Damn! Time flies too quickly at my age. I’m glad this outlasted South Park and probably will. It wasn’t necessarily Comedy Central’s first attempt at current events-based comedy. Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect didn’t survive ABC’s cowardice and Maher’s love of his own farts. I don’t know if I’d count Short Attention Span Theater, the show lacked a direction.
When it did launch on this day and then some. I was amongst the skeptics. Ugh, here we go, yet another program similar to HBO’s Not Necessarily the News from the Eighties and/or it’s SNL’s Weekend Update on a daily basis. Going with this former sportscaster named Craig Kilbourn was another mystery. By the Fall, I was starting to enjoy it. TDS found its voice mocking the news-lite crap the broadcast networks were peddling, the first correspondents were pretty funny, especially Brian Unger, a former correspondent on A Current Affair and Craig’s five questions with the guest were clever.
It was a bummer though to find out the early years were rocky. Craig Kilbourn turned out to be an asshole who found a way to push out the creators, both of whom were women he hated. He to got suspended for calling them “bitches” in an interview with a magazine. Still, TDS kept soldiering on as writers and correspondents left while new ones joined, namely Stephen Colbert from Strangers with Candy and Exit 57. Colbert brilliantly made his own niche as the program’s Bill O’Reilly parody.
When it was announced that Kilbourn was leaving and Jon Stewart was taking over. I figured, yeah, TDS will die a slow, painful death. For Millenials and Gen Z, here’s an explanation why many agreed with me. Throughout the Nineties, Jon Stewart was my generation’s Billy Crystal. A not-very-funny comedian who just kept being foisted on the rest of us. Whenever Jon Stewart or Dave Chapelle were going to be on, you changed the channel, they sucked. Stewart had a brief stinting hosting Short Attention Span Theater before Marc Maron took over, he was lame. Then he had a short-lived, pretty boring talk show on MTV. Who’s to blame? Given MTV being vapid and shitty after 1985, it would be an even split. Had I subscribed to HBO for the rest of the decade, I would’ve learned how Stewart finally found his voice via The Larry Sanders Show as a writer and playing a parody of himself, namely the self-deprecating jokes regarding how he failed on MTV. The other factor I didn’t know, David Letterman was his guest on the last MTV episode. David gave Jon encouraging words about failure and persistence. Having seen David Letterman’s original NBC daytime show in 1980 as a kid, Jon got a huge pearl of comedy wisdom.
Jon Stewart was also very cunning. CBS originally offered him the show following Letterman because Tom Snyder was retiring. He passed and let Kilbourn take it. Then he took control of TDS by hiring a couple Onion writers to move things more toward satirizing what passed for actual news in America. The fluff Kilbourn promoted died out and the correspondents doubled-down on personas to add to the absurdity. We can thank him for making TDS a comedy institution alongside The Onion and The Simpsons. Jon proved to be a generous person and performer as his tenure launched The Colbert Report (some of its DNA lives in The Late Show), This Week with Jon Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Larry Wilmore’s two shows. Others became movie stars, stand-ups and TV leads with his assistance. Jon also paid it forward as they say when Larry Wilmore was canceled on Comedy Central.
Jon Stewart’s run was incredible. He went from being a “not him” choice to hard act to follow after 16 years. He also turned down an opportunity to run TDS through the awful Girth Vader term but said it would be too easy, he wanted something different and a new challenge. He also gave TDS a solid, reliable direction, more along with what the creators wanted from day one.
Trevor Noah as the successor was a bigger surprise than Jon Stewart in 1999. Given all the more experienced and famous correspondents to fill the spot (and many left), especially not getting a woman in the anchor seat (Samantha Bee came to mind), Trevor has been successful. Like all hosts of any long-running program, The Tonight Show, Late Night, Hollywood Squares, etc. Shifts in tone, in-jokes and so on is expected. He quickly made this his own show influenced by his experience as an immigrant to America; a little nod to how David Letterman was a Midwesterner out of his element in NYC back in the Eighties.
In closing, I think what has made TDS amazing and still fresh after 25 years is threefold. It’s The Onion for people who don’t like to read. It’s a thousand times better than SNL will ever could be, including the classic 1975-1980 cast. It’s also a program and format that continues to confound and frustrate the American Right; they’re still 0 and double digits in making an equivalent.