“The Daily Show (The Book)” goes be­hind the scenes

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Scott To­bias

The Daily Show (The Book)

By Chris Smith (Grand Cen­tral)

Over his 16-year run as an­chor of “The Daily Show,” Jon Ste­wart wore the same clothes to the of­fice ev­ery day: a uni­form of ratty T-shirts, base­ball caps, khaki pants and work boots. To hear it de­scribed, the stale am­biance of the stu­dio was some­where be­tween a dorm room and a ken­nel, ripe with the smell of “freerang­ing dogs” and con­gealed leftovers. For Ste­wart and his staff, a life in com­edy was nei­ther glam­orous nor de­bauched, and any­one who thought oth­er­wise was weeded out. It was more like a news­room than a rock band. If the be­hind-the-scenes drama were any more col­or­ful, “The Daily Show” would not have been pos­si­ble.

It’s nat­u­ral to sus­pect that the rel­a­tive timid­ity of “The Daily Show (The Book),” Chris Smith’s oral his­tory of the Com­edy Cen­tral pro­gram, stems from the fact that it’s an in-house en­deavor, the third in a se­ries that in­cludes “Amer­ica (The Book)” and “Earth (The Book).” Yes, Smith ar­gues for the satir­i­cal news show’s place in the cul­tural fir­ma­ment, tick­ing through the high­lights of Ste­wart’s ten­ure and hail­ing the as­cen­dant ca­reers of former cor­re­spon­dents Steve Carell, Stephen Col­bert, John Oliver and Sa­man­tha Bee. But it wouldn’t be fair to ques­tion the can­dor of this his­tory, which un­packs sev­eral ugly blowups be­tween Ste­wart and his staffers.

Like a tamer ver­sion of James An­drew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral his­to­ries of “Satur­day Night Live” and ESPN, “The Daily Show (The Book)” as­sem­bles dozens of in­ter­view tran­scrip­tions about key mo­ments in the show’s his­tory, un­der cheeky chap­ter ti­tles such as “Oh, For Fox Sake” and “When Barry Met Silly.” Writ­ers, cor­re­spon­dents and crew mem­bers, along with a se­lec­tion of key guests and prom­i­nent crit­ics, talk freely with Smith, who pro­vides some con­nec­tive tis­sue when nec­es­sary. Al­though the day-to-day grind of pro­duc­ing the show of­ten blinded Ste­wart and his team from the ef­fect they were hav­ing out­side the stu­dio, the book gives a fuller pic­ture of how their tar­geted out­rage af­fected the cul­ture.

Inside “The Daily Show” sausage factory, Ste­wart was de­ter­mined to turn ar­gu­ments about the fol­lies of govern­ment into pierc­ing com­edy. Oddly, this oral his­tory doesn’t say much about Craig Kil­born’s three­year stint as the show’s original an­chor — nor does it in­clude him among the scores of in­ter­view sub­jects — but Ste­wart’s vi­sion for the show prompted an in­sur­rec­tion from the writ­ers Kil­born left be­hind. To forge “The Daily Show” as we know it to­day, Ste­wart and his head writer, Ben Kar­lin, first had to weed out the mal­con­tents, lead­ing to a con­fronta­tion so ti­tanic that it leaked to the New York Post’s Page Six col­umn. “Jon and I used to have this thing: crazy out, sane in,” Kar­lin says. “We wanted to try to build a show of smart, funny, rea­son­able peo­ple with a sim­i­lar vi­sion who were hard work­ers.”

“The Daily Show” un­der Ste­wart did what it could to il­lu­mi­nate, to out­rage, to point out hypocrisies and, on most nights, to make us laugh in the process. Read­ers of this com­pelling his­tory will ap­pre­ci­ate the sweat be­hind ev­ery joke.

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