Late night comedians have become the signal within the noise of information in today’s tsunami of 24-hour news coverage. They have the unique ability to follow the punches to the face from 2018’s outrageous midterm election headlines with the first aid of laughter. Many television historians credit Jon Stewart with being the original comedy newsman. By the end of his tenure at The Daily Show, Rolling Stone had named Stewart “the most trusted name in news,” and a Pew Research Center poll found that 47 percent of Millennials got the majority of their election news from late night TV.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart helped shape the tone of late night television, but what shaped the show’s voice can be traced back to Indecision 2000. This was a series of Daily Show episodes that satirized the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. “It was the moment in which American culture realized that entertainment journalism can actually play a real, productive role in citizenship and not just frivolous, throwaway humor,” Jeffrey P. Jones, director of the Peabody Awards, told the Washington Post.
Stewart had just taken over The Daily Show from former ESPN host Craig Kilborn, who had hosted the ‘fake news program’ since 1996 and was leaving the fledgling program on the scrappy Comedy Central network. CBS had tapped Kilborn as Tom Synder’s successor on The Late Late Show in the coveted timeslot after David Letterman.
In terms of the late night talk show landscape, Kilborn’s Daily Show was more traditional than the show we’ve grown to love today. It opened with a 5-minute monologue called Headlines, followed by a segment called Other News, and then a pre-taped field piece from correspondents. As is done still today, he ended with a guest interview. Its tone was more of a spoof on the late night local news that was on at the same time. “There was more of a pop-culture-and-lifestyle component only because what we were satirizing—particularly local news—was doing a lot of that stuff,” Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead said to Vanity Fair. “We would make fun of the conventions of news. Like when TV reporters talk, how do you create drama in a story that doesn’t exist?”
The show did moderately well, peaking at a nightly average of 357,000 viewers, and was on the rise. Critics loved it, and the show reached the younger male viewers targeted by the also young network. Stewart had been focusing on acting when he got the call from Comedy Central. He’d recently landed a few supporting roles in romantic comedies and was working as Garry Shandling’s wingman on The Larry Sanders Show. He was still licking his wounds from the cancellation of The Jon Stewart Show on MTV, and NBC had just passed him over in favor of Conan O’Brien as Letterman’s Late Night replacement. “The stakes for Jon were fairly high at that point, because he’s not a super-young guy anymore, and he’s had shots, and people easily disappear and go into the woodwork,” said Matt Labov, former publicist for Stewart. “He didn’t get the Conan job on NBC; he didn’t get the 12:30 job after Letterman. If this doesn’t work on fucking cable, then where would Jon have ended up?”
Stewart had to make The Daily Show work, but ran into some initial difficulties. Right off the bat he had to deal with a power struggle from some of the writers who were holdovers from the Kilborn era. They wanted to continue the program’s shock humor approach that was more the norm of the era. Stewart wanted measured nuance and more deserving targets to satire. He chose to surround himself with a team of writers and correspondents that understood and better matched his voice and vision. That included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Mo Rocca, and Nancy Walls.
There was a lot of ground to cover with Indecision 2000. The nation was fresh off President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, and the Democratic candidate, Gore, was avoiding campaigning with Clinton. On the Republican side, the former Texas governor, Bush was being criticized for being unintelligent and inexperienced. It was fertile ground for comedy even if politics wasn’t Stewart’s natural inclination. “[Stewart] wasn’t really political – there was no politics in his stand-up routines, to any extent,” said Lisa Rogak, author of The Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart. “Once the convention and presidential primary and campaign season took over, maybe that gave him a bit more permission to cover politics.”
Stewart and his team’s initial approach to the election was to cover it with complete silliness. They went to the New Hampshire primary armed with queries literally ripped from Trivial Pursuit and lobbed Republican presidential candidate John McCain outrageous questions like, “Who became the hottest pop star to come out of Iceland in the mid-1990s?” Their coverage hit a watershed moment when Carell was invited to interview McCain on his Straightalk Express bus. Carell asked McCain a lightning round of seemingly benign questions, like what was his favorite book and movie. But then he hit him with, “Senator, how do you reconcile the fact that you were one of the most vocal critics of pork-barrel politics, and yet, while you were chairman of the Commerce Committee, that committee set a record for unauthorized appropriations?” McCain was dumbfounded for several seconds before Carell followed up with, “I was just kidding! I don’t even know what that means!” That line of questioning ended up getting Carell kicked off the bus, but it planted the seed for a new direction for the show.
“I remember seeing it in the editing room. I remember Jon called me down, and seeing it and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is what we should be doing. This is the goal.’ It was one of Carell’s most incredible moments,” said Ben Karlin, former Daily Show producer told Vanity Fair. “He asks McCain a question in a way that no journalists were talking to the candidates. And it was like, ‘Oh shit, we are able, in this weird, unintentional way, to add a level of insight to the process that doesn’t exist.’ That was really, really exciting. It meets the standard of being funny; it meets the standard of being relevant.”
The epiphany was perfectly timed because the election was about to reach peak crazy. The night of the election, returns showed Bush winning Florida by such a close margin that state law mandated a recount. That recount turned into a month-long court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. “It’s a stunning struggle for democracy centered on a small group of Florida voters; people who may get to determine the next presidential administration, but probably won’t have to live through it,” Stewart told The Daily Show audience.
Much like our suprising 2016 presidential election, Americans were bombarded with 24-hour coverage of the madness. However, now that Stewart was an option, many viewed him as a much-needed break from the hysteria that they could indulge in while still staying informed. “For many, Jon Stewart’s perspective was probably the only way to look at the surreal landscape of ‘We can’t determine who won this election,’” said Ron Simon, a TV curator for the Paley Center for Media in an interview with The Washington Post. “His emergence at that period was just the perfect antidote to the insanity absorbing American politics.”
The Daily Show’s Indecision 2000 coverage ended up winning the Peabody Award for political satire. “The highly original pieces covered the campaigns, conventions, election night, and recounts with flagging and with exceptional insight,” said a statement from the Peabody Awards. “These inspired, irreverent, satirical pieces follow in the grand tradition of political pundits through the ages,” said CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour in her introductory speech before awarding The Daily Show the Peabody.
So as we watch the 2018 midterm election results roll in this Tuesday, whether it goes your way or not, thanks to The Daily Show’s Indecision 2000, somewhere on television you can find a clown with an impeccable research department that will make you laugh about it.