The world was a very different place when Craig Kilborn stepped down from The Daily Show in 1998. At the time, President Bill Clinton was bombing Iraq, though many dismissed it as a Wag The Dog-style stunt to distract the public from his impending impeachment.
“Bill Clinton, who has survived more scary scrapes than Courtney Love’s gynecologist, successfully delayed his impeachment by falling back on an old crowd pleaser,” Kilborn said on his penultimate Daily Show episode, “bomb the snot out of Iraq for being such a tease about showing us their chemical weapons. How many times do we have to watch this man get off?”
Kilborn was leaving to take over for Tom Snyder as the host of The Late Late Show on CBS, and the guest on his second-to-last show was Jon Stewart, who would be taking over The Daily Show the following month. Stewart briefly hosted a show on MTV about four years earlier, but it didn’t quite work out. “The people spoke,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “They felt that was something I should not be doing. They felt, in fact, that I should be locked out of the building. I also wasn’t something that I felt necessarily comfortable doing. I don’t think I’m particularly suited for it.”
In the years following the MTV show, Stewart tried to make it in Hollywood, appearing in Mixed Nuts, Playing By Heart and other largely forgotten films. On this Daily Show appearance he’s promoting The Faculty, where he played an alien masquerading as an high school teacher. It’s pretty clear he wasn’t enthused about the project. “I think all the teachers are aliens,” he says. “At least that’s what they told me. I haven’t seen it. For all I know, it’s a Christmas movie.”
The simple fact he was reduced to bit roles in movies like The Faculty explains why Stewart was willing to try his hand at another TV talk show. “I want to congratulate you on the exceptional job you’ve done here,” he told Kilborn. “I wish you well in your new life as a Hollywood superstar.” He also said he didn’t intend to change very much of the show. “Changes?” he said. “This is The Daily Show, man. Why don’t I draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa for God’s sake? This is The Daily Show. We are just bitches in the wheel of The Daily Show.”
In the early days he largely kept to that pledge, maintaining much of Kilborn’s smug attitude and treating the show like a parody of Dateline and other news magazines. But as the George W. Bush era began in late 2000, Stewart gradually turned his fire on Fox News and the rest of the media establishment, becoming a folk hero to liberals all across America. Today, The Daily Show bears almost no resemblance to its Kilborn-era incarnation other than the “Moment of Zen” that wraps it up.
As far as Kilborn, his CBS talk show ended in 2004 and his 2010 comeback attempt The Kilborn File lasted a mere six weeks. He’s been mostly off the grid ever since.