‘The Daily Show’ at 25: The Creators Look Back



We’re watching clips of “Dateline,” and all of a sudden, a hush fell over the room. It was like we all said it at the same time. We said: “What if we pretend we’re them? If we pretend we’re them and adopt this really mock-serious, self-important attitude? Then we can be as silly as we want as long as we always bring it home.” That was the moment “The Daily Show” was born.

How was Craig Kilborn brought in from “SportsCenter” to host?

WINSTEAD Herzog was a giant fan of Kilborn’s. He was somebody the network loved. A lot of people were like, “Is he playing dumb, or is he dumb?” He was a straight anchor, and people were always asking the question: “Is he a character, or is that who he really is?”

[Kilborn responded in an email: “Every place I’ve worked in television, I’ve mocked the format. At ‘The Daily Show,’ for the headlines I would play the thoughtful, virile news anchor. Then during the guest interview and ‘5 Questions’ I would be myself — affable, charming Craig.”]

SMITHBERG What we felt about Craig was that he was malleable. He had really good timing. He would read anything that was on the prompter, and he delivered the jokes really well. We thought of him as our Ted Baxter. The voice of “The Daily Show” was not Craig’s voice. He called stories about war and politics the front page. He said, “Can we get off the front page?”

[Kilborn: “I had an absolute blast hosting ‘The Daily Show,’ but there were major disconnects because the show was innocently set up in a flawed way — the host wasn’t hired first — so we inherited each other. I liked Madeleine a lot but she didn’t get me. Of course, there’s really no human being who could fully understand me, except for maybe the late Margaret Thatcher. And TNT’s Ernie Johnson.”]

How much did the show change in its planning and early stages?

SMITHBERG I had the set built, and Kilborn wouldn’t even look at the designs or setup. We’re launching the following Monday, so I’m like, “Come on, Craig, let’s get you down and sit you in your chair.” And he sits in his chair and says, “The set’s backward.” “What do you mean, it’s backward?” He goes, “This is my good side.” We had to flip the set over the weekend so that his good side could be to camera when he was talking to the guests.


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