How 'The Daily Show' Became Comedy's Best Incubator

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Kelly Woo
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Late-night television has experienced seismic shifts recently. ABC moved Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35 p.m. Jimmy Fallon took over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno. And CBS announced that after David Letterman retires in 2015, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert will host "The Late Show."

But one thing hasn't changed: Jon Stewart is still making people laugh at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central.

And as a New York Times article pointed out, Stewart has become more than just a funny, brand-name host — his "Daily Show" has become a major incubator of comedy on television, rivaling the empire that Lorne Michaels has built at "Saturday Night Live."

Stewart's stint on "The Daily Show" started in a low-key fashion, according to co-creator Madeleine Smithberg.

"Jon Stewart and I met on a professional blind date which was set up by MTV. We did a late-night show called 'The Jon Stewart Show' on MTV and later on syndication and later on Paramount. The show eventually went down but there was a lot of amazing talent involved," she recalled to "The Insider."

After Craig Kilborn left for a CBS show, Stewart stepped in as host and "the rest is history," she said.

Of course, Stewart isn't the only talent on "The Daily Show." As Smithberg told "Insider," the show was constantly looking out for comedic stars. And two of them came from one tape.

"I popped the tape one afternoon into the VCR and knew that on that tape was comedy genius. You just know. It was a sketch comedy, 'Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food.' It had been done for the short-lived Dana Carvey show. I thought the sketch was hilarious and I knew that Stephen Colbert had it — he had what it takes and that he was the real deal," she said.

But Colbert wasn't the only gem mined from that tape. Later, she re-watched the tape and noticed that "the waiter gagging in the background was hilarious as well and that was Steve Carell."

Two mega-stars, one little sketch, one old tape. That's how "The Daily Show" became what it is today.

Watch Colbert and Carell reenact their "Daily Show" audition tape:

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Check out a who's who of "Daily Show" stars, past and present:

Steve Carell

Before he was a big movie and TV star of "The Office," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and "Evan Almighty," Carell served as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" from 1999 to 2005. He had several popular recurring sketches, like "Even Stevphen," a debate opposite Stephen Colbert. Carell has credited "The Daily Show" for his success.

Watch an "Even Stevphen" segment:

 

Stephen Colbert

Colbert actually began as an understudy for his friend Carell for the Second City touring company, before joining "The Daily Show" in 1997. He actually pre-dates Stewart, as he came on board while Craig Kilborn was host. But after Stewart became host, the show focused more on politics, particularly during the 2000 presidential election. "The Daily Show" began to rely on its correspondents more, putting a spotlight on Colbert's blustery, foolish persona.

He would display his lack of knowledge while interviewing experts, and hosted several recurring sketches, like "This Week in God." Other correspondents, including Rob Corddry and Aasif Mandvi, have said they imitated Colbert's style on the show. In 2005, Colbert left "The Daily Show" to start his own half-hour program, "The Colbert Report."

See Colbert in a "This Week in God" segment:

 

Ed Helms

After performing comedy in New York for several years, Helms was cast on "The Daily Show" in 2002. With his dry wit, Helms quickly became a favorite with recurring sketches like "Digital Watch" and "Ad Nauseam." In 2006, he left to join the cast of "The Office" in its third season, but returned several times to make cameos on "The Daily Show." In 2010, Helms became a household name thanks to the blockbuster hit "The Hangover." Now, he's set to play a grown-up Rusty Griswold in a new "Vacation" movie.

Check out Helms on "Digital Watch":

 

Olivia Munn

As an actress, Munn had done roles in several movies and TV shows before she hosted G4's "Attack of the Show" in 2006. When she joined "The Daily Show" in 2010, Jezebel questioned whether her hiring was a move to add a sex symbol to the cast. Munn's tenure on "The Daily Show" was short-lived; the next year, she left to concentrate on other projects, like HBO's "The Newsroom" and "Magic Mike."

Munn investigates Tiger Mothering:

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John Oliver

The British comedian got the gig on the recommendation of Ricky Gervais — even though they don't know each other. Oliver flew from London to New York, and started as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" the very next day. He filled in for Stewart last summer when the host was off directing a movie, and did such a great job that many thought he should succeed Stewart down the road. Instead, HBO gave him a weekly comedy show, "Last Week Tonight," which debuts April 27.

See how Oliver celebrated his last night as a "Daily Show" correspondent:

 

Rob Corddry

After joining the cast in 2002, Corddry made "The Daily Show" a family affair — he brought his brother, Nate, on board, and even got his wife, Sandra, to make an appearance. He reveled in making poop jokes, and hosted recurring segments like "Come On!" Corddry left in 2006 to focus on making movies, like "Hot Tub Time Machine," and writing/producing the Adult Swim series "Childrens Hospital."

Corddry analyzes Super Bowl ads on "The Daily Show":

 

Josh Gad

As a correspondent from 2009-11, Gad filed reports on everything from the legalization of gay marriage in New York to the "Crash for Clunkers" program. After leaving the show, he starred in "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination. He also put his pipes to use as Olaf the snowman in Disney's "Frozen." Next, he'll write and star in a film adaptation of "Gilligan's Island."

Check out Gad in "Crash for Clunkers":

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Mo Rocca

Rocca got his start in TV on "The Daily Show" as a correspondent from 1998-2003, and was a major presence in the show's Indecision 2000 coverage. He headlined several recurring sketches, like "That's Quite Interesting." Since his exit, Rocca has accrued quite a varied résumé, from political coverage on "Larry King Live" to hosting Cooking Channel shows to acting on Broadway.

 

Nancy Walls

Though she's also known as Mrs. Steve Carell, Walls has shown she's got comedy chops of her own. She was a correspondent from 1999-2002, after which she's made appearances in "The Office" and "Bridesmaids."

 

Wyatt Cenac

After writing for "King of the Hill," Cenac joined "The Daily Show" in 2008. He quickly became a frequent correspondent, with his sketches often dealing with racial issues (like the recurring "Rapper or Republican"). Afterward, he taped a Comedy Central special, and is developing one of AMC's first half-hour comedy series.

Watch Cenac talk about his "Daily Show" audition:

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"The Daily Show" airs Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central.