Monday marked the official start of the season for two venerable TV franchises, The Daily Show and Jeopardy! — and both showed off new studios. The Jeopardy! studio is in its usual location in Culver City, Calif., but it has gotten new window treatments, which is funny because it’s windowless. Also, the entire stage was renamed in honor of the late Alex Trebek, which is simply lovely. Of course we now know that the makeover won't stop there. After this week they’ll be saying so long to the host, Mike Richards, who was fired after taping just five episodes of the new season.
But that drama has been in the news so it wasn’t much of a surprise. More intriguing was the reveal of a brand-new studio for The Daily Show in Times Square. Trevor Noah, who’s been hosting the show since late March 2020 from his apartment, opened by standing on his balcony and informing his neighbors of the impending change, telling them that he's going to miss them. (One yelled back, “How about you miss shutting the f**ck up?”)
And then came the big, popping graphics, the banging theme song, the bellowing announcer, and with the excitement at its peak, we cut to a wide shot of the new studio with the wildly cheering studio audience and … wait, what? No wide shot? No wildly cheering studio audience? Nope. Just the normal head shot of Noah that we’ve gotten used to over the past year and a half, wearing the same sweater top (a crew neck that the microphone turns into a V-neck).
Daily Show publicists swear that he’s taping at a new studio located at ViacomCBS's Times Square headquarters, although suspiciously they refused to let trade reporters visit the space or even confirm its whereabouts. Until someone can prove otherwise, I say Noah is still doing his show out of his apartment. I’m not being paranoid, mind you, just generous. Because the sad reality is that The Daily Show remains the same mirthless consciousness-raising seminar that it’s been throughout the pandemic.
And the main reason for that is that Trevor Noah needs an audience. Some people can just play to the camera. Craig Kilborn, the original Daily Show anchor, cut his teeth at SportsCenter and was arguably better without an audience than in front of one. Amber Ruffin was dynamite her first year on Peacock, hosting her comedy closet with a skeleton crew. But Noah isn’t like that.
Even more than the show’s most revered host, Jon Stewart, the South African expat built his reputation by entertaining roomfuls of people. You can have all the Emmy winners you want in the writing room, but the magic happens in real time with a call and response. That’s why the host of HBO’s Real Time, Bill Maher, agitated noisily to get back to the studio whatever it took. It’s why Jimmy Kimmel was willing to do his show in front of a sparse, socially-distanced audience of mostly Disney employees. Noah deserved better after three months away. Instead, he’s still talking to the wall — who cares if it’s got a fresh coat of acoustic paint?
Also not helping his cause was the decision to come back after a solid week of 9/11 remembrances. You could sense everyone on the show felt Noah had to open with something about 9/11 even though it would be the last topic anyone would want to revisit. Noah and his writers made solid choices, showing clips of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump debasing themselves during a solemn national observance. But there was little joy in the presentation. It was as though he was tossing off the required minimum number of burns before moving on.
Noah then quick-walked from the deep end of the pool to the shallow end for a story about Taco Bell's new recycling campaign. In one of those classic news items you think can’t possibly be true but then, who would make it up, Taco Bell is urging consumers to mail their used sauce packets back to the company for recycling. “People who eat at Taco Bell don’t care about the environment,” Noah joked, adding that if Taco Bell really wanted to keep sauce packets out of landfills they should hand out fewer of them: “I order one taco and I get enough mild sauce to waterboard it,” he said.
That’s the kind of classic smart take The Daily Show is known for, but it fell flat — as did the bit before that, and the ones before that. All the punchlines are going to fall flat until ViacomCBS puts some butts in those seats. Three days earlier on HBO, Bill Maher tried a joke out on his audience and, after a long half-second, they reacted. “I love that — thinking into applause,” he said. Maher can get testy with his audiences, but the pandemic proved he can’t function without one.
The Daily Show did have one highlight, when contributor Roy Wood Jr. stepped into the airless studio. The segment worked because Wood had an audience — Trevor Noah — and he spent the entire time trying to crack him up. Wood ranted about how COVID had become a metaphor for life, that even Kanye West’s new two-hour-long album was like a virus run amok. When Noah tried defending Kanye, Wood came alive. “That man tricked you all into listening to a podcast!” he bellowed. Noah, barely holding it together, objected that there were five genius tracks on the album. Wood shot back that if “you went through a piece of s**t you could find something edible.”
Sadly, after he left Noah was alone again, talking to the remote image of Dr. Anthony Fauci. I’m sure Dr. Fauci had useful things to say but … well, did you see the ending of that Raiders-Ravens game on Monday Night Football? Now there was a season premiere.
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah airs weeknights at 11:00 PM ET on Comedy Central.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.