From the moment original Saturday Night Live cast member (and breakout star) Chevy Chase left the sketch series at the beginning of season 2, it became clear that Lorne Michaels’ creation wasn’t just an important comedy institution in its own right. Almost immediately, it had also become a sort of finishing school for young, hungry comedians—a means to an end (greater stardom) rather than an end itself. And indeed, most of the biggest comedy stars of the ’80s—Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy—share an obvious commonality: They all got their start on SNL.
SNL has a long, rich history of being the mainstream comedy world’s most reliable stepping stone. A handful of folks (Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell) have followed in the footsteps of the five men above, parlaying their time on the show into blockbuster superstardom; others (Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers) have moved from SNL to more regular late-night gigs; still more (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg) have used SNL as a jumping-off point for their own sitcoms. Hell, even Larry David put in time at Studio 8H, if only a single year as writer. (He quit his job in a huff partway through the season, then came back to work the next day as if nothing had happened; the incident inspired an early Seinfeld episode.)
Here’s the thing, though: Besides Fallon—whose ascention to beloved late-night host came half a decade after he actually left the show—Saturday Night Live hasn’t really manufactured a bona fide superstar in years. Kristen Wiig? Sure, Bridesmaids was huge—but she hasn’t starred in anything nearly as big since that movie’s 2011 release. (Granted, this will change next year with the release of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot.) Meyers? His Late Show has its fans, but isn’t a reliable viral video factory like Fallon’s Tonight Show. Samberg? He won a Golden Globe for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but the still hasn’t quite achieved the level of zeitgeisty must-watch. While Fred Armisen’s constantly working, he’s more of a rarified cult figure than a big-name leading man; Jason Sudeikis hews closer to that ideal, but he’s not quite there either. The rapid failure of former SNL writer John Mulaney’s Fox sitcom, Mulaney, seems emblematic of this problem: These days, Lorne Michaels may not be quite be the kingmaker he once was.
Jon Stewart, though? Stewart’s a kingmaker.
Stewart’s 17-year Daily Show reign has been marked by many things—a shift from Onion-esque goofery to political humor that puts the accent on the “political,” the anchor’s own transformation from smirking cool kid to trusted news source. Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s been marked by the sheer number of Daily Show correspondents who have gone from Stewart’s fiefdom to bigger and better things.
Under Stewart’s stewardship, The Daily Show‘s record as a comedy farm has become as impressive as SNL‘s was back in the day. Stephen Colbert went from TDS correspondent to faux-conservative icon to heir to CBS’s Late Show. Steve Carell left TDS for NBC’s The Office, where he racked up multiple Emmy nominations (but, criminally, no wins) before starting a movie career in earnest; now he’s an Oscar nominee. John Oliver parlayed his stint as Stewart’s replacement host into his own news-based comedy show on HBO. Colbert’s old Comedy Central time slot has been filled by a new Daily spinoff starring another ex-TDS correspondent, Larry Wilmore. And then there’s Michael Che, a former SNL writer who was hired by The Daily Show as a correspondent last summer… only to be hired back to SNL, surely in part because his work on Stewart’s program had given him a high enough profile to earn a seat at the Weekend Update desk.
And those are just the ex-Daily Show staffers who are hosting things. The show’s also been a jumping-off point for scores of other comedic voices, from Rob Corddry (Childrens Hospital), Ed Helms (The Hangover movies, The Office), and John Hodgman (intellectual gadabout/author) to Kristen Schaal (from TDS to Bob’s Burgers), Josh Gad (of The Book of Mormon and Frozen fame), and Olivia Munn (The Newsroom).
Sure, none of them can hold a candle to Eddie Murphy in his prime, at least in terms of popularity. But they’re all currently visible and successful—and many of them carry an edgy-cool cache that isn’t quite as baked into the DNA of SNL alumni trying to make it big. Given the level of stardom achieved by many of these names, as well as how well they’re regarded by the public, it’s fair to say that Stewart’s Daily Show has become a bigger launchpad than Saturday Night Live over the past decade or so.
That’s a momentous achievement—especially given TDS‘s much-briefer history and relatively smaller reach. (Well, assuming distinctions between broadcast and cable really matter much these days.) And, in the end, it may be Stewart’s most lasting legacy; if nothing else, it ensures that his comic sensibility (or at least the types of people he finds funny) will be alive and well on television in various forms long after he steps down from his Daily Show seat. Who knows, maybe 21 years from now, Comedy Central will host a Daily Show 40th anniversary celebration that’s every bit as glitzy and glamorous as the one NBC is planning for SNL this weekend. Except there could be a few big differences: The alumni assembled might be a lot more current than their network comedy counterparts… not to mention a good deal more relevant.