Trevor Noah’s bombshell was almost predictable

March 21, 2023 2:43 pm

[Source: CNN News]

I was truly surprised last week when I heard the news that Trevor Noah was going to quit his job as host of “The Daily Show.”

After a seven-year run, marked by an impressive body of comedy work and growing acclaim.

That is, I was surprised for about five minutes. Then I recalled some of my previous conversations with Noah about his initial reluctance to join “The Daily Show” in the 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 would expect from the typical host of a satirical US newscast.

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Also, there was the more recent, undeniable seismic shift roiling just about everything in what had once been the remarkably grounded world of late-night television.

Considering all that, Noah’s decision – if not the exact timing of it – felt almost predictable.

Not long ago the definition of what constituted late-night television was widely and easily understood and appreciated: on the air after 11 p.m. with a charismatic host, some comedy, a desk, a guest or two, maybe a band and then “Good night, everybody!”

It was also an area of television that was holding up well against the winds of change. So much so that in the face 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 “Ziwe” on Showtime, “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock. Even Fox News got into the game with a mix of comedy and hard-right agitprop on “Gutfeld!”

That was then. In the past few months, the picture of late night has become covered in static.

Desus Nice and The Kid Mero broke up over the summer, abruptly ending their Showtime series (one that no less a legend than David Letterman called “the 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 show has not yet been renewed for a third season.

Amber Ruffin, who has won exceptional reviews, is just back on Peacock, but she’s still doing a limited number 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 also announced he’s departing his CBS show in 2023.

“The Daily Show” is obviously a different animal from many of these shows; it’s a franchise. It has been running four nights a week 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 was one reason 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 told me for the documentary series “The Story of Late Night,” he had twice turned down Stewart’s personal offer of a role 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 a different beat in his head from the start. He wanted to refashion the show with a wider comedy vision, one looking more out at the world, instead of purely in at the United States, all informed by Noah’s South African-born global perspective.

It was a wise choice. Following Stewart was always going to be a potentially crippling challenge. Noah took it on and remade the show to his own specifications.

One major sign of that 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 first 60 years or so of late night, that has been a proud flag for Noah’s “Daily Show” to wave.

Which now brings up troubling questions about the future. In earlier times the departure of a major late-night star was the starting gun for a mad scramble among potential successors. And yes, the speculation game has already commenced: Maybe Wood moves up. Maybe Bee comes back. Maybe Comedy Central tries to woo Ruffin away.

Notably all those names would continue the breakthrough against the long-term White male dominance in late night, which Noah’s tenure more than validated as a priority.

And of course, someone else many of us have never even considered could be lurking under the radar, a largely unknown comic talent like Noah was in 2015.

But also lurking is an existential question: Is a host job in late night still the ultimate dream for an ambitious comic talent? You could not sell that idea the old-fashioned way: by looking at ratings. A piece in Forbes magazine last week noted that “The Daily Show” audience dropped to 383,000 this August, down 65% from Stewart’s final year.

Much of that is because what many people watch now is not television: It’s whatever-vision, entertainment by any means on any device. What’s on late night is now often seen on subscriptions – and not late at night.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested. 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” might be going away after Noah leaves (he left his exit date uncertain) is likely miles off base. More than ever, TV is about sustaining established brands. “The Daily Show” is the biggest 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 would seem folly to walk away from “The Daily Show.”

The fundamental problem is a familiar and daunting one: How do you replace a really special talent?