My own contribution to the history of Jon Stewart’s tenure at The Daily Show is small and ignominious: I trashed his first show.
A web publication that no longer exists had assigned me to write about the new guy taking over from the plasticine, frat-boy finger-puller Craig Kilborn. I had enjoyed Kilborn’s version of the show: solid if not deep, primarily an extended satire of shiny local news kabuki. It poked at the conventions of news shows via Kilborn’s own mundane good looks and laconic sarcasm. He was a younger Kent Brockman, not too far removed from the kind of broad in-joking of theSportsCenter anchor he had once been. His lazy self-confidence was part of the setup, underscoring the tuneless Dadaism of television segues—how viewers are led from tragedy to sports to weather by the same content Sherpa, who never breaks character and always knows what to say next.
Stewart didn’t just seem hapless and overwhelmed by contrast, he declared almost crippling self-awareness from the start: “I feel like this is my bar mitzvah,” he told guest Michael J. Fox. Wearing a suit, said Stewart, gave him “a rash like you would not believe.” Fox responded: “The words ‘ill-fitting’ come to mind.”
At the time, I didn’t object to Stewart’s cringe-worthy meta-commentary so much as feel like it ruined the joke: You can’t satirize the forced smoothness of Eye on Omaha (or the CBS Evening News, for that matter) if you keep drawing attention your own rough edges. Kilborn was a news anchor as Ken doll. Stewart was merely human.
It would be condescending not to mention that the writing on the show exceeded all expectations and created much of the moral authority of the show by assembling facts that would run counter to the "conventional wisdom" of a lazy pundit class.
And here's the thing--to this day, nobody really watches Comedy Central--they watch the videos that proliferate and get shared on the Internet. Comedy Central creates snippets of content and tries to survive with ads. All Stewart has done since day one is deliver and embody the material written for him, and that's largely evident in the book that changed his career trajectory. People had to take him seriously because the country was in terrible shape in the mid-2000s.
Until he ended up on the Daily Show, Stewart was bounced from job to job, trying to land something substantive in a television climate that didn't care about substance. This was the post-grunge nihilist America of the late 1990s. We had so much peace and prosperity back then, the very real threat of a presidential blowjob made people sad and cry a lot.
When these same people saw the horrorshow of Iraq, they reached their moment of zen--a moment of clarity, if you will--and they realized, oh, you really can fuck up the country and turn things into a shit sandwich. The relative ease of living in the 1990s meant that our wars of choice were exactly what we thought they were--terrible, terrible choices made by equally unsavory and incompetent fools. They were all among us, the shitheels were in charge, and their control of the media narrative required some counterweight.
Stewart was the brief counterweight, and his impact on the people who write for the media and comment on blogs was much greater than on the population as a whole, due to the low ratings enjoyed by Comedy Central. The Internet minimized the handicap of being on basic cable, of course, and that's why everyone will have warm and fuzzy memories of a show they really didn't watch.
How would you like to be Craig Kilborn? Someone should go stand in his driveway and ask him how it feels to know that the guy who took his most prominent gig in show business ended up a national treasure. That's the real takeaway here--how is it that Kilborn blew his chance to be the Jon Stewart who will be ushered off stage like a saint and a genius?