Jon Stewart left the Daily Show 15 months ago and the country hasn’t been the same since. Perhaps not since the golden age of Johnny Carson had one man so ruled the nexus of entertainment and current events, and Stewart’s reign as a pragmatic, progressive jester-in-chief helped plot the national conversation while simultaneously battering a series of political (mostly-conservative) blowhards that the host deemed representative of the “incestuous circle jerk of inoperable self-interest.”
In The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History, New York Magazine writer Chris Smith digs deep into the show’s ascendance and cultural influence as if he was one of the show’s meticulous fact-checking news-tape researchers. Following the non-fiction technique popularized by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), Smith lets the show’s stars, crew, and guests tell the show’s unvarnished history. Fortunately, most every one interviewed—from Stephen Colbert to longtime showrunner Ben Karlin to Sen. John McCain—possesses an A-plus wit.
Though the book carries the imprimatur of The Daily Show, including a foreword from Stewart himself, it doesn’t flinch from digging into the show’s most contentious moments and making the star himself slightly squirm. Several of Stewart’s biggest foils—including Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and Jim Cramer—get to tell their sides of their stories, and Smith elicits pointed answers about the show’s behind-the-scenes drama, from the bumpy transition after Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn, to complaints that women weren’t always welcome by the staff’s boys-club, to the explosive 2011 racial argument that led to a rift between Stewart and Wyatt Cenac.
The Daily Show found its voice during the Bush years, especially in the aftermath of the administration’s reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks, and for half of America, Stewart spoke to the growing gap between America and its promise. (“The Bush presidency had been a great thing for us in terms of building our brand awareness,” said writing alum David Javerbaum. “Honestly, if Al Gore had been elected president, who knows what our show would’ve done.”)
It might seem early to lionize The Daily Show with a thick oral history. After all, the show’s still running and its DNA is sprinkled throughout late-night. But the timing is actually perfect. The memories, the laughter, and the wounds—they’re all still fresh, and the future will only diminish the staff’s he-said-she-said Rashomon recollections of backstage rivalries and corporate machinations. More importantly, in the Age of Trump, the time has never been better to delve into the minds of the masters who became a vital part of our democracy. Stewart is the craft’s Tom Joad, and wherever there’s a mountain of bulls—, he’ll be there.