Culture

The Underside Of Jon Stewart’s Legacy At ‘The Daily Show’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Laura Rauch

As Jon Stewart made waves by announcing his retirement from anchoring fake news to his studio audience on Tuesday, he immediately prompted laudatory statements about his 16-year tenure running the show.

People remembered the time he gave a scathing critique of cable news, the times he set aside comedy to talk about real issues, and the multitudes of careers he launched.

But Stewart, like many high-profile political commentators, is not an uncomplicated figure. On balance, certainly, he often seemed to many like a reasonable voice in an unreasonable world. The critiques of Stewart often had more to do with the people in his world than the commentary he was producing.

Like his rival in launching careers, Lorne Michaels, he suffered from many of the same comedic biases early on. For a long time, many of the careers he launched were of white men. In 2010, Irin Carmon wrote for Jezebel that the Daily Show had a “woman problem” — Olivia Munn was, at the time, the first new female correspondent on the show in seven years. (Samantha Bee, who has been a Daily Show staple on the show since 2003, is married to another correspondent on the show, Jason Jones.)

After Carmon’s piece, which quoted many former Daily Show writers and staffers who pointed out that they didn’t believe Stewart himself was sexist, but rather, “the planet is sexist,” Stewart began promoting more women and people of color into the correspondent slot. The strategy paid off. Kristen Schaal, Hasan Minhaj, Jessica Williams, Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, and Larry Wilmore produced some of the show’s most viral content in recent years, albeit under self-deprecating titles like “senior black correspondent” and “senior Indian correspondent.”

Most of his guests, too, were white men. A survey of late-night show guests in a six-week period in 2010 showed that Stewart’s guests were 96 percent white. Of course, the analysis is somewhat skewed by the fact that the Daily Show, unlike other late night shows, only hosts one guest per show, so diversity can be even more skewed when there are fewer slots to fill. In 2014, when it was announced former correspondent Stephen Colbert moved on from his own successful spinoff to host CBS’s The Late Show, Reuters’ Chloe Angyal did her own analysis of both the Daily Show and the Colbert Reports‘ guests. Of the show’s most recent 45 guests, just 17 of them were women; the racial diversity was also grim, with 68 percent of guests being white. “[O]f the very few African-American guests who appeared on his show, all were entertainers – the band Wu Tang Clan and the comedian Kevin Hart,” Reuters noted.

Colbert shared many of the same criticisms from Angyal. “Of 45 guests, 73 percent were men, and 89 percent were white. And of the 12 women (12!) who appeared among Colbert’s last 45 guests, three of them shared a time slot,” she continued. The only woman of color to appear on the Colbert Report was D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton.

The writers’ room at the Daily Show, an often hidden element of the show to the public eye, suffers from the same diversity problems. Of the fifteen writers listed, four are women. It’s important to note that while the writing staff on the show isn’t very diverse, they haven’t shied away from topics important to women or people of color, like the women’s vote in 2014 midterm elections or the debate on racism in policing following Ferguson protests.

Now the question turns to who will take over the time slot left vacant by Stewart, who said he want to turn to serious movie direction he branched into with his film Rosewater. If there’s any place where diversity is lacking, it’s in late-night hosts. When David Letterman announced he was stepping down, many proposed getting a woman or a person of color in that high-profile spot. Instead, it went to Colbert. Obvious candidates to fill Stewart’s shoes are John Oliver, who hosted for Stewart during his leave to direct Rosewater and who has his own weekly show on HBO, and Wilmore, who took over Colbert’s time slot. It remains to be seen what Comedy Central will do with the show, but it could be a good opportunity to correct a long-standing criticism.

UPDATE

This post has been updated to report that there are four women writers listed as currently working for the show. The original version incorrectly reported that there were two.

Share Update