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The story of how 'The Daily Show' became 'The Daily Show'

Nonfiction

The Daily Show (The Book); By Chris Smith, Foreword by Jon Stewart; Grand Central Publishing, 459 pages ($30)

The great ones have a way of making it look easy. Think of Joe Montana throwing a touchdown pass or Frank Sinatra singing a Cole Porter tune.

For more than 16 years on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart made it look easy. Now a new book chronicles how he transformed a middling late-night, basic cable TV diversion and turned it into a show that not only made him and his cast of correspondents into household names, but in some ways transformed the way we think about politics and media.

Read the book and you will agree: He made it look easy, but it wasn’t easy.

“The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests” by Chris Smith, takes us inside the half-hour Comedy Central show that Stewart hosted from 1999 to 2015. Except for the occasional explanatory interlude or introduction from Smith, a contributing editor for New York magazine, the book is told in the words of the on-camera names you recognize – including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Larry Wilmore, Samantha Bee, John Oliver – the behind-the-scenes people whose names most would not recognize who pulled the show together; and the public figures whose exchanges with Stewart and other interviewers became news in their own right – among them Sen. John McCain, pundit and onetime “Crossfire” host Tucker Carlson and former federal Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius.

In true oral history style, the book is presented in chronological order, starting when Stewart took over “The Daily Show” from original host Craig Kilborn, and ending with his departure in 2015 when he turned over the keys to current host, Trevor Noah.

Kilborn had been an adequate host, but the show was built around the personality of the former ESPN anchor: a bit smirky, a lot of superiority and making fun of people who were guileless enough to not realize they were the butt of the joke. Stewart immediately set about putting his mark on the show.

“During the Kilborn era, it was about ‘How can we seem like we’ve gone too far?’ ” recalls Justin Melkmann, a supervising producer who started with the show two years before Stewart. “With Jon, we went from creating the news – creating funny spoof headlines – to making fun of the news. That was a big change.”

Not surprisingly, the shift from snark to smart was not easy; because not all of the writers and producers shared Stewart’s sensibility, there were arguments and ultimatums and staff turnover. But change eventually came. And all of the changes started with, or went through Stewart, who comes across in the retelling as a -- mostly -- benevolent overlord.

“I knew what I didn’t want,” Stewart says early in the book. “But then turning it into what you did want was the next scenario, and that was going to take time, and effort, and accomplices. What I needed most were accomplices.”

Stewart and his accomplices eventually created a show that focused on the absurdity of politicians and the media – especially the cable news media – that covers them and laid bare the hypocrisy on both sides. You are reminded again and again in the book that “The Daily Show” was not JUST a comedy show; it was a game-changer. While the media was trying to be "objective" about politics, "The Daily Show" was finding old clips of pundits and commentators making one argument for their friends, and the opposite for their enemies.

Writers ans researchers were the key. Whether they were major players or people in cameo roles, all tell their stories. The theme is the same: Stewart found slightly off-beat intellectuals and turned them into the team that made the show sing.

The danger in a book like this is that if you don’t get the right people talking, you might not get the warts-and-all history. But that doesn’t happen, partly because it appears virtually everyone connected with the show took part, with one notable exception: correspondent Wyatt Cenac, who had a well-documented falling-out with Stewart after he questioned the host’s imitation of presidential candidate Herman Cain. Cenac, who is black, said the imitation of Cain, who also is black, reminded him of “Kingfish” on Amos ‘n’ Andy.

But although Cenac apparently did not talk to Smith, more than a dozen other people did and the retelling takes up 11 pages.

Where the book makes its greatest impact, though, is in the stories of the “correspondents,” the men and women who became stars thanks to the launching pad that “The Daily Show” became.

It might be equally entertaining to relive in print the early days when Colbert and Carell were not the stars they are today, as it was to watch them. (Don’t skim the part where they tell the story of the bit in which Carell gets blindingly drunk while Colbert drinks nothing. “There was a lot of vomiting that evening,” Carell says. “In Stephen’s car,” adds his wife and fellow former correspondent Nancy Walls Carell.)

The correspondents all introduce themselves in the book by recalling what they were doing when they got the call that changed their lives. Samantha Bee, now host of her own show “Full Frontal” on TBS, was working in advertising and doing improv in Toronto. Her agent told her about an audition for the show, which he had never heard of, but which happened to be her favorite show.

“I trained for the audition like I was training for an Olympic event.,” she says. “Started eating salmon every day. I’m not kidding.”

Oliver’s story is even more unlikely. He came to the show’s attention when head writer Ben Karlin said Ricky Gervais told him to check out Oliver’s work.

“I didn’t know Ricky, had never met him,” he says. “I’ve subsequently said thanks. He kind of shrugged and went, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I did tell them about you.’ ”

“The Daily Show” rose in stature during the communication revolution that picked up speed in the first decade of the 2000s and both benefited from it and impacted it.

The show was an early adopter of TiVo as a means to record multiple news programs at once and then mine them for material. When Stewart went on “Crossfire” and famously tore into Carlson and co-host Paul Begala, the moment not only sealed the fate of the show, but is credited in the book with spurring he creation of YouTube.

Smith does a nice job of mixing in moments that are easy to remember – Stewart eviscerating Jim Cramer of CNBC at the height of the economic meltdown in 2009 – and bringing out ones that are easy to forget, like the night Barack Obama was elected president  and “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore came out with a tape measure and approached Stewart’s desk.

“What are you doing?” Stewart asked.

Wilmore responded: “Whatever I want.”

“The Daily Show” is going through more changes now with Noah as host, and it will be interesting to see what comes out on the other side. Maybe that will make a good book someday. The story of Stewart and his accomplices already is.

Bruce Andriatch is the Assistant Managing Editor/Features for The Buffalo News.

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