Comedy Central Looking for Balance as Stewart Prepares His ‘Daily Show’ Exit

The Daily Show Host Search

While Jon Stewart’s resignation from the “Daily Show” desk he’s owned for nearly 17 years sent shock waves among viewers, his bosses at Comedy Central knew this day was coming.

Just as the host had planted the seed for several months that he was contemplating his departure, the network has been mulling its options, too.

The challenge executives face, though, is how to replace a man who has held a unique role in popular culture — a man at ease with politicians and pop stars, and who can both discuss the news and make it. The key word, though, in that sentence may be “man.”

Under president of original programming Kent Alterman, Comedy Central has sought people who have a unique voice or world view. With this crucial hire, however, the network has the opportunity to fill a much-needed void in latenight — by hiring a woman for the job.

“If there’s room for Comedy Central to grow, it’s probably with female viewers,” said Sam Armando, a senior VP at media-buying firm Starcom. “Their audience is roughly 65% to 70% male.”

“Daily” already has a set of potential successors among the show’s on-air contributors: Samantha Bee, 45, a longtime veteran of the program; and Jessica Williams, who, although just 25, has made a name for herself with spot-on dissections of popular culture (on Tuesday, she took to Twitter to tell the public she wanted to stay with the show, but did not want the main job). The show’s first two hosts, Craig Kilborn and Stewart, were both in their 30s when they initially took the job. The network also has breakout talent elsewhere on its schedule, such as Amy Schumer. It’s widely understood that Comedy Central execs have already sussed out candidates, and are looking inside and outside the network’s ranks.

Network honchos knew last year that Stewart’s eye was starting to wander. During promotion of his movie “Rosewater,” he hinted that renewing his contract, which ends in the fall, was not a given.

“I don’t like to think about the day Jon leaves, but there will be a day. The show will live on. It is a franchise, like the ‘Tonight Show,’ ” Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless told Variety in December.

Stewart said his departure could come as soon as July or not until later in the year, so execs have a few months to explore all options.

“I don’t think you can make decisions about the show until you know who your host is going to be,” said Lizz Winstead, co-creator and former head writer of “Daily Show,” who left after two years, following a much-publicized clash with Kilborn. “The foundation that Jon has built there is full of so much brilliance,” she added, “that hopefully they will be able to bring in a new voice to tackle world events in a really great way.”

Stewart is likely to play a role in choosing his replacement. The comic has functioned as a sort of Lorne Michaels for Comedy Central, identifying breakout talent for “Daily” with no small degree of success. Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms and Olivia Munn are among show alumni who vaulted to stardom. Larry Wilmore was a “Daily” contributor before being tapped to fill “The Colbert Report’s” slot with “The Nightly Show.” Stewart’s Busboy Prods was involved with both shows, so the comic and the network remain business partners.

No matter who Comedy Central chooses, industry observers predict the next person behind the desk will be very different from Stewart, because replicating his voice and influence would be impossible.

“He helped people understand the excesses of political news coverage and some of the gamesmanship that has occurred in TV news as it became increasingly focused on entertainment and polarizing viewpoints,” said Tom Hollihan, professor of communication at USC Annenberg School.

Stewart has had an outsize role in shaping perceptions of the news media, he added, particularly among younger viewers. From the tiny “Daily Show” set in Manhattan, the host was able to call giants to account. He has sparred with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, shamed CNBC, and sparked CNN to cancel its long-running “Crossfire” debate show.

“He uniquely had the ability to move conveniently between comedy and hard news, and do so in a provocative way,” Hollihan said.

The Colbert-Wilmore transition has worked smoothly. The “Nightly Show” draws a slightly smaller audience than “Colbert” did at the end, but Nielsen data shows “Nightly” retained 89% of “Daily” viewers between 18 and 49 in its first three weeks on-air, compared with 84% for “Colbert” in its first three weeks. The next handoff will be even more crucial for the network, which has demonstrated a knack over the past 18 months for wee-hours programming. Primetime for the outlet’s core young audience comes between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

The Daily Show,” which airs at 11 p.m., is the network’s signature program (“South Park” has been on the air since 1997, of course, but “Daily” pumps out four fresh half-hour episodes nearly every week). And the “Daily” lead-in has been critical in generating audience for other latenight launches, including the Chris Hardwick-hosted “@midnight,” which debuted in 2013.

The pressure on Comedy Central to make a smart choice for “The Daily Show” is great. Never has the fake-news business been so tough.