The Daily Show’ proves smart comedy can weave in serious issues and hold the news accountable: Lizz Winstead

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

It’s been 25 years since “The Daily Show” debuted on Comedy Central, training a generation to view the news with skepticism and humor. It helped launch careers of now well-known comedians such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee. It also brought on big guests, such as former President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. And six years ago, Trevor Noah took over for Jon Stewart as the host.

Tonight at 6 p.m., the show’s co-creator Lizz Winstead is hosting a virtual event to celebrate its 25th anniversary. 

She tells KCRW that the idea for “The Daily Show,” which premiered in 1996, was born when Bill Maher was leaving Comedy Central, and Winstead wanted to work on a program that was reacting to the world’s daily news.

“We really wanted to make sure it didn't feel like some extension of ‘Weekend Update’ on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ And we really wanted to hold them accountable — the news itself, not just poke fun at powerful people,” she says.

The show was originally hosted by Craig Kilborn, but it really started coming into its own by the time Stewart joined, she explains.

“He [Stewart] inserted himself in the position of voice of the people. He was the person who brought common sense and clarity to this wacky band of reporters. It went from pure satire to having somebody in the chair that was actually sort of leading the circus.”

“The Daily Show” proved that when comedy was smart, weaving in serious topics was possible, Winstead notes. 

She also credits the show’s ability to be rooted in fact. “It doesn't feel labored. It doesn't feel like a false fit. It can organically just flow together when you are crafting something that is smart all the way through. If you are willing to call out the hypocrisy from all sides, you become a reliable narrator. … ‘The Daily Show’ was a reliable narrator from the jump."

Winstead points out one of Stewart’s driving motivators as a host: to have a platform where he could call out the political talking heads on news programs.

“One of the things that interested him … ‘Is there a way that I … can help folks cut through the bull and open them up to pulling the screen back?’ … People who scream at each other on the news, I don't really know whose minds they're changing or what information they're imparting.” 

The state of today’s news

Winstead says that ideological arguments have taken over much of the media landscape today. 

“You can now latch on to an ideology, and you can watch it on TV, and you can go to websites that support it. And you think that there's some kind of cross referencing of facts, when it's just a whole goulash of bad ideas and falsehoods that are lumped into one thing, and you never have to leave your information bubble.”

Winstead uses the example of a 72-year-old woman who told her she wasn’t taking the COVID-19 vaccine because it would destroy her menstrual cycle. “I was like a) that's not true. And b) your 72? Like, you don't understand reproduction. You don't understand the COVID vaccine.” 

She notes that Congress members Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) take to certain news platforms and perpetuate falsehoods.

“Giving them airtime gives people who are searching for any reason to distrust the power structure something to latch on to. It's very interesting to me and how you navigate it all.”

Today, Winstead acknowledges that a lot of news has become entertainment and “The Daily Show” is part of that ecosystem. But she says its ability to go deeper is what separates itself from other shows. 

“The point of ‘The Daily Show’ was to make the news entertaining. ‘60 Minutes’ has always been compelling television because it was interesting, it went deep. It taught you something. It told you a story. So the news doesn't have to be funny to be entertaining.”

Similar to “The Daily Show,” she credits “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” as a master of utilizing comedy to help inform the public. “It takes you on a journey, and you walk out of there smarter, feeling empowered and feeling like you learn something that you didn't know before, and I love that.”