Beyond Jon Stewart: Can 'Daily Show' survive host's departure?

Comedy Central may not have to look very far in the search to replace Jon Stewart. 'The Daily Show' host has spent years 'championing and nurturing the best talent in the industry.'

Brad Barket/AP/File
Jon Stewart records an episode of 'The Daily Show' in New York in this 2011 photo. Comedy Central announced Tuesday that Mr. Stewart will leave the show later this year.

Comedian Jon Stewart surprised his Tuesday night "Daily Show" audience with the announcement that he will depart the satirical talk show later this year. No successor has been announced, but speculation about who might fill his berth has pulled back the curtain on what has made the hit show tick – and become a cultural landmark, media experts say.

With its ability to get laughs from drilling down into important news stories, showing the hypocrisies and foibles of politicians and celebrities, along with its ability to grab the attention of a younger generation that eschews the traditional TV news broadcasts, “the show has become important to the civic conversation in this republic,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

Will  the show survive without Mr. Stewart at the helm?

Dr. Thompson says that when "Daily Show" veteran writer John Oliver took over for Stewart this past summer, he demonstrated that it was possible to replace the 16-year veteran. The stint was widely regarded as successful: Indeed, it led to Mr. Oliver's current show on HBO.

“People don’t realize that show is nearly 100 percent scripted,” Thompson says, which means that the writers are a potent component of the show’s content and success.

“There is a huge amount of pure acting going on with that show,” he notes, adding that this certainly widens the pool of potential talent to tap. Thompson suggests that the show already has viable candidates on board.

Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless acknowledged that Stewart's "brilliance is second to none," in a statement published by The Wrap, but also recognized his ability to cultivate a pool of talent.

"Jon has been at the heart of Comedy Central, championing and nurturing the best talent in the industry, in front of and behind the camera," Ms. Ganeless said.

Indeed, the roster of names that got a career boost from Stewart is impressive, including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Rob CorddryEd Helms, and Rob Riggle, as well as Oliver.

Elevating an in-house candidate and allowing him or her to develop would be in keeping with the show’s history, points out Thompson. When Stewart ascended to the anchor seat replacing Craig Kilborn in 1999, he initially continued the frat-boy tone of his predecessor, says Thompson.

“But then he found his own voice with the 2000 election,” he says, adding that Stewart began to cultivate the biting political commentary that has become the show’s trademark.

His skill flowered as he took on the task of critiquing traditional journalism, points out Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media” and a media professor at Fordham University in New York.

“Jon Stewart, more than any other single person, revolutionized television news in the 21st century,” he says via e-mail. “Today, lots of cable news shows have a humorous segment, or a sarcastic bit. All that goes back to Jon Stewart and what he's been doing on his show. 

"In an age in which people under 50 have been increasingly turning to the Internet for their news, Jon Stewart gave the younger demographic a reason to watch television,” continues Professor Levinson. He adds that Stewart leaves in top form, “as his comment about Brian Williams indicates – 'finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.' ” 

Thompson dubs this kind of comedy “the fifth estate, meaning that if the fourth estate of the press is supposed to keep the politicians in check, then we need the fifth estate of this trenchant comedy to keep traditional journalism in check.”

Still, some observers worry about Stewart’s departure, especially after Stephen Colbert traded in his post as satirical newscaster on "The Colbert Report" for a more mainstream gig on CBS's "Late Show."

“Without two court jesters to give us an alternative viewpoint in the current political climate, we'll be left without anyone to question the mainstream narrative – which is what Stewart and Colbert did so effectively, night after night,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, coordinator of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, via e-mail. 

“Colbert and Stewart offered a much needed alternative to the endless procession of talking heads on the supposed ‘real’ news channels – without someone to take on the task of serious political satire in the coming years, there will be no one to ‘speak truth to power.’

"It's a real loss,” he adds.

Others point back to the importance of the behind-the-scenes team.

“In Stewart, Comedy Central found a so-so comic whose voice blossomed as the Greek chorus of American politics,” says communication professor Len Shyles of Villanova University near Philadelphia. 

“He is incredibly loyal to his staff of writers at the show, who in many ways made him who he is,” he adds.

Elevating one of the two women who have made names for themselves on the show – Ms. Bee and Jessica Williams – might be just the right move, says Thompson. “They’ve shown they are smart and funny and can handle the political interviews,” he says, but perhaps most important, hiring a woman would give the show a fresh start – a good idea after a long run under one host, no matter how successful.

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