I was shocked last week when I heard that Trevor Noah would quit his job as host of “The Daily Show” following a seven-year run marked by an extraordinary body of comedy work and growing acclaim.
That is, I was surprised for about five minutes. Then I recalled a number of my previous conversations with Noah about his initial reluctance to become listed on “The Daily Show” in the very first place and his overall outlook on his career – which revealed he takes much more of a worldview on things than the America-centric one you’d expect from the conventional host of a satirical US newscast.
Also, there was the more recent, undeniable seismic shift roiling almost everything in what had once been the remarkably grounded world of late-night television.
Considering all that, Noah’s decision – or even the exact timing of it – felt almost predictable.
Not long ago, this constituted late-night television was widely and easily understood and appreciated: on the air after 11 p.m. with a charming host, some comedy, a desk, a guest or two, maybe a band, and then “Good night, everybody!”
It was also a place of television which was holding up well from the winds of change. So much so that in the face area of linear television’s accelerating erosion because of cord-cutting and the flight to streaming, new late-night shows were being added all over the landscape: “Desus & Mero” and “We” on Showtime, “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock. Even Fox News got into the game with a variety of comedy and hard-right agitprop on “Gutfeld!”
That has been then. In recent months, the picture of late night has become covered in static.
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero broke up over the summertime, abruptly ending their Showtime series (one that no less a legend than David Letterman called “the ongoing future of late night” when he was a guest on the show.) Ziwe Fumudoh, who followed the duo on Showtime’s lineup, has new episodes starting November 18, but her performance has not yet been renewed for the next season.
Amber Ruffin, who has won exceptional reviews, is back on Peacock, but she’s still carrying out a limited quantity of episodes. Meanwhile, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” was canceled on TBS after seven seasons. (TBS, like CNN, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.) James Corden has additionally announced he’s departing his CBS show in 2023.
“The Daily Show” is an alternative animal from several shows; it is a franchise. It has been running four nights weekly since 1996. Jon Stewart elevated it to essential viewing during his 16-year run. He and the show won 11 straight Emmys for outstanding variety talk series.
That is why klieg lights were directed with 1,000-watt intensity at Noah when he succeeded to the host role in 2015. He was a virtual unknown in the US, who had barely established a profile as a correspondent on the show. And, as he said for the documentary series “The Story of Late Night,” he had twice turned down Stewart’s offer of a position on the show.
How coveted was such an offer? Ask Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and many more alumni of “The Daily Show.” It was a star-making vehicle comparable only to “Saturday Night Live.”
But Noah had an alternative beat in his head from the start. He wished to refashion the show with a broader comedy vision, one looking more out at the entire world rather than purely in at the United States, all informed by Noah’s South African-born global perspective.
It was an intelligent choice. Following Stewart was always going to be always a potentially crippling challenge. Noah took it on and remade the show to his specifications.
One significant sign of this was how strikingly diverse the show became. Noah’s cohort has been stocked with comic talent across racial, ethnic, and gender lines: Roy Wood Jr., Ronny Chieng, Dulcé Sloan, and Noah himself represent a high point in minority representation among established late-night shows.
Given the shocking underrepresentation of minorities and women that marked the very first 60 years approximately of late night, that is a proud flag for Noah’s “Daily Show” to wave.
Which now raises troubling questions concerning the future. In earlier times, the departure of a significant late-night star was the starting gun for a mad scramble among potential successors. And yes, the speculation game has already commenced: Maybe Wood will move up. Maybe Bee will come back. Perhaps Comedy Central tries to woo Ruffin away.
Notably, dozens of names would continue the breakthrough from the long-term White male dominance late at night, which Noah’s tenure a lot more than validated as a priority.
And, of course, someone else many of us haven’t even considered could be lurking underneath the radar, a largely unknown comic talent like Noah was in 2015.
But also lurking is an existential question: Is a bunch of jobs late at night still the ultimate dream for an ambitious comic talent? You can not sell that idea the old-fashioned way: by considering ratings. A bit in Forbes magazine last week noted that “The Daily Show” audience dropped to 383,000 this August, down 65% from Stewart’s final year.
A lot of that’s because what many people watch now could be not television: It’s whatever-vision, entertainment by any means on any device. What’s on late at night has become often seen on subscriptions – and not late at night.
That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested. Precisely the same Forbes piece pointed out that “The Daily Show” has more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube, a sizable number.
So any suggestion that “The Daily Show” may go away after Noah leaves (he left his exit date uncertain) is probably miles off base. More than ever, TV is all about sustaining established brands. “The Daily Show” is the largest one Comedy Central owns. (“South Park” is still on, but far less frequently.) If networks are bringing back “Quantum Leap,” “The Equalizer,” and “The Mole,” it appears to be folly to walk away from “The Daily Show.”