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