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Inside the Top-Secret Plan to Lure Jon Stewart Back to ‘The Daily Show’

Shortly after Trevor Noah abruptly announced he’d be leaving The Daily Show in late 2022, Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios CEO Chris McCarthy knew he needed allies.

There was “a lot of pressure to just choose someone,” he told The Hollywood Reporter early last year, though he resisted naming an immediate replacement. Instead, the team, led by longtime showrunner Jen Flanz, lined up a stable of guest hosts, a mix of bold-faced names like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler as well as correspondents from the show. McCarthy also sought the counsel of James “Babydoll” Dixon, manager of late-night hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, and a previous Daily Show executive producer himself. In fact, in those early transition months, McCarthy spent “a lot of time with Babydoll getting his advice,” he said, “and we called Jon a couple times.”

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Of course, Stewart was still hosting The Problem with Jon Stewart on Apple TV + at the time. He’d left The Daily Show in 2015, after 16 Emmy-drenched years, because, he’d later tell THR, “I had this group of people who were industrious, talented, funny as fuck and raring to go, and my mind was wandering.” His advice for McCarthy now was simple: “Take your time,” recalled the exec, “and trust Jen.”

In the months that followed, Flanz and company brought in a series of guest hosts, and then reformatted the show each week to highlight their strengths. The plan, McCarthy said at the time, was to select a permanent host later that spring, and then relaunch the show come fall — that plan was derailed, however, both by back-to-back strikes and by the pivot toward and then away from Hasan Minhaj. According to multiple sources, the former correspondent’s deal to take over as Noah’s replacement was all but done by late summer, when The New Yorker published an article alleging that he’d exaggerated and, in some cases, made up autobiographical details of his comedy. Though Minhaj called the piece “needlessly misleading,” he was suddenly seen as a liability, and the host search began anew.

By all accounts, patience at the show was wearing exceedingly thin. In fact, when The Daily Show with Trevor Noah picked up a surprise Emmy in mid-Jan., recently departed correspondent Roy Wood Jr., could be seen on stage mouthing, “Please hire a host.” Post show, he told THR: “I probably shouldn’t have done it, but this has been going on too long. Get it together!” Behind the scenes, McCarthy was trying to do just that. Then, on the morning of Jan. 24, insiders say that he beckoned the Daily Show staff to the office, ostensibly to celebrate the Emmy win. Once they were gathered, McCarthy brought out Stewart, and revealed the bombshell news. A formal announcement was released shortly after, with McCarthy calling Stewart “the voice of our generation.” That news of his hiring had been kept so tightly guarded is a commentary on how small Stewart’s inner circle is. Many believe the latter is simply his wife and Dixon.

Those who have worked with Stewart speculate that the timing was ideal – and not simply because his post-Daily Show work had garnered mixed results. For those keeping track, there was a long-gestating topical animated show for HBO that never came to fruition, and a political comedy film, starring Steve Carell, that failed to get much traction. Then came his Apple TV+ series, which skewed more “eat your vegetables” than laugh-out-loud funny — that is, until the entire partnership went south. Sources have cited creative differences between the iPhone maker and Stewart, a born provocateur and arguably our country’s foremost political satirist, over potential topics, including China, which led to The Problem with Jon Stewart being pulled in Oct. 2023.

So, the married father of two was suddenly available, and about to be an empty nester. And, unlike that earnest Apple vehicle, the Daily Show platform allows him to be more topical and, thus, more relevant, particularly as an all-important election cycle heats up. What’s more, he didn’t have to commit to four nights a week — instead, he will host on Mondays, leaving a team of correspondents to lead the other three nights — nor did he have to agree to sit in the chair beyond the election. (As the deal stands, he will executive produce the nightly show through at least 2025.) The degree of flexibility exhibited by Paramount is a sign of Stewart’s leverage and the times, both in late night and at the struggling company.

When Stewart left The Daily Show back in 2015, there had been conversations with A-listers like Chris Rock to replace him, but the execs at what was then Viacom were only interested in someone who’d agree to a standard, longterm deal. “I wanted to do it up until the [2016] election, and then bye,” Rock told THR a few years later, “but they wouldn’t let me do that.” Doug Herzog, who oversaw Comedy Central at the time, confirms the story, explaining: “I thought – and this is where the landscape has changed dramatically — we needed to find the person that could sit there every night, and I didn’t want to be doing this again in six months. But everything’s changed, and people aren’t there every night anymore.”

Still, Herzog is all but certain ratings will go up with Stewart, along with advertiser interest. Plus, having someone who he describes as a “mini Lorne Michaels” back and intimately involved with the show and its talent roster, is a major coup. “It’s a fucking baller move and everybody wins,” he says of an announcement that, admittedly, he didn’t have on his 2024 Bingo card. “And look, the world’s changed a lot since Jon left that seat: there was Trump and #MeToo and George Floyd and Covid — it’s been a tumultuous several years. Plus, Comedy Central has changed, the TV business has changed and the world has changed, but even with all that, there’s nobody better than Jon Stewart to try and figure it all out. And he’s still got a lot to say.”

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