'This Show Was Hell': Problems That Popped Up When Making 'The Daily Show'
Long before the term “fake news” was synonymous with either a former reality show host’s authoritarian attempts to delegitimize the free press or online articles shared by your sketchy uncle on Facebook about how JFK Jr. faked his death in order to put Mexican nanobots in our vaccines, there was The Daily Show; Comedy Central’s beloved news parody show, and the only place on TV where you could learn all about Florida’s annual Cooter Festival.
These days, the future of the long-running program is somewhat uncertain following the “shocking departure” of current host Trevor Noah, which has reportedly left Comedy Central in “crisis mode.” And you have to imagine that it takes a lot to rattle a company that previously employed a small army of foul-mouthed, crank-call-making puppets. But this is hardly the first time that there’s been drama behind-the-scenes of The Daily Show in its nearly 30-year history …
For starters, the show was first cobbled together to fix another Comedy Central dilemma; when Bill Maher “unceremoniously” moved his show Politically Incorrect to ABC (which, to be fair, is one of the least dickish things Bill Maher has done), creating a hole in the cable channel’s late-night schedule. The creators of The Daily Show, producer Madeleine Smithberg and comedian Lizz Winstead, first went to Comedy Central to pitch a totally different, narrative series in the vein of The Larry Sanders Show – but they couldn’t refuse the counter-offer of running a comedic news show with a guaranteed “year on the air” and “no pilot necessary.”
With the freedom of not having to worry about imminent cancellation, the pair created a show with the look of an authentic news broadcast; according to Winstead, the idea that: “if you turned the volume down, you would have no idea it was a satire.” This included hiring former SportsCenter anchor (and future macaroni and cheese pitchman) Craig Kilborn. Since Kilborn wasn’t a comedian, the writers viewed him as “a ventriloquist’s dummy” because they “could put any words into his mouth.”
The only problem? Craig Kilborn was an asshole. Days before the show launched, as The Daily Show’s set was being built, Kilborn allegedly “wouldn’t even look at the designs or setup,” and when the set was finished, he showed up and complained that the set was “backward” and didn’t favor his “good side” – forcing the crew to hurriedly “flip the set over the weekend” before Monday’s show.
There was also reportedly “tension” between Kilborn and creators Smithberg and Winstead. Once the show was a hit, Kilborn gave an interview in Esquire magazine in which the host revealed that he had “complained to Comedy Central executives about Winstead and the written material he had to deliver.” Even worse, after “several rounds of Scotch,” he remarked that there were “a lot of bitches on the staff … You know how women are – They overreact.” If that wasn’t vile enough, he then added that Winstead, his literal boss “does find me very attractive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would.”
In 1997, these aggressively misogynistic comments were chalked up as simply “raunchy” and “off-color” by the media. Kilborn apologized but claimed that his comments were “made in jest and not intended for publication” – which is a weird thing to say about comments that included the phrase “You can print that!” Kilborn’s punishment amounted to just a whopping one week suspension from the show. Winstead, on the other hand, left The Daily Show, her self-described “passion,” soon after the incident. The next year, Kilborn left to host CBS’ The Late Late Show, and The Daily Show gig went to some other guy …
Jon Stewart (who many thought would get the CBS gig) took over the show, and everything went … not smoothly at all. While Kilborn was basically the thought experiment of “What if a department store mannequin joined an ivy league frat?” come to life, Stewart had a strong comic persona and had previously hosted his own MTV show. According to Stewart, he went into the job with an “open” attitude but was greeted by a writing staff who responded with an attitude of: “Hey motherf**ker, you came here to kill a baby.” At one point, during what Stewart’s head writer Ben Karlin calls “a battle for the heart and soul of the show,” one of the dissenting staffers snuck into Smithberg’s office and replaced news story items on a board with “personal insults” about their new co-workers.
Even once Jon Stewart’s Daily Show became a roaring success (and according to one highly-publicized poll, an actual go-to news source for people under 30), there were some major problems. Despite the show’s liberal veneer, a Jezebel article criticized The Daily Show, which Smithberg left in 2003, as “a boys’ club where women’s contributions are often ignored and dismissed.” Stewart later acknowledged that the article “articulated a very clear problem we had,” blaming his own “ignorance of a system that was designed to perpetuate a particular sense of humor and individual.” And we later learned that in 2011, comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac –
– took issue with Stewart’s impression of then-Presidential candidate Herman Cain. The only Black Daily Show writer at the time, Cenac voiced his objection to the Amos ‘n’ Andy-esque voice in a meeting, prompting Stewart to get defensive and scream: “F**k off. I’m done with you” at Cenac. Stewart later admitted: “My ignorance of that dynamic had real consequences.”
As for the other correspondents, their bits involving real-world Americans often led to legal trouble. Jason Jones claims to have been sued three times for Daily Show bits, while Stephen Colbert has the honor of being the first correspondent to have been sued for a piece, accused of fraudulently representing himself as a CNN reporter (which he denies). Colbert conceded that, “If you make a man comedically look like Hitler and it turns out that he is a retired lawyer with a lot of time on his hands, you’re going to get sued.”
The field piece that arguably caused the biggest stir in the show’s history involved a debate over the name of Washington’s football team, then known as the “Redskins.” Jason Jones interviewed four white football fans who vehemently defended the name, then surprised them by bringing in a group of Indigenous activists who confronted the interviewees over their love of the wildly bigoted mascot.
The football fans went to the media, trying to spin the story so that they were the real victims; one woman stated that “The Native Americans accused me of things that were so wrong. I felt in danger. I didn’t consent to that. I am going to be defamed.” She even tried to file a police report but couldn’t because the “authorities told her no crime had been committed.” Amazingly, this became a major (non-parody) news story at the time.
Stewart famously left the show in 2015, handing over his role to Trevor Noah – and even that simple transition was a bumpy road after some of Noah’s “problematic tweets” resurfaced. What does the future hold for The Daily Show? It’s hard to say. But it seems like they could swiftly solve this “crisis” pretty swiftly with a quick call to Samantha Bee’s agent.
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