Comedy Central should sunset The Daily Show when Jon Stewart leaves.
Wait, now. Hear me out.
Certainly The Daily Show is an enormous brand for Comedy Central. You might argue that it is Comedy Central’s Tonight Show, its Late Show. And, yes, the late night program has survived – and thrived – with a change of hosts.
After all, when Jon Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn in 1999, the show didn’t fizzle. It found a new voice. And its popularity shot through the roof.
Still, there’s a reason it seems so hard to think of a good successor for Stewart (not that we haven’t tried). You see, viewers aren’t tuning in to see The Daily Show. They are tuning in to hear what Jon Stewart has to say about the day’s current events. They want to find out what his opinion is – and they want him to pull the wool back from eyes.
Without Stewart, what makes The Daily Show ‘The Daily Show’ ceases to exist.
Not your average late night talk show
The challenge Comedy Central will have replacing Stewart is that The Daily Show is not your average late night talk show. Changing hosts isn’t as simple as finding an engaging personality, with a good sense of humor and an ability to interview celebrity guests.
While both The Tonight Show and the Late Show are iconic, at their foundation both are built on the standard talk show format. Strip away the hosts, bands, sets and theme songs and you have, essentially, the same show. Monologue, comedy bit, celebrity guest, comedy bit, musical act or stand-up comedian.
So while finding a host who can excel as the successor to an iconic star like Johnny Carson or David Letterman might seem like a Herculean task, it is much less so.. As long as the successor has charisma, comedy chops and the ability to pull out great stories from celebrities and fellow comedians, it won’t take much for the new host to make the show his or her own.
Just look at what Jimmy Fallon has done with The Tonight Show. He adheres to the foundation of the show, but has made it his own. It is imbued with his personality. Remember how Craig Ferguson transformed the Late Late Show? The foundation was there. Ferguson just took the parts and made them fit his storytelling style and absurdist wit. The host, in a way, is the interior decorating.
But you can’t do the same thing with The Daily Show.
Jon Stewart was the foundation
In a way, Stewart’s exit from The Daily Show is closer to Stephen Colbert’s exit from The Colbert Report.
When Colbert announced he was leaving The Report to take over for Letterman on the Late Show, there was a brief moment when folks wondered if someone would take over Colbert’s show. How would it work? Would it be renamed? What would be different? What would stay the same?
Instead, Colbert shuttered the show. It couldn’t go on without him because, as the name implied, the show was all about the Colbert character. The talk show was built around the persona the host created. The two were inseparable.
The same can be said of The Daily Show. Even though the program doesn’t bare Stewart’s name – beyond the “with Jon Stewart” tag – the show is essentially The Stewart Report.
Remember, The Daily Show was only around two years before Stewart took over. It hardly had the time to establish itself. It certainly wasn’t the political and social force it is today. That version of the show focused a lot on field reports and satires of local news shows.
Stewart completely revolutionized the program. While many of the correspondents stayed on and certain segments continued for many years – especially when Colbert and Steve Carell were main cast members – the show slowly evolved into a quasi-news program. Stewart moved from mocking the news and news casters to joining them, in many ways.
The show’s turning point may have been the 2000 election when Daily Show correspondents joined real journalists on the presidential campaign trail during the program’s inaugural Indecision series of election reporting. The stunt caught the eye of viewers and news reporters, and the show soon started attracting bigger names in politics and punditry, nearly becoming a must stop for anyone trying to appeal to younger voters and decision makers.
Soon Stewart’s evening broadcast was more news and even more jokes. A lively and engaging op-ed page that dug into stories to uncover – or place a larger spotlight – on the facts around each story. Then, with wit and wisdom, Stewart would juxtapose opinions and point out the irony in a pundit’s speech or a political decision.
It’s no wonder Stewart was named the most trusted journalist on television in 2008 – and even more trusted news source than MSNBC in one recent study.
How do you follow that act?
The real question is, how does someone follow that act? Is there another man or woman who could step in as Daily Show anchor and provide us with the keen wisdom and wit Stewart so ably delivered? If so, it’s likely a short list. Maybe too short.
So rather than try to replace Stewart, maybe Comedy Central should consider replacing The Daily Show. If Stewart is going out on top, then so, too, should The Daily Show.
Replace it with Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. Develop another pundit show similar to The Colbert Report, maybe with Kathy Griffin.Maybe with Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon. Follow it with the popular @midnight.