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Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' Legacy: Changing How Americans See Satire

President Obama talks with <em>The Daily Show</em> host Jon Stewart.
Evan Vucci
President Obama talks with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

For The Daily Show fans, this may be the final, bruising indignity.

As the curtain falls tonight on the very first Republican presidential debate — featuring joke-magnet Donald Trump as the election season begins in earnest – satirist supreme Jon Stewart will already be saying goodbye.

"It's amazing that this 2016 election will be the first election since Dole-Clinton in 1996 that we haven't had Jon Stewart," says Robert Barnett, a powerhouse Washington, D.C., lawyer considered one of the capital's top insiders. "He has been impactful in every presidential election since he started in 1999, and his impact goes beyond ... the election cycle."

An image from Jon Stewart's first appearance as host of Comedy Central's <em>The</em> <em>Daily Show</em>.
/ Comedy Central PR
Comedy Central PR
An image from Jon Stewart's first appearance as host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

Barnett has brokered everything from President Bill Clinton's book deal to NBC News anchor Brian Williams' move to MSNBC. And a lot of his clients appeared on the show. So he speaks from experience when he says Stewart changed how Americans see politics and media by dissecting their foibles with deadly accurate satire.

"He's more like an H.L. Mencken — someone who causes you to think about serious things, but does so in an insightful and entertaining way," Barnett adds.

"He usually — almost always — gives you a fair chance, and that's what you want," the lawyer says. "There's so many of the interview shows where a question will be asked and you won't get a chance to respond. Or the host talks more than the guest. And Jon Stewart, while doing so with a comedic flair that's immeasurable, gives you a chance to talk about what you came there to talk about."

One minute Stewart might stage a debate on the war in Iraq, using soundbites from President George W. Bush's first term to counter soundbites from Bush's second term.

Next, he might grill President Obama over Democrats' fading electoral chances in 2010, noting "the Democrats this year seem to be running on [the motto], 'Please, baby, one more chance.' "

Or he could get serious, as he did in the program's first show after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, where Stewart spoke from the heart, tearing up while saying, "I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don't despair. ... The recovery is a dream realized, and that is Martin Luther King's dream."

Jon was the voice of the viewer ... they saw somebody who was speaking for them as they also observed the absurdity of the day.

"Jon was the voice of the viewer," says The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead. "He was able to craft the show in his voice, craft the material. ... I think the viewer could be more invested in it, because they saw somebody who was speaking for them as they also observed the absurdity of the day."

Winstead helped develop the program in 1996 with original host Craig Kilborn, an ex-ESPN anchor who read jokes written for him as a Ted Baxter-style clueless anchor.

In those days, the cable news channels MSNBC and Fox News had barely started, so the show's satire focused more on newsmagazines like Dateline and 20/20, while writers pored through stacks of newspapers for items to satirize.

Winstead, a longtime friend of Stewart's, had already left the program by the time he succeeded Kilborn in 1999. Still, she notes that Stewart slowly took control of The Daily Show's writing and voice, sharpening its focus as a news junkie with a nose for hypocrisy.

From challenging Fox News on its aggressive support of the conservative brand in America to skewering CNBC business commentator Jim Cramer for not uncovering the practices that led to the financial crisis, Stewart was expert at using media figures' own words to prove their shortcomings.

"Jon Stewart's power is partially because all the other parts of the media have been derelict in actually doing their job," says Winstead, who cited headlines describing Stewart's under-the-radar meetings with Obama in 2011 and 2014 as a prime example of journalists missing the point. "Maybe they should be more concerned about why the comedy show host is so influential and that their media is so derelict of influence."

But some people in the news business say they haven't earned all of the criticism they're getting on the The Daily Show. CNN anchor Don Lemon, a frequent target, shrugs off the jokes.

"They are taking short clips and short segments out of hours and hours and sometimes days and days and weeks of news coverage," Lemon says. "It is their bread and butter to criticize the news business, because people like to blame the media for everything."

Lemon was lampooned when he covered a snowstorm in New York from a vehicle tricked out with cameras, dubbed the "blizzardmobile."

"As always when there is innovation in the field of newsgathering, we look to CNN for its worst iteration," Stewart said in the segment. "Blizzardmobile? Settle down, Batman — it's a Ford Explorer."

But Lemon resisted the idea that such jokes actually highlighted problems with CNN's journalism or style. "While I respect Jon Stewart and the The Daily Show and what they do, it's very often not the truth ... it's just Jon Stewart or his writers' opinion of the news," he adds. "I actually think Jon Stewart criticizes CNN because he watches more, and wants us to be better, and I think he likes us."

Tough as it is to be the butt of the The Daily Show's jokes, sometimes writing them could be difficult, too.

Former correspondent and writer Wyatt Cenac recently told comic Marc Maron about an expletive-laden argument he had with Stewart after challenging the racial overtones of a voice the host used to parody then-GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who is black.

Beth Littleford, who was on the The Daily Show from its inception through Stewart's first year, also says working on the program back then could be difficult for women because so few were there at the start.

"I think it was hard on women. I think it was a real revolving door. Women couldn't please him," she says. "Women have always said to me, 'I want to marry Jon,' and I was like, 'Well, you don't want to work under him as a woman. You might want to marry him, but you don't want to work under him.' "

Still, Littleford also credits Stewart with turning The Daily Show into a household name and teaching a generation of viewers how to understand this emerging hybrid form of comedy and information.

"I think it's changed the voice of how people talk about things and the things you can put on the air and the things people understand on the air," she adds. "They understand satire in a new way, I think."

That is Jon Stewart's most enduring legacy — showing a nation of viewers who'd always suspected politicians and media of hypocrisy that they had it right all along.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.