Tuesday night, Stephen Colbert turned to his former Daily Show colleagues to celebrate his 20th anniversary of when he joined the Comedy Central series—and, even more importantly, to help him in his quest to overtake The Tonight Show this season in total viewers.
Colbert assembled a powerhouse lineup of Daily Show alums— Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry—to talk about their past on the show, as well as current events. During the episode, Stewart defended Colbert and his “potty mouth” after last week’s controversy over his joke about Donald Trump.
CBS hopes that the episode will help Late Show overtake Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show among total viewers. Season to date, The Tonight Show maintains a razor-thin lead, averaging 3.19 million viewers per episode compared to Late Show’s 3.16 million. (There’s no contest on the 18-49 demo side, with Fallon ahead comfortably, 0.8 to 0.6).
Late Show has won in total viewers every week since January, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Last week, Colbert won the week by 410,000 viewers, its widest margin of victory since the show debuted in September 2015.
As Colbert rediscovered his voice in the past year, ratings and ad revenue have soared. “The general rule of thumb is the advertiser dollars follow the eyeballs, and he’s getting more and more eyeballs,” Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales for CBS, told Adweek in March. “We’re very happy with what’s going on versus where we were at this time last year,” when her team was forced to give out makegoods to compensate for Colbert’s soft debut in fall 2015.
But this year, with his ratings up and scatter market thriving, “advertisers are responding very positively,” Marty Daly, svp and director of news and late-night sales for CBS, told Adweek in March.
Stewart, who is a Late Show executive producer, makes occasional appearances on the program, most recently in February, when he gave the media a pep talk and admitted that he misses life behind a late-night desk.
In the show’s taped open, Stewart was shown preparing a sandwich for the current Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, while Colbert was bringing him a Coke.
After his monologue, all of his guests appeared in a sketch in which Colbert was preparing to leave the show in the summer of 2005, to launch The Colbert Report. Samantha Bee, in a wig, told him that she couldn’t believe he was leaving the show while George W. Bush was still president. “There’s never going to another president this good for comedy. I mean, this guy does something ridiculous at least once a month!” said Bee.
John Oliver filled in for Steve Carell, who was not available to appear on the episode. At the end of the sketch, Colbert asked Stewart for advice in his new home. Stewart’s reply: “Arch your eyebrow; it makes people think you’re smart!”
Stewart chatted with Colbert before the others were brought out, and noted, “I’m not comfortable here. … You have a potty mouth,” referring to Colbert’s controversial joke about Trump last week. Colbert’s reply: “I learned it from you, Dad.”
The former Daily Show host defended Colbert’s Trump joke: “We can insult; he can injure. Like, it’s the difference between insult and injury. For the life of me, I do not understand in this country why we try and hold comedians to a standard we do not hold leaders to. It’s bizarre.”
Colbert asked Stewart if he misses doing the show on a day like Tuesday, when he’d have a nightly platform to vent about Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. The former host said that there are some parts of the job he loved—“when you come out, in life, very few people applaud you”—but ultimately, “the things that I’ve gained in terms of time spent with family and things that like, I wouldn’t give up for” anything.
Stewart addressed the departure of Bill O’Reilly last month in the wake of several sexual harassment scandals, noting that “the place was run by a guy who was doing the same thing,” referring to co-founder Roger Ailes. “There was no accountability throughout the entire building.”
For the show’s final segments, the alums all gathered onstage to reminisce about their past field pieces for The Daily Show. Colbert recalled the time that a Ku Klux Klan member overheard him reveal that he was from Comedy Central, and his producer was able to distract the person so they could flee the scene.
Oliver said he found it easier than some of his colleagues to conduct the humorous field pieces. “The beauty is I’m dead inside … I’m British. I’m so far removed from anything you would recognize as human emotions. I was really perfectly cut for this job,” he said.
As the episode was wrapping up, Stewart expressed dismay that he looks significantly older than the other alums, attributing it to the fact that he is no longer in show business, as the others still are. “This really does look like a group of students coming back to see Mr. Holland,” says Stewart, a reference to the 1995 Richard Dreyfus film, Mr. Holland’s Opus.
The reunion, said Colbert, “was what it was like to hang out backstage at The Daily Show. It was the greatest experience.”