On January 11, 1999, four weeks after former host Craig Kilborn left Comedy Central's late-night program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was born. The episode opened with the hot-button issue of the time (the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton); Stephen Colbert made the first of many appearances; and Michael J. Fox served as the show's first guest.
It's easy to see, in the video above, that this was very much the first show, but the mix of seriousness and playfulness we've grown accustomed to seeing from Stewart over the years was there from the start.
The critics, fans, and proto-bloggers of the day responded to the show immediately in both laudatory and negative terms.
The Chicago Tribune reviewed the first two episodes of Stewart's tenure in the January 15, 1999 edition. The review holds up pretty well. Stewart is funny, the reviewer wrote, but too energetic. He'll probably grow into the role, the review concludes.
"Stewart shows himself hip to how cool it is to self-deprecate…[his] early overeagerness, his evident desire to do well, was not at all in keeping with current notions of cool…[he]seemed uncomfortable running the show."
"The daily celebrity [guest]…[does] not [receive] the courtesy of having Stewart actually let him develop a thought."
"Yet it is hard to imagine Stewart, with a track record as a first-rate comic writer and performer, and as a pretty sharp talk-show host, not being very good on it when he settles down a bit."
Pretty good prediction, we'd say.
(When Stewart announced he was retiring from the show, the writer of the above review, Steve Johnson, actually revisited his column. He also took some time to wax about the real reason Stewart was retiring: jealousy of Colbert's success.)
The New York Daily News' review focused on the show's lack of Kilborn's Five Questions segment, which he was taking with him to CBS and The Late Late Show. A few days later, the paper reported that the new version of the show had achieved its highest ratings ever.
Newsweek (subscription required) was looking forward to Stewart taking over as well, and was ultimately proven very right. "Look for the over-the-top show to only improve as comedian-writer Jon Stewart takes over this week and wipes that smirk off outgoing anchor Craig Kilborn's face." Ouch.
Another accurate prediction.
The Baltimore Sun previewed the show before it premiered, but contained some really great anecdotes.
Not such a great prediction at the end there.
A "humorous" review appeared around the one-year anniversary of the show on TeeVee.org.
"The Daily Show is hosted by the poster boy for the Failing Upward Movement, Jon Stewart—a man who has managed to sink so many talk shows his middle name should be"U-boat." I no longer watch The Daily Show."
To each their own.
The Chicago Sun-Times, in a feature on Norm MacDonald, noted that Stewart looked nervous in his first episode—and that Macdonald had been a contender for the host job—even though he "(bleeping) hated" the show under Kilborn. Macdonald would make the first of many appearances on the show in March 1999.
The New York Times was, as per usual, on it. This, from the October 3, 1999 edition, after Stewart had settled into the role as host.
"Stewart…[sends] the message that the show is a team effort rather than a star vehicle. His celebrity interviews are sharper and funnier than Mr. Kilborn's were."
It's funny to see that Stewart's physical appearance was considered a detriment when he began. Stewart not being like every other suit-and-haircut type, and being honest and raw when necessary, are what made his Daily Show so indelible and superior to its previous incarnation, and why it's been able to last so long without losing too much speed over 15 years.
Before long The Daily Show started making serious noise with its Indecision 2000 coverage of the Presidential Election, the ensuing fallout of that contested election, and its bravura work throughout George W. Bush's presidency.
Good luck, Trevor Noah. We'll be reading the initial reviews.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org