FLASHBACK: How Jon Stewart Became the Political Voice of a Generation

by Raphael Chestang 5:09 PM PDT, August 06, 2015
Playing FLASHBACK: How Jon Stewart Became the Political Voice of a Generation

As Jon Stewart calls it quits on Thursday after 16 years as host of The Daily Show, ET looks back at his transformation from fringe comic to trusted newsman.

Stewart occupied a late-night desk at Comedy Central when it was still called the Comedy Channel. In 1991, ET interviewed the 28-year-old comedian for the first time. It was in that same year that he would release his first HBO comedy special.

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"I guess this is the make or break that everyone sees," Stewart said as we recorded him rehearsing for the big night.

Despite his anxiety, Stewart had nothing to worry about, but you couldn't convince him of that two years later when he was a nervous wreck before the first taping of The Jon Stewart Show for MTV.

"I'm a neurotic bastard," Stewart said. "I stay up till 3 a.m. thinking about going to the dentist."

While his first two talk shows didn't last, his talent was evident. Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift and The War for Late Night, tells ET that Late Show With David Letterman "put him under contract as a potential host" in the '90s.

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His moment finally came in 1999 when The Daily Show needed a new host to take over for Craig Kilborn.

"When the show was conceived, it was supposed to be like a mock newscast and they would do silly news basically," Carter tells ET. "Jon turned it into political satire. It turned into an elevated talk show. It was much smarter than the average talk show."

Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most trusted news sources in America when a younger generation thought he explained the news better than the news.

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And his show wasn't just funny. It was also poignant. Perhaps Stewart's most heartfelt moment was his monologue during his first show back following 9/11.

"We've had an unendurable pain," Stewart said during the emotional broadcast. "I wanted to tell you why I grieve but why I don't despair. One of my first memories is of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five ... Here's what I remember about it. I was in a school in Trenton, New Jersey and they shut the lights off and we got to sit under our desks and we thought that was really cool and they gave us cottage cheese, which was a cold lunch because there was rioting, but we didn't know that. We just thought, 'My God! We get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese!' And that's what I remember about it, and that was a tremendous test of this country's fabric. This country's had many tests before that and after that and the reason I don't despair is because this attack happened. It's not a dream. But the aftermath of it -- the recovery -- is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream."

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The Daily Show has long been considered Comedy Central's crown jewel, winning 10 Emmys in a row for Outstanding Variety Series from 2003 to 2012, which is more than any other show.

Stewart announced his departure from the show in February, subsequently naming South African comedian Trevor Noah as his successor.