Transitions on talk shows are among the hardest things to get right.
NBC’s storied “Tonight Show” franchise, for instance, may not fully recover from the installation and speedy removal of Conan O’Brien as host until Jay Leno, O’Brien’s predecessor and successor, leaves next year. And Leno’s own arrival on that show came as the result of an ugly battle with former friend (and Johnny Carson’s preferred candidate) David Letterman, who ended up getting a new show all his own on CBS. And who knows who’ll succeed Letterman when he leaves, whether next year or later?
The very reason talk-show hosting choices are so tricky is their rarity. There is an extra emotional charge to any decision because, unlike most other gigs in or out of the entertainment world, there simply aren’t more of them. CBS and NBC each have two late-night shows, and ABC has one, and it seems as though those shows will always be with us, no matter who’s hosting. And when it comes to shows that can survive the loss of their host (“Conan,” rather pointedly, can’t survive without O’Brien; there’s no “Chelsea Lately” without E!’s Chelsea Handler), that’s pretty much it.
Or at least it was. With his summer off, Jon Stewart may have proven that “The Daily Show” is strong enough to join the club of “Tonight,” “The Late Show” and “Late Night” — shows with whatever ineffable quality guarantees they can withstand a personnel change.
As Stewart worked on his directorial debut throughout an unexpectedly news-packed summer (whatever happened to August’s status as the most boring month?), correspondent John Oliver took over the show, doing so well in his interim role that this site mused, “Oliver is, if anything, doing too good a job.”
That’s in part because Oliver showed up Stewart a bit — the host of “The Daily Show” had fallen into familiar patterns. Presumably, when he comes back to the show he made famous, Stewart will be be a bit more energetic and less apt to do one of his funny voices as a way to goose laughter.
Or maybe he won’t! But the show is the stronger for Oliver’s proven abilities in the anchor’s chair. “The Daily Show” is suffused with anxiety about its own future. Stewart, whose sideline activities (media pundit, author, Oscar host, director) represent a fairly compelling audition for something bigger than cable TV, is consistently spoken of as someone who could end up with a network talk show someday, though as this Vulture piece points out, he’s contractually bound to Comedy Central until 2015 — and, again, there aren’t very many opportunities to change jobs. But how many election cycles and Emmy ceremonies can one man endure? Someday, Stewart will go — one presumes he’ll make more than one film, for instance. And knowing there’s a locked-and-loaded replacement is comforting not merely for executives at Comedy Central, who have likely spent years wondering what to do when Stewart leaves, but also for viewers, who this summer newly realized how much of “The Daily Show” is not contingent on the host.
Oliver won praise not merely for his comedy stylings but also for keeping the show moving. “The Daily Show” was — and had been before Oliver took over for the summer — much more about the diffuse personalities of its correspondents than it ever was about Stewart, who’s won the lion’s share of praise over time. Though Stewart wasn’t the show’s original host (that was Craig Kilborn, who got promoted, briefly, to a late-night berth on NBC), he’s seen as having defined its sensibility. That sensibility, though, is fairly easily picked up and not particularly unique to Stewart — good though Stewart is, “incredulously mocking the news” is not a remarkably specific broadcasting format. “The Daily Show,” which seemed inelastically bound to certain particularities of Stewart’s, proved itself able to change slightly to accommodate Oliver. But only slightly: An Oliver riff, wrote Willa Paskin on this site, “was written exactly as it would have been for Stewart. That host’s sensibility from the anchor’s chair has become the defining mode of TV comedy over the decade-plus he’s hosted the show; it’s unsurprising a correspondent can pick it up easily.
It seemed like a fair question, at the beginning of the summer, if “The Daily Show” would be bearable this summer — and a less pressing but equally fair question as to whether the show was more like “Conan” or “Late Night,” a show that could permanently lose its host and endure. While fans of Stewart can be happy he’s back, they also don’t need to worry about disloyalty if they root for his career success beyond “The Daily Show.” He ought to make a movie every summer.