When Sarah Vowell made her debut as a Daily Show contributor last week (she’d been on before as a guest), I had an odd reaction: I started remembering Frank DeCaro. No, actually, every time the show introduces a new contributor – some stay around, some don’t – I start remembering the older segments and personalities, and how much the show has changed in the last decade without ever really going through an obvious re-tool. Because of the format of The Daily Show, performers rarely vanish in an obvious way: the only constant is the host, so as long as he’s there, anything else can be rotated in and out. Therefore the only true re-tool the show ever experienced was when Stewart replaced Kilborn.
And yet, after Stewart came in, a lot of the Kilborn-era aspects of the show remained, and they stayed around for longer than people might expect. DeCaro is the most obvious example because he was there from the beginning of the Kilborn show, and seemed out of place in the Stewart era. And yet he lasted until 2003, and since I started watching around 2001, I still sort of expect him to turn up. (I didn’t like his segment, but even with segments you don’t like, you sort of expect them to be there.) There were a lot of non-political segments, a holdover from the original concept of the show as a send-up of all the news, not just political coverage. There were regular features parodying showbiz coverage, tech coverage, and round-ups of stupid commercials. Steve Carell was particularly good at non-political segments, since his desperate energy lends itself well to phony showbiz enthusiasm. (I will admit, though, to being the only person of my acquaintance who didn’t hate Carell’s “Produce Pete” thing.) Stewart started the move to serious political humour as soon as he arrived, but the other segments lasted for quite a long time.
Some of these segments disappeared because they weren’t that good, others because the people who specialized in them (like Carell and Helms) left, others because of changing technology – with YouTube, we don’t need a regular advertising segment to see the crazy recent commercials. And some of the parodies of non-political news migrated to The Colbert Report, although that show has also been cutting back on that type of thing in recent years.
A lot of this, obviously, is just a show weeding out the stuff it doesn’t do so well and focusing on the stuff it does well: other shows are good at making fun of movies and vapid showbiz segments, but none are as good as The Daily Show at political humour, so it plays to its strengths. It’s just interesting to me that the current focus of the show is not a result of one big revision – maybe not even a conscious revision – but a slow process of revision taking place over many years, many comings and goings.
As for other people I still think of as part of the show even though they’re not: it took me a long time to realize that Mo Rocca had left, and I still sometimes think of John Oliver as English Mo Rocca. (I appreciate that this will probably be considered an insult to John Oliver. But I’m just talking about his function on the show.) Strangely enough, I have never connected Louis Black all that strongly with the show, even though his segment is one of the few that never quite gets retired. Maybe because his segment is a bit out of step with the rest of the show – even though they’ve tried to change that in recent years and make it closer to the type of multi-media humour they do regularly – so I almost think of it as a Lewis Black comedy bit, rather than a Daily Show bit.