'Daily' whipped fledgling network into shape

Very soon after taking the reigns at Comedy Central in the summer of 1995, Doug Herzog received the phone call that would make the initial portion of his gig challenging … and fateful.

It was Bill Maher’s manager calling to tell him that the star of the fledgling network’s signature original series, “Politically Incorrect,” would be taking his act to ABC latenight in the next year.

Herzog saw right away that his channel needed a personality and a show to define it.

“Outside of Bill Maher, Comedy Central was filled with ‘Saturday Night Live’ reruns, ‘Kids in the Hall’ and bad movies,” Herzog, president of the MTV Networks Entertainment Group, recalls. “We needed something that was funny every day. We were really focused on having a latenight destination. We needed our ‘SportsCenter.'”

Seeking a producer to manifest this vision, Herzog “pitched everyone we knew,” starting with former “Late Night With David Letterman” talent guru Madeleine Smithberg, who before agreeing to develop the series wasn’t sure such a show could be fashioned on a basic-cable budget.

“I said we have to do this,” Herzog recalls. “We have no other choice. This is our destiny.”

That destiny, of course, would eventually lead Herzog and the MTV Networks channel to comedian Jon Stewart, who is now the face of the network in many respects.

During the past election year, ratings for the “Daily Show” were never higher, with an episode featuring Barack Obama in late October drawing a series-record 3.6 million viewers.

Not only have other key parts of the network’s sked — including “The Colbert Report” — been gestated through Stewart’s Busboy Prods., the comic’s Emmy-winning presence always seems to lend itself as an important promotional asset.

When Comedy Central presented its new Busboy-produced series “Important Things With Demetri Martin” at January’s Television Critics Assn. tour, for example, a short pretaped interstitial featuring Stewart almost seemed like a prerequisite to get things started.

Of course, the road that led the cabler to its savior started with Craig Kilborn, the snarky original “Daily Show” host who was poached from Herzog’s prototype, ESPN’s flagship news program, “SportsCenter.”

“Back then, the show wasn’t as focused as it is under Jon,” Herzog recalls. “It was snarky and smart, and more showbizzy and less political.”

Reviews were good out of the gate, and the show gradually built an audience until 1998, when Kilborn left to do his own CBS latenight show. Herzog went out and hired Stewart as a replacement, but before the comic could host his first episode, the exec had embarked on his own broadcast-network sojourn, a short term as Fox’s programming topper.

Herzog has little regret that the gap between his departure and his return as head of Comedy Central in 2004 meant that he had little to do with re-creating a new vision for the show under Stewart.

Almost autonomously, he explains, the comedian knew how to make the show — and in some sense, the channel — his own.

“Jon is the quarterback and the conductor,” Herzog says of the host, who is signed through 2010, “and he’s got an unbelievably talented team. At the end of the day, it all goes through Jon.”

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