Jon Stewart’s plan to leave “The Daily Show” for the summer and install John Oliver as guest host beginning Monday, at first blush, sounds like a big, unnecessary risk. Why mess with success, particularly in a crowded late-night field where long-formed viewing habits can crumble with the click of the remote?
But Stewart’s nearly three-month absence could prove good for him – and for the show. After 14 years at the helm, Stewart deserves more than just a moment of Zen, even if he’s going to spend his “Daily Show” hiatus directing a movie.
It’s hard to fathom in today’s hyper-competitive late night landscape, but taking time off isn’t unprecedented: Johnny Carson, during his 30-year reign as host of "The Tonight Show," kept up his endurance record by not always going to work.
Many guest hosts, ranging from Joe Garagiola to Bill Cosby to George Carlin to Kermit the Frog, filled in for Carson over the decades. Joan Rivers served as the show’s permanent guest host until she enraged Carson in 1986 by leaving for her own short-lived Fox show. Carson’s last regular stand-in was Jay Leno, who got the permanent gig – twice.
Over the last two decades, Leno has eschewed guest hosts, making him late night comedy’s marathon man – and setting the standard for perseverance. Leno’s longtime rival David Letterman, on the air since 1982 between his NBC and CBS shows, didn't resort to guest hosts until emergency heart surgery knocked him out of commission for five weeks in 2000. Letterman used substitutes again in 2003 during a bout with the shingles.
Oliver’s stint offers him – and Comedy Central – an opportunity to prove the program is more than just about the host. That’ll be no easy task: Stewart has made his name synonymous with the program since replacing Craig Kilborn in 1999, turning a snarky joke-fest into a Peabody Award-winning TV staple that tries to say something about, if not our times, then at least our day.
It’s an off-repeated – and likely overblown – claim than many viewers get their news from “The Daily Show.” But there’s little doubt that a good number tune in nightly – in an old-school TV way – for a pre-bedtime mix of comedy and reality, allowing Stewart to be legitimately mentioned in the same lofty breath as Carson and Walter Cronkite.
Still, Comedy Central’s marquee program could benefit from the occasional fresh voice – and by setting a precedent for more guest-host stints on a topical humor show that broadcasts too many repeats.
For the smart, dryly funny Oliver, the summer gig provides a chance to shine beyond part of correspondent, a role that previously helped catapult Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert to higher comedy perches.
For Stewart, the break will allow him to direct a nonfiction movie about an imprisoned Iranian journalist. Credit him with wanting to stretch, and with being secure enough – like Carson – to know that the show goes on without him, even if it won’t be quite the same.
Stewart has another story to tell. He’ll have plenty of stories awaiting him when he returns in September.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.