The ‘Daily Show’ and ‘Colbert Report’ Archives Belong to the Preservationists and Comedy Nerds Now

Media The Daily Show
The ‘Daily Show’ and ‘Colbert Report’ Archives Belong to the Preservationists and Comedy Nerds Now

Last week, LateNighter reported that Paramount had dustbinned a quarter-century’s worth of Daily Show clips as well as those from The Colbert Report and other shows. Done nearly a week after the same company had taken down two decades of MTV News reporting, it was a reminder that the act of preservation is unending and, sadly, often in defiance of a business climate that doesn’t understand the value and importance of archival intellectual property. 

We seem to be driving toward a culture that is shaken clean every few months like an Etch-A-Sketch. Physical media feels like it’s in a death spiral, algorithms are a deterrent to exploration, and titles constantly and confusingly switch from service to service or disappear entirely. An unyielding faith in the power of new product and the belief that it’s all people want has brought us here. 

If something can’t be easily repackaged and re-sold, then these companies don’t understand it. If they don’t understand it, then they think no one else will and so it becomes worthless. But outside the narrow confines of that notion, there is clear value.  

The Daily Show’s legacy is vast, complicated, and ongoing. During Jon Stewart’s first run, the show was entirely too white and too often content to think “gotcha” got it done when it came to revealing political hypocrisy. Its popularity also inadvertently drove mainstream media toward a kind of infotainment vibe, exposing us to a lot of bad light comedy and watered-down coverage. You could hang the existence of Gutfeld! on The Daily Show and I wouldn’t be mad at you for being mad at them. 

Despite all that, Stewart’s remake of the show took us from an era of lazy Jay Leno monologue jokes to a kind of late-night political comedy that cut deeper, was more ambitious, and believed that the audience wasn’t brain dead or half asleep. The last 20+ years of late-night political comedy – from John Oliver to Seth Meyers, and Sam Bee – has, as a result, been more informative, inspiring, smart, and most importantly, funny. 

Tracking how Stewart’s show responded to things like 9/11, the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq, the Great Recession, and how The Colbert Report took on the rise of the Tea Party and the right-wing media outrage machine matters. Seeing how Trevor Noah’s version of The Daily Show navigated COVID, the Trump administration, and the chaos cyclone news cycle matters. 

It’s a little dystopic that we’re losing easy access to vast libraries of content conceived to punch up at the powerful when so many safeguards against authoritarianism are falling. 

And I know that there’s still abundant access across Paramount+ and the Daily Show YouTube channel when it comes to more recent/relevant moments and highlights from along the way. There are also books that detail the impact of the show, but snapshots are not the same as full pictures. It’s hard to know what obscure bit is going to inspire something in someone. Best to put everything out there. 

This is where this all gets dicey, though. I don’t know what it costs to keep servers running and maintain a vast archive of video clips with I also don’t know what the traffic is like for that kind of thing. I’m sort of the inverse of the nameless/faceless executive I mocked before. “If they don’t understand it, then they think no one else will and so it becomes worthless.”

I understand the importance of these clips, and so I think everyone else will/should and I feel that they have value. I’m just not sure if it’s monetary value or merely cultural value. I just know it borders on public service to make the last 25 years of political comedy history as widely available as possible. And so I say, thank goodness for the tapeheads and the pirates. 

The process of preserving late-night comedy history is filled with horror stories and heroes. Famously, a large amount of Johnny Carson’s greatness was lost in the name of thrift because NBC taped over old episodes. SNL reruns have for years been a weird patchwork, taking out certain sketches and musical performances, or omitting full episodes from lesser eras in rerun packages. 

Comedy nerds of all ages know about the esoteric brilliance of David Letterman’s legendary ‘80s run because a super fan named Don Giller has dedicated his life to finding full episodes and clips then posting them on YouTube. 

There are people who have done the same with Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show and others. When Martin Mull died, I knew I could rely on Reddit boards or the Internet Archive for episodes of the legendary late-night parody Fernwood 2 Night. Same as I found full, uncut episodes from SNL’s undercooked 1985-1986 season when I needed it for an article. Or some original Late Night with Conan O’Brien episodes from the mid ‘90s for, well, fun. That stuff still absolutely rips. 

O’Brien is, himself, a hero of late-night preservation, reacquiring his NBC-era archive and working with his staff (led by the great Mike Sweeney) to curate and remaster hundreds of moments from his decades on NBC and TBS. The end result was Classic Conan, a component of a highly lucrative YouTube channel that was reportedly bringing $10 million in revenue circa 2021. An absolute king. 

So, the archivists will save us. Eventually. 

Though not as easy to find or hospitable to more casual fans, Daily Show and Colbert Report history will be represented with clips spread across the internet, if not officially, then unofficially. That is, I suppose, a silver lining. But not one without worry. 

Years ago, I spoke with Adam Pally and Ben Schwartz for an oral history of an amazing one-off episode they did guest-hosting The Late Late Show on CBS. It’s an inspired and wild 45 minutes, deeply influenced by ‘90s Conan, ‘80s Letterman, and their own comedic skill sets and friendship. 

The episode has, over the years, drawn a cult following. It’s also a challenge to find. Though it’s just this one-time thing that CBS has never monetized, it never seems to stay up for long due to takedown notices. When I ran the article, I was careful to not link to a current version on Reddit knowing it would likely get zapped. 

It’s a fascinating question, really: who owns history, especially when it’s been tossed aside? I hope we never get a definitive answer. I hope that preservation keeps happening, if not on official channels, then in the gray space.

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