Here's a trivia question: who was the host of "The Daily Show" when Stephen Colbert got his start as a correspondent? Need a hint? It wasn't Jon Stewart. "The show's gotten much more thoughtful and timely since Jon arrived," says Scott Dikkers, editor in chief of the weekly mock newspaper The Onion. "It was a bit more smarmy under, um, what's his name--oh, I'm forgetting his name... Kilborn. Craig Kilborn." Ouch. Dikkers's memory lapse isn't an intentional dig at the show's original host, but there's no question that most people associate the dawn of the "Daily Show" era with Stewart. In truth, Stewart got the job when Kilborn left for a coveted gig backing up David Letterman in CBS's late-night lineup. In its 10-year existence, "The Daily Show" has been a launching pad for comic talent; now, with the success of "The Colbert Report" and Steve Carell's emerging stardom, it's arguably the top launching pad in the industry. Says Dikkers, "I don't know if there's a better show you could put on your resume right now."
Dikkers should know. He lost two of The Onion's best writers to the franchise--Ben Karlin, "The Daily Show's" executive producer since 2001, and Richard Dahm, the show runner on "The Colbert Report." Comedy Central president Doug Herzog refers to the hourlong nightly block as "The Daily Show network," and his mini-network is starting to gain the upper hand in the talent race over actual network behemoths like "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Show With David Letterman." "In many ways, we're just getting started. 'SNL' has been on the air for 30 years," Herzog says diplomatically. "And one of ['SNL' creator] Lorne Michaels's great talents is replenishing the staff. That's a real challenge for Jon." So far, so good. When Carell departed for NBC's "The Office" and Colbert got his own show, "The Daily Show" promoted ace correspondents Rob Corddry (who specializes in Boston Masshole combativeness), Ed Helms (the overconfident moron) and Samantha Bee (the shameless Fox News-y gotcha girl).
The sharks are already circling. Corddry guest-starred last year on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Arrested Development." With network pilot season just around the corner, Karlin says the next defection could happen any day. But that's OK with him. "We don't want people here who think, 'Oh, my God, I never want to leave, I've hit the jackpot'," he says. "We want a backstabbing, 'All About Eve' mentality, and to establish that you've got to bring in hyperambitious people with no souls, a la Rob Corddry." But seriously, folks. "We don't have illusions about this show being a final stop for anyone," Karlin says. "This is a training ground."
Then they march through the doors that "The Daily Show's" Emmy-winning reputation helps open. "But it isn't just the show's cachet. Cachet comes and goes," says comedian Paul Mecurio, a longtime "Daily Show" writer who's developing and starring in a pilot called "Sports Central," which is essentially a "Daily Show" about sports. "The experience itself is so incredibly valuable. It's like going to comedy college. When you leave, you're a unique kind of funny."
Not everyone who leaves the "Daily Show" nest is set for life. (Keep on plugging, Mo Rocca. We won't forget the good times.) But Carell's success, in particular, is a boon because it belies the industry notion that "Daily Show" stars can't be funny without the "fake news" shtik. "Our performers aren't idiot savants who can just do this one job well," says Karlin. "We've always felt that way, but maybe Steve changed that perception externally. He's such a genuinely nice guy, too. The fact that he's on the verge of being a major star, it just makes me so, so happy." Karlin pauses. "I wouldn't say that about Colbert. That guy's kind of a tool."