‘A Certain Humanity’
Jon Stewart’s Secrets for Managing Creativity on ‘The Daily Show'
Despite the tight control Stewart maintained, he left things loose enough to nurture inspiration and improvisation.
Jon Stewart knew what it was like to have fun while making a TV show that failed, especially during his short run as host of The Jon Stewart Show on MTV. And he’d experienced off-camera dysfunction that nevertheless resulted in brilliant TV, during his short run as an actor and writer with The Larry Sanders Show. He also knew, from friends who’d worked at Saturday Night Live and Letterman and the Tonight show as well as from the messy public record, how late-night TV was practically required to be a hothouse of ambition, ego, and controlled substances. What Stewart took from that 1990s education, though, was a nagging feeling that there had to be a better way.
“When I was working on other shows, I felt like there were aspects to it that didn’t need to exist in order to maintain the creative excitement,” he says. “It didn’t need to be Machiavellian. You could get everybody to have common cause, and do it in a way that maintained a certain humanity. I always looked at it like: Think of how much energy it takes to fuck with people. What if you try to use that energy to get the show done faster and better and get everybody out by seven?”
So when Stewart got his next—and likely his last—chance to be the boss, as host of The Daily Show, his priority was making smart, funny satire by any means necessary. But close behind as a goal—and in many ways inextricably connected to making the 22 minutes of TV that was seen by viewers each night for nearly 17 years—was forging a sane, repeatable, behind-the-scenes process.
It was a job for which Stewart didn’t seem particularly well-prepared. His greatest success before the Daily Show had come as a standup comic and as a writer of a book of satirical essays. The skills that make someone a good solo act often are not transferrable to guiding a staff of 100. Unlike his friend Judd Apatow, who devoured management how-to guides during his lunch hour as head writer of the unhappy Ben Stiller Show, Stewart operated on intuition.
The easiest part turned out to be establishing and enforcing efficient deadlines: A nine a.m. meeting with writers and producers to choose the daily lineup. First drafts of scripts due by noon; re-writes by 2 o’clock. More important than the nuts-and-bolts schedule, though, was Stewart’s role as manager of what he sometimes likens to a “refinery” and sometimes to the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. He struggled in his early Daily Show days, clashing loudly and profanely with writers he’d inherited from the previous host, Craig Kilborn. Paradoxically, declaring that he would be firmly in charge allowed Stewart to begin building the collaborative internal culture he wanted, in which the best ideas won.
“It’s so important to remove preciousness and ownership,” he says. “You have to invest everybody in the success of the show, and to let them feel good and confident about their contribution to it without becoming the sole proprietor of a joke. There has to be an understanding that that may be a great joke, but it might not serve the larger intention, or the narrative, of the show. You have to make sure that everybody feels invested without feeling that type of ownership.”
Stewart established that dynamic through actions large and small. The first was work ethic. “You’d show up at 9:30 in the morning and his car was already in the garage, and you’d be sitting there at 10:30 at night doing an edit, and he’s walking down the hall to get in his car,” says Dan Bakkedahl, who spent what he says were two mostly miserable years as a Daily Show correspondent. “The guy gave his life to that job.”
Stewart also encouraged everyone from the camera crew to the receptionist to pitch ideas, informally at first and then, as the technology allowed, on a staff-wide email list. He stood in line with everyone else for lunch at the Daily Show cafeteria. He didn’t, however, show up at staff parties or weddings, carefully maintaining some distance.
There were other ways in which “all-for-one” remained more an ideal than a reality. During the hour between rehearsal and taping each day Stewart would re-write as much as 75 percent of the script, aggravating staff writers who’d labored to polish the material. “Sure, Jon could be a dick at times,” says David Javerbaum, who was hired as a staff writer in 1999 and rose to become head writer and then executive producer. “But no more than anyone else who has his name on a show, and usually a lot less.”
The demands of writing and performing four shows each week meant he had little time or patience for the emotionally needy, and if Stewart decided a writer or performer was not carrying his or her weight, he’d freeze them out. “The Daily Show is a very independent-study type of workplace, because it is operating at such a fast pace,” Samantha Bee says. “Nobody really has time to hold your hand.” Yet Stewart also made sure women staffers could work flexible hours to take care of their kids, and during the 2007 writers guild strike paid non-union staffers out of his own pocket.
And crucially, despite the tight control that Stewart maintained, and all the routine and structure he imposed, he also left things loose enough to nurture inspiration and improvisation. Sometimes that meant goading Stephen Colbert into breaking into hysterical laughter during a segment about gay sex rumors and Prince Charles. Sometimes that meant listening as a junior producer arrived in the office one morning ranting about the sacrilege of seeing Donald Trump stack two slices of pizza and eat them with a fork—and realizing that the producer’s passion would be the foundation of an epic eight-minute bit.
It also, frequently, meant not standing in the way when Daily Show correspondents from Colbert to Steve Carell to Rob Corddry to Ed Helms to Al Madrigal to Michael Che got offers to do other TV shows or movies. By letting talent go, he attracted even more talent.
“We end up sounding evangelical in a certain way, talking about ‘the Daily Show process,’” John Oliver says. “You sound like you are trying to sell Scientology equipment. But Jon taught people to do a version of their job that the whole machine needs.” Which elements of the Daily Show process did Oliver try to replicate when launching Last Week Tonight on HBO?
“Oh!” he says, laughing. “Everything!”
Stewart, when he left the Daily Show in August 2015, was as proud of the machine he’d built as he was of the content it had yielded. Not that he will be writing “Manage the Jon Stewart Way!” anytime soon.
“When you’re hitting a baseball and your hands aren’t vibrating, you feel it jump off the bat, you feel great,” he says. “And on days when you have no idea what pitch is next, and you can’t see it very well, and you keep fouling it off your leg, you feel like an asshole. But we were never cavalier about the chance we were given.” Which may be the best management principle in any line of work.