The late-night talk show premiered on Comedy Central 15 years ago, with Craig Kilborn manning the anchor desk. We examine the early days of the program and its evolution into Jon Stewart's newsmaking satirical chatfest

By Dan Snierson
Updated July 29, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you were to watch a rerun of the very first Daily Show — that whip-smart news parody deftly emceed by Jon Stewart — you might notice a few small differences. Dinkier set. No studio audience. Oh, and Craig Kilborn in the hosting chair.

It’s easy to forget that it all began on July 22, 1996, with the charmingly glib former SportsCenter anchor at the helm. ”[Then-Comedy Central president] Doug Herzog was a fan of SportsCenter and he said, ‘Let’s do one of these shows that’s beyond sports — it’s pop culture,”’ recalls Kilborn, 48.

While Kilborn’s philosophies didn’t always jibe with management’s (”It was called The Daily Show. They wanted to do it every day. I wanted to do it every other day. They’re very literal there,” he quips), the show found its late-night niche with a mix of quirky human-interest field pieces and Kilborn’s bits like Five Questions, in which guests tackled silly/esoteric queries. (To Mike Myers: ”Canada — what went wrong?”) After two and a half years on the job, though, Kilborn left to replace Tom Snyder on CBS’ The Late Late Show. ”[The Daily Show] wasn’t for me long-term,” says Kilborn, who was nominated for a CableACE award in 1997. ”I’m a partial fan of the news parody, but I’m a bigger fan of Carson and Letterman, and I wanted to do a network late-night talk show. I was grateful to The Daily Show because it led to that.”

And Kilborn’s departure led to great things for TDS, which recruited comedian/talk-show host Jon Stewart to take his place. With the program’s focus shifting to more news and politics, ratings grew (averaging more than 2 million viewers in 2010, versus 207,000 in ’97), and the trophy case filled up, including 10 consecutive Emmys for best comedy/variety show. It stands today as an essential part of the cultural-political conversation, a launchpad for talent, and the best — and only — place to find a laugh about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act before bedtime.

What’s next for Kilborn? He’s developing an ABC Studios sitcom in which he’d star as a ”well-manicured bon vivant” who commits to a strong-minded woman.

Daily Show Alumni
Many comedy MVPs first gained notice as correspondents for the late-night series.

Steve Carell 1999-2003
The Office vet is also a formidable force of funny on film (see: Crazy, Stupid, Love).

Stephen Colbert 1997-2005
Hoards Emmy noms as the bloviating host of The Colbert Report.

Ed Helms 2002-06
A nerdy treat on screens big (The Hangover) and small (The Office).

Rob Corddry 2002-07
His clowning glory is Childrens Hospital, the absurdist Adult Swim comedy.