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Cabler basks in ‘Show’ glow

Program delivers young-demo win to Comedy Central four nights a week

There are plenty of quantitative ways to measure the success of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Take a look at the ratings, which were up 25% in the first quarter of 2005 from year-earlier levels. Or scan the overall numbers and see that the show is averaging 1.4 million viewers per night, a 17% hike from last year and an increase from 2004 election season levels.

Run through the demographics, which reveal that “The Daily Show” frequently wins its 11 p.m. cable timeslot among the 18-34 demo (not surprisingly, those numbers have advertisers fighting for space on the show).

Or add up the critical raves garnered by the show and the magazine covers — ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Newsweek — featuring a somewhat abashed Stewart.

But for correspondent Stephen Colbert, there’s a more practical way to gauge “The Daily Show’s” popularity: how much more difficult his job has become.

“In the Craig Kilborn days, we could show up and tell people we were from ‘The Daily Show,’ and they’d just assume I was from CNN and start talking,” Colbert explains. “Now, people know who we are and they know the show, and that makes my job much tougher.”

Fame comes with a price, even on basic cable. But when you’re part of a show that brings the funny as sharply and consistently as “The Daily Show,” which manages to brilliantly bestride the worlds of politics and pop culture four nights a week, you’re under a microscope of your own making.

” ‘South Park’ may have put Comedy Central on the map, but in the last few years, ‘The Daily Show’ has taken the network to the next level,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “This show is the comedy touchstone for a generation. For hip, relevant, topical comedy, nothing else comes close.”

“The Daily Show” just won its second Peabody Award and has also earned five Emmys, all under the guidance of Stewart, executive producer Ben Karlin and head writer David Javerbaum. Not bad considering it’s a fake newsshow.

For fans and critics, much of “The Daily Show’s” appeal lies in Stewart’s topical opening segments and the mockumentary-style studio and field reports from correspondents like Colbert and Rob Corddry.

But there’s also the hook supplied by a steady stream of political and celebrity guests. In fact, “The Daily Show” has become a required stop on the media tour for stars as diverse as John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler and Charles Barkley.”As the guy who hired Jon to do the show, I’d like to say I’m not surprised by the success,” says Comedy Central president Doug Herzog. “But to a certain extent, I am surprised by the impact and overwhelming influence ‘The Daily Show’ is continuing to have. And I’m certainly thrilled.”

When “The Daily Show” launched in 1996 with former ESPN anchor Kilborn as host, Herzog and the rest of the network’s execs hoped it would become the SportsCenter of Comedy Central.

The show never quite reached that status under Kilborn, but it did prove Comedy Central was about more than just “South Park,” and Kilborn’s “5 Questions” segment managed to break through the cable clutter.

The Kilborn version wasn’t politically focused. It was more a sendup of local newscasts, with Carmen Electra jokes and features about Big Foot and UFOs and towns that didn’t want strip clubs.

That changed with Stewart’s arrival at the beginning of 1999. At the time, some media observers were surprised by Stewart’s move back to cable, considering he’d established himself at the broadcast level. But Stewart had longstanding ties with Herzog dating back to their days at MTV.

“I think Jon saw a blank slate that was ripe for reinvention, a chance to explore new territory without anybody bugging him about standards and practices and ratings,” Herzog says.

Because the show is tied to current events, it doesn’t have to worry about going stale. “It’s easy to keep the show fresh,” Colbert explains. “We just shadow the actual news and the mockable talking heads across the cable spectrum.”

Still, there are some changes ahead. “The Daily Show” will be moving into a new studio this summer, with more room for live audiences and in-house pieces and whatever else Stewart and his writers come up with.

One thing that won’t change — at least until 2008 — is Stewart’s presence. He signed a four-year deal with Comedy Central last year, which keeps him out of the post-Ted Koppel sweepstakes at ABC.

“Latenight opportunities are always going to be there for Jon,” Herzog says. “We’d just love to hold onto him as long as possible.”

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