“The Daily Show” launched 25 years ago to address current affairs: “We didn’t laugh at it, we became it”
Twenty-five years ago, the best TV news show debuted on Comedy Central.
From its inception, “The Daily Show” stood out for its combination of brutally funny cynicism and furious hope, a balance refined when Jon Stewart became host in early 1999, and maintained today with Trevor Noah behind the office. And since its inception, it has been a program on the news media as well as on the news itself.
The stamina of “The Daily Show” remains a testament to its creators, Madeline Smithberg and Lizz Winstead, who helped set the show’s meticulously crafted tone. Salon recently spoke to Winstead by phone about the genesis of the show, the grueling days of information gathering before Google, and the live broadcast of the “Daily Show” reunion this week.
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
It’s not like there’s never been any satire. It’s not like there’s never been a parody of the news. What makes “The Daily Show” unique?
I think what made it different is that we didn’t ridicule him; we became he. We really gave the public credit. We didn’t want to be cartoons. We wanted, by being as realistic as possible, looking and sounding the same, using the same bullshit that the media focused on, to really highlight what was wrong with the media.
Often times in previous iterations where there was a news bureau, it was a sarcastic commentary on the news. For us, we felt like the medium itself had to be a character. In 1996, when we launched, there was only CNN. We launched mid-July. MSNBC was launched a few weeks later. [Note: MSNBC launched July 15, 1996]. Fox News launched in October. This all happened in 1996.
When we first started, we were really satirizing the ensemble if “If Bleeds It Leads” local reporting, as well as fear-based news magazines. There were 17 news magazines on the TV network when we launched. They would all do “Will your pasta kill you?” You know, it was all about terrifying the viewer, then figuring out some obscure ways to tie them to a reflection article, and then broadcast it in this language of guesswork. It was happening everywhere. You would look at the cover of a magazine and say, “Do you have AIDS? Then there would be an article and it was just, “Of course you don’t have AIDS. But they would just try to scare you. We have really followed this trajectory. The show, when we launched it, actually looked more like Colbert in the sense that every person on the show was a character. We just caught the audience on this newscast full of people who were quite objectionable on some level. You could see the essence of what you knew and what you saw every night in real news.
One of the reasons “The Daily Show” is 25 and doing well is because Brian Unger came from the news, and trained each correspondent. He was the first correspondent we hired. He was a producer and he was a camera person. He trained everyone on how to light a shot, how to shoot to set the mood, how to deliver your lines. He really helped us all learn how to go straight with the ridiculous, so it looked like you were breaking the news.
Was the show difficult to sell to the public, as creators?
To create a newscast at the time, and to do good satire, you had to satire the existing. And the existing thing was full of white men. So, as two women, the only thing we knew was that if we wanted to blow the lid off the news, it had to look like the news. That meant the spaces that needed to be occupied had to be white dudes, right? To this day – and this part is frustrating – I don’t think a lot of people know that two women created this show.
I don’t think they know either that our two co-creators, executive producer, head writer, production manager, senior producer, all field producers except one, were all women. It was a disappointment because we received over 150 written submissions, and only two from women, when we launched.
It was great fun, but it was also very difficult. Madeleine and I had to fight a lot of battles with the network because they didn’t want it to be a news program. I think they wanted it to be more wacky and more pop-cultural. I’m not sure “The Daily Show” would have lasted 25 years if Madeleine and I had agreed to turn it into some kind of “Entertainment Tonight” comedy show.
When did you know it was something? That it was something people paid attention to and that it had an impact?
The second the show aired, I had a hunch. Then we were inundated with fan mail. Then there were so many requests that it took almost a year in advance to get tickets. It went like the first week. And that audience that wanted to be a part of it was really cool.
There was nothing else really like that to pin your conversations, it mirrored the way we talked about the news.
What gave us a big boost was that the news that was broadcast had really done the real news a disservice. CNN was like “the trial of the century of the week”. A lot of people really wondered what was going on in the world and didn’t see it and then watched the news. They knew the conventions. They knew the local reporter. They knew this scary story. They knew Pierre Phillips. They had a working knowledge of the conventions. In the intricacies of how we created our characters, we always made sure the audience was with us on how we satirize the people, genres, and type of stories we were making. So we didn’t try to be too much into baseball. And you know, the print journalists were so excited that we were shitting all over television journalism. They wrote radiant and radiant stories.
Was there a point in the beginning when you had a story where you thought, “We’re doing this story in a way that no one else has looked at? “
I think all we did was sort of that. I mean, even “Weekend Update” never used sequences. There was never a lot of over the shoulder graphic design that looked like what they did in the news. We were the first to do this. Taking trends from news genres, like “When Animals Attack”, then we did “When the Old People Attack”.
We really satirized the way they did the cover, the conditions and how many times they just ask someone to say, “Your turn” when nothing was happening there. -low. Car chases races. Storm watch. We were the first to really take it to the next level and into the field, and bring it back to the studio. Instead of being skits, it was actually a fully formed show that had to function as a newsroom, because we were doing a news show, but satirizing it.
And remember, without Google. I think we stole a LexisNexis ID. We had about 45 newspapers delivered to the office. People divide the country into regions, and all they do is find stories. I think we had the AP wire. But it was digging, then watching, observing what the trends were, then satire.
The show came at one point in the midst of the Clinton administration and the OJ Post, all that media circus. Do you think that was part of what made us ripe for the show, or was the show ripe for America?
I think that’s what made the show ripe for America. The media had set the circus agenda. We didn’t need to point out that there was a circus; the circus went without saying. The circus started after the first Gulf War. People forget that just as it was drawing to a close, and everyone was panicking about how they were going to maintain ratings, Rodney King performed. They were therefore able to continue working in the media, and this continues to continue. They haven’t even really learned a good lesson about it. They just amplified the furious nature of rabies, instead of examining rabies. That should have been our calculation.
Instead of what he’s become, who’s the role model.
Then you had the nanny who shakes the baby, then the Menendez brothers, then Anna Nicole Smith. It just became this furious churn factory. We just followed him. It was like, is this how you’re gonna help people? This is madness for me. Part of what was fun was turning on a light and being them, without having to hit someone on the head and say, “Be careful who you trust when you get information.
You have a reunion event with Madeline Smithberg, Brian Unger and other “The Daily Show” originals. Tell me about the show.
The good news is that I really want to promote this special because it also benefits Before access to abortion, which is really cool. All these people are mobilizing to support us.
I would really love to make sure people know that they can watch all these cool people get back together and tell the original story with stories they’ve never heard before. I’m so excited that this fall we’re kicking off a YouTube Talk Show – a hilarious 30-minute weekly feminist comedy talk show that’s going to talk about all the issues we don’t talk about, and really takes deep dives into all of them. these laws that happen around access to reproduction, and just patriarchy, and white supremacy, and with comedy and fun. This is called Live feminist buzzkills, and which will be launched in October. This is also one of the projects we are working on with Abortion Access Front. I’m also going to hit the road again to do a lot of touring. People really need a catharsis and to come together. We need a 12-step program to go down next. Just stop going online and getting weird information from your vaguely racist neighbors. Like, we have to regroup.
So all eyes on the price and in Washington, DC in the fall, on the Supreme Court, when they go to decide the fate of abortion access as we know it in the United States. And it’s pretty intense.
“The daily show turns 25!” airs live on July 19 at 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT. Tickets are available on RushTix, and the product benefits Abortion Access Front.