had the show staging Bush vs. Bush debates comparing Gov. George W. Bush’s statements about Iraq with those of President George W. Bush. This tactic was “a Rosetta Stone piece,” says Steve Bodow, who would become head writer in 2007. It would pave the way to the “show, don’t tell” use of news clips that made the program so powerful.
“Daily Show” political convention coverage also gets its due here, since the troupe really expanded its range with each new outing. Among the best sports Smith interviews are Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, who says she found the “Daily Show” guys “a hoot” in 2000 and kept one of their team jackets as a souvenir. For all his bitter feuding with Stewart, John McCain speaks of the show with affection.
A bleaker phase begins after Colbert’s departure, Stewart’s decision to direct his 2014 film, “Rosewater,” and John Oliver’s move to HBO after his wildly successful stint as Stewart’s temporary replacement. The show had by then awoken to the idea of diversity, made terrific new hires (among them Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj and Jessica Williams) and accepted the end of Stewart’s tenure.
The book concludes on his last night, with Trevor Noah, his promising replacement, as part of the crowd staging an all-star send-off. An era ends. Bruce Springsteen fights the gloom with “Born To Run.” And Smith’s book feels like a visit to a distant time.
‘The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests’
By Chris Smith, with a foreword by Jon Stewart.
Illustrated. 459 pages. Grand Central. $30.