Twenty years on and three hosts later, The Daily Show is still the comedic answer to a flurry of ridiculous political headlines.



Bask in The Best Of The Daily Show's 20 Years On-Air

The year 1996 was full of fuzzy VCR lines and hard-to-predict potential. A strong-chinned comedian named Jon Stewart was finding his voice on a soon-to-be-cancelled BBC talk show, Where’s Elvis This Week? Donald J. Trump was a B-list celebrity who’d occasionally jog the nation by appearing on Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Nanny. And The Daily Show, a new Comedy Central program meant to spoof the 24-hour news cycle, launched its first season.

This image succinctly captures all that was the year 1996.
This image succinctly captures the leopard prints and terrible flash photography that defined the year 1996.

First broadcast on July 22nd, 1996, The Daily Show enjoyed modest success as it cemented its identity. Helmed by Craig Kilborn, who brought his color commentary along from his SportsCenter days, The Daily Show made light of a sensationalist news cycle that had emerged alongside cable boxes. It was The Soup before reality television had fully taken hold of television programming—a bit offensive in its punches, a bit scattershot in its delivery, but nevertheless hard to turn away from.

In 1999, Jon Stewart took over the show, sharpening the comedy into pointed satire. But the process was hardly overnight. According to the show’s creator, Madeleine Smithberg, it was amid the madness of Bush’s contested 2000 presidential election that The Daily Show became the voice of an era. The election of “hanging chad,” of a popularly-elected candidate losing to a split Supreme Court, made apoliticism impossible, and introduced Stewart, a perennial smart-ass, to a new generation of frustrated voters.

For me, Stewart’s greatest strength was knowing when to drop the act. Although he cringed at the idea of The Daily Show supplanting real news, his segments could be cathartic not only in their humor, but in their angst or in their sadness too. To me, his opening monologue after 9/11 is the clearest artifact of our collective suffering—an apologetic assurance that the humor and the healing would come with time.

Through two decades, The Daily Show‘s success essentially laid out the foundations for the current state of late night television; talk show hosts John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Larry Wilmore all served as Daily Show correspondents. Even the new head, the youthful and giddy Trevor Noah, presented several segments before landing The Daily Show‘s hosting gig.

Lately, the news cycle has been so absurd, it’s been hard to differentiate fact from the type of tomfoolery The Daily Show churns out. Trump’s candidacy is lunacy in itself, and poses a real challenge for the writers on late night shows; for, how does one hyperbolize or exaggerate a man who has already done that himself? But the roots of The Daily Show reach deep, lifting the careers of many comedians, and showing that, through all the political punditry, satire survives. To celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary, we’ve compiled some of our favorite clips below.

Image from The Nanny and The Daily News.

Stay tuned to Milk for more satirism in the face of insanity.

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