Come for Jon Stewart, Stay for Aasif Mandvi: The Best Daily Show Correspondents of All-Time
As a fan of The Daily Show since its inception, I have often pondered this question: “who is the best on-air correspondent in the show’s history?” I’ve seriously asked myself this. It’s a disease. If you’re reading this, you may suffer the same affliction.
When you watch a show as many times as many of us have watched The Daily Show, it’s a fair question. Roughly 50 repeat players have come and gone and more than 30 of them have had the title “correspondent” – the men and women who ask uncomfortable questions and carry out the shtick.
With the show coming to an end – at least in its Jon Stewart form – I set out to create my favorites list. A number of recent long-haul flights gave me a little bit of time, but more importantly, I just felt like I had to do this. The Daily Show gave me countless nights of entertainment, accounted for roughly 50% of my DVR playback since the DVR was invented and it even provided me with new ways of looking at political issues of the day – a tough ask for a comedy show. More than anything else, though, I realized that as much as I love the host of the show, the players that contribute off to the side are often times the best part. Come for Jon Stewart, stay for Aasif Mandvi.
As I pulled together the list, here’s what I discovered:
1) When you start dissecting the show, you remember bits that you long ago forgot: Produce Pete, Out at The Movies, Even Stephven. These were laugh-out-loud skits that made us all come back time and time again in the early years.
2) Much like Saturday Night Live, although perhaps less prolific, The Daily Show launched (or seriously helped along) the careers of many performers. We all know what it did for Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, but to that list we must include: John Oliver, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, John Hodgman, Olivia Munn, Demetri Martin and many others.
3) Over time, Jon Stewart and his production partners made a concerted effort to become younger and more diverse. Around the time that Colbert and Carrell departed in 2005, Aasif Mandvi, Larry Wilmore, Wyatt Cenac and Kristen Schaal joined as recurring players. They modernized the show and kept it relevant for the second half of its run.
FROM 37, DOWN TO 20
To start, allow me to wend us down to 20. These are great talents that didn’t make my personal Top 20, but we must include them in any discussion of the show. They’re listed in alphabetical order. Read them slowly. If you’re a fan, you’ll remember a lot of them.
Dan Bakkedahl (2005-2007)
Mary Birdsong (2002)
Lewis Black (1996-2015)
Michael Che (2014)
Nate Corddry (2005-2006)
Vance DeGeneres (1999-2001)
Susie Essman (1996)
Josh Gad (2009-2011)
Stacey Grenrock-Woods (1998-2003)
Beth Littleford (1996-2000)
Demetri Martin (2005-2008)
Hasan Minhaj (2014-2015)
Olivia Munn (2010-2011)
Trevor Noah (2014-2015)
Caroline Rhea (1996)
Lauren Weedman (2001-2002)
Lizz Winstead (1996-1997)
FROM 20, DOWN TO 11: THE CORRESPONDENTS WHO SHAPED THE SHOW
#20: Dave Attell (1999-2002)
Known for: The Ugly American
Attell was an early cast member who many instantly recognized for his stand-up act. He was friends with Jon from years earlier and Jon repaid that friendship and obvious respect for his work, by making Dave a recurring feature. Attell had an authentic edge to him that carried over from his stand-up. In my opinion: he was a more enjoyable player than Lewis Black to carry out that angry voice.
#19: Frank DeCaro (1996-2003)
Out At The Movies
DeCaro was a showbiz reporter before (and after) The Daily Show, so the shift from mainstream media to comedy wasn’t too wide. In a way, Out At The Movies was one of the early pieces that made it difficult to determine if the show was life imitating art or art imitating life. Here is DeCaro’s review of “The Gladiator”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oLCMCE5ppU
#18: Nancy Walls (1999-2003)
We Love Showbiz, Dollars & Cents
Walls might be best known for her stint on Saturday Night Live (Her Wake Up and Smile skit with Will Ferrell is one of my favorites) as well as being Steve Carrell’s wife. But, she did some terrific turns on The Daily Show including one captured in the clip posted to #17 below.
#17: Mo Rocca (1998-2003)
Mopinion, Dollars & Cents
Rocca went on to be a contributor in a number of other forums including CBS Sunday Morning (an all-time favorite of mine), but his work on The Daily Show brought him to TV homes who did not yet know who he was. Here he is with Steve Carrell and Nancy Walls in a segment called Dollars and Cents.
#16: Kristen Schaal (2008-2015)
Women’s Issue Correspondent
Schaal had been on the HBO show Flight of the Conchords, so she was recognizable to many when she started on the show in 2008. She always seems to get Jon Stewart leaning forward during her pieces showing the hypocrisy of gender inequality.
#15: John Hodgman (2006-2015)
Resident Expert, Deranged Millionaire, You’re Welcome
Hodgman plays his characters and he plays them well. His work as the goofy and aloof PC in the Mac and PC ads for Apple are how many people got to know him. On The Daily Show, his persona is typically a continuation of PC – stodgy, expert and better than you.
#14: Rob Riggle (2006-2008)
Senior Millitary Affairs Correspondent
Riggle was an actual veteran of war and those experiences, crossed with his comic timing, certainly helped the show during the years when America was embroiled in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Here’s his News Team profile: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/jkzqmp/the-news-better-run—rob-riggle
#13: Jessica Williams (2012-2015)
Senior Youth Correspondent, Senior Beyonce Correspondent
I’ve loved Jessica Williams from the start. I remember - perhaps correctly, perhaps incorrectly - that her first few reports were a bit shaky. But she was young, aggressive with her comedy and you just wanted to root for her. I hadn’t felt that way since I first watched Conan O’Brien. Since then, she’s been one of the best and funniest voices on the show.
#12: Rob Corddry (2002-2006)
This Week In God, Come On!
A recent piece on Corddry in New York magazine suggested he plays the smug character really well – that it’s kind of become his thing. Agreed. And it always worked.
#11: Jason Jones (2002-2015)
Are You Prepared?
Jason Jones was one of a handful of reporters over the years that you could call fearless. No matter where he ventured: into the home or office of a racist or to cover on the elections in India as a US-centric reporter, he knew who he was and never seemed to reflect an ounce of discomfort in doing so. In many ways, he felt like a real journalist (many on the show did, but Jones took that to the next level). He is also the husband of Samantha Bee, #10 on this list.
TOP 10: THE BEST OF THE BEST
#10: Samantha Bee (2003-2015)
Most Senior Correspondent, News I’d Like to F@ck
Samantha Bee was the longest tenured correspondent on The Daily Show. At times, she was the only female in the cast – or at least the only woman with a frequent, recurring role. Like Jason Jones, she was fearless is almost any situation. And, she was phenomenally funny. I’m not sure if she wrote the title to the segment referred to above or just performed it, but the idea of “News I’d Like to F@ck” pretty much sums up the satire of the show in the first place. Check out her coverage of the 2014 Florida Governors Race, The Last Perspiration of Crist. (Watch the whole thing as her portion is about two-thirds of the way through and is totally worth the wait.) http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/0x77un/democalypse-2014—the-last-perspiration-of-crist
#9: Wyatt Cenac (2008-2012)
Senior Black Correspondent
Wyatt Cenac brought an edge to the show when he joined in 2008. He was great from the start. It’s hard to point to just one segment that catches his brilliance. Here’s just one from the 2012 Presidential election, Swing State Hell: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/eaaad9/swing-state-hell—ohio-votes
#8: Jordan Klepper (2014-2015)
Senior Caucasian Correspondent
I have Jordan Klepper rated very high on this list. He may not have been on the show for very long, but I loved him from his first segment. He exhibits total confidence whenever he’s on camera and he would have been my choice – had I had a vote – to replace Jon Stewart at the news desk.
Protecting Shooters: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/btf5ul/protecting-shooters-everywhere
#7: Al Madrigal (2011-2015)
Senior Latino Correspondent
Madrigal is wickedly funny and has the great comedic ability to say the most inappropriate things, yet have them feel like they were your idea all along. Along with Cenac and Williams, he came along at the right time to continue modernizing the show with both diversity and a new approach to the role of correspondent. Here he is in Bro Choice: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/t63lj3/bro-choice
#6: Ed Helms (2002-2006)
Ad Nauseum, We Love Showbiz, This Week In God, Mark Your Calendar
Helms, who went on to star in The Office with fellow former Daily Show cast member Steve Carrell, was incredibly versatile on the show. He was a hired gun who could rise to any task. Here he is essentially mediating a dispute in Clark, Texas which had just changed its name to take money from a huge marketer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOXfL8Q3syY
#5: Larry Wilmore (2006-2014)
Senior Black Correspondent
There wasn’t a single segment that Larry Wilmore was in where I didn’t laugh out loud. He spoke the truth about race relations and the pieces he and Jon did at the desk might have felt a bit contrived, but they always had a message behind them. A smart, funny message. I just wish I liked The Nightly Show more than I do – I was so excited for it, but it hasn’t materialized the way I had hoped.
The Black Presidency: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/5a93un/the-black-presidency
#4: Aasif Mandvi (2006-2015)
Senior Middle East Correspondent
The brilliance of Mandvi is that he has the perfect makeup for his role – he’s Muslim and he’s an incredibly confident reporter. That combination allows him to go down a line of questioning on a subject that others couldn’t touch or, if they did, it wouldn’t be as funny and deadly as it is in his hands. My guess is that not many other people would rate him this high on the list (”What about Lewis Black?! What about Ed Helms?!”), but he’s just too good not to be.
#3: John Oliver (2006-2013)
Senior British Person
When Stephen Colbert and Steve Carrell left the show, Jon Stewart needed someone with a mature persona to be his foil in so many desk conversations. John Oliver was just that talent. Here is is playing Sir Archibald Mapsalot III (of course) in one of his perfectly timed British person segments:
#2: Steve Carrell (1996-2005)
Produce Pete, Dollars & Cents, Even Stephven, We Love Showbiz, Ad Nauseum
I can’t imagine any list of favorite Daily Show correspondents that don’t include Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert in the top 2. They were the two most versatile players on the show.
Here’s Carrell doing his recurring character “Produce Pete” in a segment called “Eat It Raw”: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/okjdia/produce-pete-with-steve-carell—eat-it-raw
And then there’s Carrell doing a campaign piece from the 2008 primaries, On the Bus with John McCain. At the time of this piece, the show wasn’t getting invited many places as a serious journalistic (or pseudo-serious) operation, so this was pretty advanced for them: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/78euyp/indecision-2000—mccain-campaign-bus
#1: Stephen Colbert (1997-2005)
This Week in God, Even Stephven
The best thing I could say about Stephen Colbert is that I would up watching The Colbert Report first each night before I would watch The Daily Show. It started out that way because I would want to eat the cupcake first and save the frosting for the end. Over time, I came to think of Colbert as the frosting and couldn’t wait to sink into it.
I’ll end with 3 clips featuring his work.
Abu Cribs, his reporting on the discovery of an underground lair during the Iraqi war. One of my favorite parts of his talent is his expressive voice. He lands every intonation: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/4kaf6f/mess-o-potamia—abu-cribs
Cultural review of The Gates, his coverage of the art installation in Central Park back in 2005: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/8gnt6c/the-gates
Drink Responsibly, his memorable “kids, please don’t drink alcohol” public service message co-starring Steve Carrell: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/h4rz3u/drink-responsibly
Long live The Daily Show and all of its stars. You are leaving a big hole in our DVRs.