'The Daily Show': Pop Culture's New Comic Go-To?

It's played second fiddle to "Saturday Night Live" in recent weeks, what with Tina Fey's uncanny channeling of Sarah Palin, but think back, for a moment, to before John McCain announced his pick for the vice presidential candidate.

Think back months, years, all the way to 1999, when Jon Stewart sidled up to "The Daily Show" anchor chair.

Since then, what television program has risen from the depths of basic cable to gain national recognition and churn out more fresh comedic talent than any other? It's debatable, but arguably, the answer is "The Daily Show."

For a long time, no one could hold a candle to "SNL," with its more-than-three-decade-long history and A+ class of alumni, including Bill Murray, Jon Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, and of course, Fey.

But over the past few years, many of TV's funniest have come not from the lap of Lorne Michaels, but from the arms of Stewart, the veritable godfather of today's comic mafia. Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, Rachael Harris: They're just a few of the proud who have "The Daily Show" to thank -- and they do so profusely.

"What it's given me has been so great. I still get recognized for being on 'The Daily Show.' It's shocking, I wasn't there forever, but the little time that I was had a huge impact on my career," said Harris, who served as a field correspondent on "The Daily Show" from 2002 to 2003. She's now involved in a variety of projects, including a movie with fellow alum and "Office" co-star Helms and a pilot for HBO.

"['The Daily Show'] gives you a calling card," she added. "It's kind of like if Jon and the EP, and if all those people wanted to hire you, it gives you a legitimacy. It's kind of like, 'Oh, well, if they think you're funny, then you really must be funny.'"

Alums largely credit Stewart and the writers for honing their comedic talents, as if "The Daily Show's" a charm school for anyone who wants their jokes to kill, and Stewart's the headmaster-at-large. (Stewart and the show declined to comment for this story, citing the need to focus on making "The Daily Show" extra sharp as Nov. 4 nears.)

"Most of my time at 'The Daily Show' was spent in an editing room crafting those interview pieces. That's essentially where I learned how to tell a story," said Corddry, who made a name for himself as "a common Masshole" during his stint as a "Daily Show" correspondent from 2002 to 2006. He's now moved on to movies, currently playing Ari Fleischer in "W."

"And Jon Stewart knows how to write a joke, obviously," Corddry continued. "He taught me a lot about how to really craft a joke: to kill what might be your favorite part of the joke to serve the whole, to simplify, how to highlight certain aspects of the joke. He also taught me never to talk seriously about joke-writing. Which is what I'm doing right now."

Stewart's affection for his cast of characters is obvious. Like a mother hen grooming her brood for the big, wide world, he makes sure they hold their ground, even if it comes at his expense.

"You watch him when he's batting back and forth with the correspondents -- he delights when they score," said David Bianculli, critic for tvworthwatching.com and NPR's "Fresh Air." "Johnny Carson used to say, 'When my guests do well, I look better.' There aren't that many people in Hollywood who are confident to be that generous. Stewart is. He's created a very good, competitive work environment."

And from that good, competitive work environment, the sky's the limit. Alums credit "Office" and "Little Miss Sunshine" star Steve Carell with proving that "The Daily Show" can churn out versatile actors, as adept at playing bumbling journalists as any other type of character.

"Inasmuch as it's fabulous exposure, there's also a little bit of a struggle to prove yourself as more than a snarky correspondent. I credit Carell for breaking that mold for all of us. He really changed the perception of what correspondents are capable of," said Helms, who plays underling Andy Bernard to Carell's Michael Scott on "The Office," and served as a "Daily Show" correspondent from 2002 to 2006.

Back to that "SNL" comparison. Unsurprisingly, "Daily Show" alums are hesitant to rank their show as more culturally significant than that storied sketch comedy show.

"I always wanted to be on 'SNL,' and at a certain point, somewhere in the late '90s, it became 'SNL' or 'The Daily Show,'" said Helms. "They're very different shows with very different comedic agendas; they're going for different things. That said, I think they're both great shows, they attract great talent, so you're going to see talented people get plucked from both shows."

"'SNL' still churns them out," Corddry added. "Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis, etc. Comparisons of the two shows make me very uncomfortable. 'The Daily Show' owes a huge debt to 'SNL,' which I have watched religiously my entire life, and it always pains me to hear those knee-jerk comparisons to the original cast. What was the question again?"

But considering "The Daily Show" can bring in as many as 2 million viewers a night, over the course of one week -- four episodes -- the Comedy Central staple could draw about as many viewers as watch "SNL" on a week when the show doesn't have a marquee special guest, like Palin or Fey.

That, and the fact that correspondents on "The Daily Show" play heightened versions of themselves (as opposed to characters, like Molly Shannon's Mary Catherine Gallagher or Tim Meadows' the Ladies Man) means that it can be easier for alums to catch on as stars once they fly the coop.

So, in the end, even if it doesn't usurp "SNL's" place in pop culture (that show does have history on its side), "The Daily Show" is proving itself a worthy competitor.

"'The Daily Show' showcases its talent in a way that allows them to catch on quickly as personalities," Bianculli said. "If you were to condense 'SNL's' history, compared to 'The Daily Show' under Jon Stewart, you'd probably have a pretty similar hit or miss ratio. But is there anyplace else right now where this amount of talent is coming from? Probably not. 'The Daily Show's' got fertile ground."