Idiot Emperor

This oral history of The Daily Show was clearly intended to land in a very different political landscape. But it’s still eerily relevant now.

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Reading about how Jon Stewart & Co. satirized one of the worst presidents in history could prove inspirational.

Screenshot via Comedy Central

If you’re the type of person who would consider reading Chris Smith’s new oral history of The Daily Show, it’s safe to say you’re also the type of person who has experienced some form of grief over the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Perhaps you’ve gone to protest at a large public venue to chant something like “Hands too small! Can’t build a wall!” (Anger). Or paid a science-denying conspiracist some portion of your salary to initiate a pointless recount (Denial). Or petitioned Electoral College voters in states where you don’t live to ask them to reject the will of voters who do live in that state and overturn the results of a national election (Bargaining). Or it could mean contemplating the legacy of the current president of the United States—whom our incoming president, through his espousal of a vile and racist conspiracy theory, spent years vilifying as an illegal usurper—and tearing up (Depression).

Depending on where you are in that cycle, reading Smith’s playful, occasionally riotous, consistently nostalgia-inducing, and sometimes long-winded Kremlinology of The Daily Show’s two decades on the air might feel like a punch to the gut. The recounting of the show’s internal behind-the-scenes personnel squabbling, how the program itself was technically made, how its editorial processes evolved, and how the staff and correspondents viewed their place in the cultural landscape at large may feel slight, self-aggrandizing, and even petty. But if you are someone who has come to accept the fact that a guy who brags about sexual assault and has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade will be sitting in the Oval Office in a matter of weeks, then reading Jon Stewart, the show’s staff, and its correspondents describe how they devised their approach to satirizing one of the worst presidencies in history might be downright inspirational.

The Daily Show (The Book) was written before the election results were known, of course. While there are moments when it appears to lean into the idea that Trump would be our next president—an interview with Glenn Beck in which he basically predicts a tyrannical Trump presidency stands out in this regard—big chunks of the early sections come off as tone-deaf to the new reality that this book was not yet aware we’d be living in. For example, Jon Stewart opens with a description of his “suffocating” life in Los Angeles prior to taking the Daily Show gig. This involved feeling too much like he needed to impress the famous people in attendance at Garry Shandling’s mansion pickup basketball games or that his table received excessive fan attention when he was hanging out with Sean Penn and Warren Beatty at the Chateau Marmont. If you’ve been thinking a lot about the GOP’s economic policies’ destructive impact on the lives of the nation’s most vulnerable, this beginning of this book doesn’t read so hot. Nor does hearing Stewart walk through how he brought the writing staff of his predecessor, Craig Kilborn, to heel at the beginning of his run in the host’s chair (“I basically told them to fuck off,” Stewart describes).

Once you’re closer to the acceptance phase, though, it becomes a lot easier to appreciate this book for what it offers: some of the funniest people in the world telling stories about their job, which happened to be deflating the exact sort of bullshit we are about to be totally awash in.

The book’s most fun moments involve backstage insight into the personalities of the show’s most beloved and high-profile characters. One early such anecdote comes from Daily Show and Colbert Report writer Eric Drysdale, who describes Stephen Colbert as the show’s merry prankster:

Colbert would sit in the lounge with a bunch of writers around him and call the Dianetics hotline. And he’s so good at remembering key words that he can pretend he knows what he’s talking about, about Scientology for minutes and minutes and minutes. And he would have these very entertaining, very in-depth conversations with people about his norms and his, whatever it is, thetans.

On the road for The Daily Show’s field segments, Colbert was even more entertaining. Writer Stew Bailey described how Colbert would reply when they checked into a hotel and a clerk asked for their address:

He says, “Sure. My name’s Stephen Colbert. I live at 52 Poopiepop Lane.” And they always would react, and they’d start to say, “Is that a … ” And Stephen says, “Heard them all. Heard every one of them. Please don’t make fun of it.” … And they said, “Okay, so 52 Poopiepop Lane.” And he says, “Neptune, Maine,” and it’s a made-up town.

Colbert explained that these sorts of bits weren’t just about him being a jerk to random hospitality workers.

[Another thing] I’d say [was], “We have three demands: I need a fifty-gallon drum of saffron oil, twenty feet of parachute cord, and a dwarf.” It was about practicing being ridiculous.

In between such interviews, the book is sprinkled with transcripts of the show’s segments. These are both fun to read and a useful reminder of the sorts of grotesque Mike Pence-ian hypocrisies and falsehoods that the show was puncturing so beautifully in its heyday. Samantha Bee describes confronting the chairman of the Family Research Institute, who came on the show to argue that “there is no such thing as gay penguins” and that the scientific cataloguing of gay sex in nature was invented for “propaganda” purposes as part of the “gay agenda.”

Bee’s on-camera response to this inanity: “Hey, I’m with you on the male penguin sex. Deviant and disgusting. But girl-on-girl penguin sex? That’s hot.” (Reminder: Pence is one of the most adamantly anti-LGBTQ politicians in the nation, and his boss has appeared in multiple soft-core pornographic films).

One of the stars of the book is the show’s “round-faced and forcefully opinionated” former head writer, Ben Karlin, whose down-to-earth, no-bullshit rendering of his experience is reminiscent of the brutally righteous yet perfectly deadpan voice with which the show delivered truth to power in its finest moments.

One such truth-to-power moment came after Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush in 2000, the last time a winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral College to man much of the nation suspected was a spoiled, ignorant, rich kid who didn’t belong anywhere near the White House. Colbert did an editorial describing “what the Bush administration was going to be like”:

He will make whores of our wives and slaves of our children. He will appoint a horse to the senate. He will have the oceans whipped for daring to turn their tides without his leave. And while gangs of willowy young boys rub his body with perfumes from Persia and the fat rendered from the corpses of the persecuted poor, all about the fevered crowds will stare worshipfully at their unknowing, unseeing, girlishly giggling idiot emperor’s head.

“That was the spooky one,” Colbert reflects on that segment. “It was weirdly accurate to what things felt like five years later.”

Even if the exact parallels between the George W. Bush’s presidency and our current political moment remain to be seen, the echoes of that era—a time of united conservative control over government and daily Orwellian propaganda campaigns by those in power—today are hard to deny. So it probably makes sense for hardcore political satire fans to wait until they’ve experienced all the phases of election grief before picking up the Daily Show oral history. If you are at the point where you are done wallowing and have decided that now is a more important time than ever to rail against politicians who would divide and deceive us to maintain their power, you’re probably ready to read a book that feels less like a nostalgic romp than a poignant call to arms.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith. Grand Central Publishing.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.