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Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' legacy

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

You might have forgotten, but Jon Stewart wasn't always host of "The Daily Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: Welcome. Welcome, welcome to "The Daily Show." Craig Kilborn is on assignment in Kuala Lumpur. I'm Jon Stewart.

LIMBONG: Twenty-five years ago this month, Stewart, who was then known as a stand-up comedian, took over Comedy Central's satirical news program, replacing host Craig Kilborn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEWART: You're out of order. He's out of order. This whole trial is sexy.

LIMBONG: In those early episodes, Stewart looks so young and kind of smug - right? - like the comedian who totally gets the joke but is going to let you in on it too. And he was about to crash into the intersection of politics and comedy in a way that would change the landscape of late-night comedy TV.

MO ROCCA: I remember early on a meeting in the executive producer's office, and this was months after he had started as the host. And he was clearly grappling with what he wanted the show to be. And he explained that he wanted the show to have more of a point of view.

LIMBONG: That's Mo Rocca. He is a correspondent for "CBS Sunday Morning" and creator and host of the "Mobituaries" podcast. He started working on "The Daily Show" in 1998 and was there until 2003.

ROCCA: I remember distinctly meeting the eyes of one of the producers - and I think other people were looking at each other this way - and thinking, uh-oh, is this going to make the show unfunny? Obviously, we were proven wrong. The show became much more successful. But I remember that there was definitely concern like, uh-oh, what's this show going to become?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEWART: It's time for a hastily thrown together editorial. I'm sure many of you are curious. Is my beloved "Daily Show" going to change? Well, it might subtly, and I know change can be painful. But from change comes growth.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When Jon Stewart took over the show, I think what surprised people was that he had a focus. He knew what he wanted to say about media and about politics.

LIMBONG: Eric Deggans is NPR's media critic and analyst.

DEGGANS: Jon Stewart comes along, and he decides that he's going to be very incisive, and he's going to talk about what's actually happening. He's going to satirize media from the inside out. He's going to target hypocrisies by politicians. And when they come on to do interviews on his show, sometimes he's going to confront them in ways that might make them uncomfortable, that might make the audience uncomfortable.

LIMBONG: Making politicians uncomfortable was not something that had really been done in the late-night comedy show format, which was, you know, usually focused on jokey interviews with celebrities.

DEGGANS: One of the things he wasn't worried about was looking partisan, which is something that I think held back people like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, who didn't want to offend more conservative audience members.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

GEORGE W BUSH: I was not elected to serve one party.

STEWART: You were not elected.

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: So that's how Jon Stewart changed the game in terms of late night.

LIMBONG: With Stewart at the helm, "The Daily Show" created an infotainment hybrid - comedy and pointed political commentary - that was new to late-night TV. When comedy and politics mixed, a comedian became a trusted source for news. So what's happened since those lines got blurred? Matt Brennan is deputy editor of entertainment and arts for the Los Angeles Times, and has written about the cultural impact of "The Daily Show." I spoke with him about the limits of infotainment and what he has called Stewart's complicated legacy.

MATT BRENNAN: Stewart took the sort of style of sitting at the desk and - which had already existed - and he focused it on politics and the news and the media in a way that hadn't been done before, and then spawned so many imitators that I think it now qualifies as a subgenre - folks like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, all of whom came up under Stewart, then launched their own shows with a similar kind of style but their own bent on it. And now that kind of news satire is a familiar part of American culture in a way that it was not in 1999.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Can I - I want to bring it over to closer to today where, you know, there's been some data out of the Pew Research Center showing that more and more news consumption is happening on social media - right? - on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, etc. And I've noticed that you can see a lot of what looks, to me, like "The Daily Show's" DNA in that ecosystem - you know, even stuff on the political right, like Ben Shapiro's monologues on "The Daily Wire" - right? - or like what Steven Crowder does on YouTube or Rumble. And it's a lot of, like, consuming news by way of dunking on news, right? And I'm wondering, is that fair to trace back to Jon Stewart?

BRENNAN: Yes, absolutely. I think, especially as "The Daily Show," under his leadership, evolved, Stewart became, at times, a very perceptive and often a very effusive critic of the American news media, and not just what we would describe as sort of right-wing or right-leaning news outlets, like Fox News, even though he was a ferocious critic of Bill O'Reilly. He also was a critic of shows like "Crossfire" on CNN and really any kind of political news media that either failed to cover the facts of the news appropriately or made sort of ridiculous claims about bias or things that people weren't covering.

But interestingly, he - unlike some of these folks who are starting to kind of claim themselves as news outlets or sources of information, he famously disavowed the label of journalist. He preferred to be understood as a comedian. The quote that he used was, "I want to sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks." I don't think he quite understood how powerful he was becoming as a source of information, particularly for Gen X and millennial consumers who were not and continue not to be viewers of things like the nightly news programs on the broadcast networks.

But by the time the show ended, I think it would be inaccurate not to refer to "The Daily Show" as a form of news for many of the people watching it because that is the place where they were getting their news of the day, in addition to the internet. And I think sort of by the end of his tenure, Stewart, I think - it felt to me as though there was a level of discomfort with having to walk that line, because, as you and I know, there's a different set of actual ethical standards that you have to follow as a journalist at a traditional news outlet versus folks who don't abide by those rules. And that does put limitations in place on what you can and cannot say. And I think Stewart kind of almost ran into the buzzsaw of his own success in handling the news.

LIMBONG: The issue is that it's a deflection, right? What he's saying is, like, I'm just some guy, when it's, you know, pretty clear that he wasn't just some guy.

BRENNAN: Yeah. He was never just some guy because he had this platform. I think one thing that has sort of developed in the cultural discourse since his hosting of the show began is this idea that when you have a platform, that platform is powerful, whether you define it as news or you define it as entertainment. I think when "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" - when he started hosting in 1999, the concept of infotainment was relatively young. And now it is so baked into the cake because of people like Jon Stewart that we don't even use the word anymore.

LIMBONG: Is there anything that sort of occupies the space that "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" did back in its prime? I mean, I know "The Daily Show" is still around, but I feel like its, you know, cultural weight has sort of waned over the years. So is there anything that, like, lives up to the Jon Stewart years.

BRENNAN: You know, "The Daily Show," when it was airing in the early 2000s, its ratings would not have been enough to keep it on the air if it had aired on CBS, in addition to all the sort of, like, standards and practices reasons it wouldn't have aired on CBS. But if you took those ratings and ported them to 2023, people would be clamoring to have that show on their network because you could concentrate people in one place for half an hour a day in a way that you really can't now.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You know, you wrote about Jon Stewart back when he stepped down from "The Daily Show" in 2015. And in that piece, you outlined some of the same criticisms that, you know, we brought up here. But in the last line of the piece, you say, whatever his shortcomings, we loved him back. And I just want to kind of pinpoint, what was it about his show that you loved?

BRENNAN: For me, what I loved was his level of sincere engagement in the issues of the day. Whatever criticisms I might have had of his stance on, you know, I'm not a member of the media, I'm a comedian, or my criticisms of his interviewing, which was mostly dreadful, ultimately, his show was driven by a sense that what was happening in the United States and the world mattered, that it was important for viewers, especially younger viewers, to know what was happening, and that it was appropriate for people to then have opinions about the things that were happening in the world around them, and that he could sort of help guide them through it.

And that's why I started and ended that piece with talking about his post-9/11 monologue, which I think was the most kind of emotional example of that feeling that he gave us, which was of not a detached, neutral, quote-unquote, "objective" anchor, but of a fellow citizen in our society who happened to have the platform to tell it how it is, as the saying goes. And for that, I will always be a fan of Jon Stewart, whatever my complaints.

LIMBONG: Matt Brennan of the Los Angeles Times, thanks a lot.

BRENNAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.