When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, he resolved that the Comedy Central show couldn’t just take shots at easy targets—it needed to have a point of view. The disputed 2000 presidential election presented him with that opportunity, and the revamped program revolutionized how millions of viewers consumed politics. During his 16-plus years behind the desk, Stewart became a voice of reason, an avenging muckraker, and in times of crisis, our national rabbi. No more so than after 9/11, when terrorists struck the heart of America in Stewart’s backyard. In this excerpt from Chris Smith’s book The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History, Stewart and staffers relive the darkest days after the attack and the episode that helped America recover.
BEN KARLIN, from head writer to executive producer, 1999–2006
It was a few days, I think, before we gathered to talk about how the f— we were going to move on.
JON STEWART, The Daily Show host, 1999–2015
I’m talking to Ben and Stew [Bailey, producer] and the writers, just trying to figure it out. “Do we even have a show? Is there a show to do here, or do we just…do we tap-dance?” I thought it was going to go variety show.
STEVE CARELL, correspondent, 1999–2003
I remember Stephen [Colbert] and I sitting with Jon those days after, trying to figure out what to do, what to write, and how to even put on any show. It all just seemed…so irrelevant and small.
STEW BAILEY, from field producer to co-executive producer, 1996–2005; member, original Daily Show staff
There was a creative meeting before we went back on air where Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell, and Jon, and Madeleine [Smithberg, the show’s co-creator], and some others were all in Madeleine’s office and we had looked at the board that we had programmed for what segments were going to be on, before 9/11. Everybody uses those colored cardboard things with the pushpins. It’ll be eight thousand years from now and that’s how late-night shows will be programmed. Anyway, we looked at the board and we just realized this didn’t make sense to us anymore.
We were all so numb. I remember Stephen Colbert said, “I am legitimately asking if a pie in the face is still funny. I’m asking because I don’t know.” He was not joking.
DAVID JAVERBAUM, from writer to executive producer, 1999–2008
Our first instinct was, “Let’s write a bunch of things that are so light and silly. Anything contiguous to the attack, we just can’t touch.”
ALISON CAMILLO, from intern to coordinating field producer, 1998–2016
I remember Madeleine said, “I don’t even know if we have a show anymore.”
KIRA KLANG HOPF, from production assistant to script supervisor, 1996–; member, original Daily Show staff
Jon knew we still had a show. He said, “This now is more important than ever.” On that Thursday, when we came back to work, he came around to everyone’s office and talked: “What should we do?” He wanted to make sure everyone was on board. He didn’t want to go back on the air and be a dick.
Comedians process our emotions through this peculiar refinery of whatever puns you could come up with that day. You remove that, and it’s as though there’s a narcotic on the digestive system. You’re blocked, it’s building up, and you don’t know what to do.
I knew that for me, personally, I would have to express…I would have to use the process that I’ve used to process pain, and discontent, and happiness, and everything else, but in a way that was somewhat anathema to how I would normally approach it. It just had to be direct and I was going to have to do it without my crutches.
It’s very hard for me to write without knowing, “Okay, I’m going to get to perform it now.” I generally can’t take myself to a place without knowing what the finish line is. It has to be timed right, because otherwise I will lose my inertia. If I don’t time it right it’ll be there and then it’ll be gone, and I’ll f— it up, I’ll ruin it by overwriting it.
That day, September 20, when we were doing our first show after 9/11, was basically me in my office just pacing and jotting stuff down.
JEN FLANZ, from production assistant to executive producer, 1998–
Nobody really knew what Jon was going to say.
I wrote the 9/11 monologue on a paper plate. I ate a lot of pizza, so my office had a lot of paper plates in it, from a pizza place. Not the Chinet kind, either. The s—ty paper kind.
On September 20, 2001, Stewart spoke directly into the camera for nearly nine minutes, tears welling in his eyes, tapping the anchor desk hard with a plastic pen when he needed to pause and compose himself, the studio audience silent except for several brief moments of nervous laughter.
Good evening, and uh, welcome to The Daily Show. Uh, we are back. Uh, this is our first show since the tragedy in New York City and uh, uh, there’s no other way to start this show other than to ask you at home the question that we asked the audience here tonight, and that we’ve asked everybody that we know here in New York since September 11, and that is, “Are you okay?” And that we pray that you are and that your family is…
I know we’re late. I’m sure we’re getting in right under the wire before the cast of Survivor offers their insight into what to do in these situations. They said to get back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying. Which I gladly would have taken. So I come back here and—tonight’s show is not obviously a regular show…
A lot of folks have asked me, “What are you going to do when you get back? What are you going to say? I mean, geez, what a terrible thing to have to do.” I don’t see it as a burden at all. I see it as a privilege. I see it as a privilege and everyone here does see it that way.
The show in general, we feel like is a privilege. Just even, even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wise-cracks, which is really what we do. We sit in the back and we—we throw spitballs, and uh—but never forgetting the fact that is a luxury in this country that it—that allows us to do that. This is a country that allows for open satire, and I know that sounds basic and it sounds as though it goes without saying—but that’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and and and and burdened and we don’t take that for granted here by any stretch of the imagination. And our show has changed. I don’t—I don’t doubt that. What it’s become, I don’t know. “Subliminable” is not a punch line anymore. One day it will become that again, and, and Lord willing, it will become that again because that means we have ridden out the storm.
But the main reason that, that I wanted to speak tonight is, is not to tell you what the show is going to be. Not to tell you about all the incredibly brave people that are here in New York and in Washington and around the country. Uh, but but we’ve had an unenduring pain here—an unendurable pain. And I just—I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair… [tears up] I’m sorry. Luckily we can edit this…
And the reason I don’t despair is because this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone even if it’s just momentary. And we’re judging people by not the color of their skin but the content of their character. And you know, all this talk about, “These guys are criminal masterminds. They’ve—they’ve gotten together and their extraordinary guile…and their wit and their skill.” It’s a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets, rebuilding. That, that—that is—that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down. They live in chaos and chaos…it can’t sustain itself. It never could. It’s too easy and it’s too unsatisfying.
The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center, and now it’s gone. And they attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.
So we’re going to take a break and I’m going to stop slobbering on myself and on the desk and, uh, we’re going to get back to this. It’s gonna be fun and funny and it’s going to be the same as it was and I thank you. We’ll be right back.
RORY ALBANESE, from production assistant to executive producer, 1999–2013
I do remember thinking, “F—, dude, that’s pretty heavy for a comedy show.”
I think the end of it was just me holding up our dog, Monkey. And then we all kind of looked at each other like, “Now what?”
Afterward I had to walk away from the desk, and I went into the back room and I just bawled. I was just…I was done. It had been an incredibly emotional experience. We all knew people who had been down there and had lost people. It was just the act of getting it out, but it’s not like that was the healing, that was just the…it honestly felt like that was, “Great, I’ve now vomited it up, but I’m still nauseous, and exhausted.” That first show was not a statement of what we were going to do. It was a necessary draining of an abscess to even become ambulatory.
Excerpted from the book The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith with a Foreword by Jon Stewart. Copyright © 2016 by Busboy Productions, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.