Trevor Noah is leaving The Daily Show, and all I can say is: Desus and Mero, you broke up too soon.
Noah announced last week that he will soon relinquish the reins after seven years as host. Already there is speculation about The Daily Show’s future, and not just about who his successor will be. Ratings aren’t that great, with Noah pulling in about the same number of viewers as Samantha Bee did when her show Full Frontal was canceled by TBS this summer. Comedy Central is The Daily Show’s home base, and like all basic-cable channels it has been slowly strangling as millions of cable subscribers cut the cord and go all-in with streaming.
If, like me, you can’t remember the last time you watched a full episode of The Daily Show, maybe that’s because the era of the topical chat show on cable has passed. You couldn’t find an abler, funnier host than Trevor Noah, whose South African perspective provided just the contrast that was needed after 16 years with Jon Stewart at the helm. And yet Noah leaves behind a thin legacy at The Daily Show. The format is basically the same as when he took over seven years ago, and in that time, the competition has grown. There are other places to get exactly the kind of spin on the news that Noah dishes out four times a week.
If this is the beginning of the end for The Daily Show, it’s a sad conclusion for the show that made all other late-night shows pay more attention to the news. But it doesn’t have to be — given the low-stakes nature of cable and streaming TV, there’s no reason The Daily Show can’t reinvent itself again. It's already been reimagined at least twice since Comedy Central executive Doug Herzog hatched the idea for a nightly satirical newscast in the mid-1990s.
Version one was basically a spoof of local news. The brainchild of Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, The Daily Show debuted in 1996 with Craig Kilborn behind the desk. Kilby, a former SportsCenter anchor, was a glib presence and an underrated interviewer. But he bored easily and found the format — mostly parodies of feature stories, celebrity news and other TV tropes — confining.
Version two, under new host Jon Stewart, carried over the old Daily Show format, but shifted to more political stories. Soon his sharp-elbowed style had transformed The Daily Show from fluffy satire to a report about Things That Mattered. Morning news programs played clips from The Daily Show. Stewart picked up key allies like ABC’s Peter Jennings, who said his own children preferred watching Stewart read the headlines. He interviewed newsmakers and influencers. And he used his power as a TV personality to attack the insurgent Fox News Channel.
As Stewart became more comfortable with his status within the news ecosphere, the show that once mocked itself as “the most important television show … ever!” started to act that way. Version three of The Daily Show became infatuated with the idea that it was the watchdog of the right. Its tone shifted, becoming, in the words of Kilborn-era Daily Show correspondent Brian Unger, “more paternalistic than journalistic.” Yet one could see Stewart chafing inside the show’s satirical format. It wasn’t surprising that he left it behind to pursue political causes, or that he later returned to TV to make a deadly dull and partisan Apple TV+ show.
But that was the format that was bequeathed to Trevor Noah in 2015. Much has changed since then — Donald Trump, for one thing, happened, and his presidency underscored issues of racism and nationalism that Noah could uniquely address. But how do you do that inside a format that was originally designed to mock your local Eyewitness News? Noah tried to adapt by introducing a segment where he talks to his studio audience, without notes or punchlines. It was nice, but it was mostly an appendage to a show dominated by jokes and interviews.
Compare that with what happened when John Oliver, one of The Daily Show’s most popular correspondents, left to star in a show at HBO. Oliver ignored both the news-parody and variety-talk formats when creating Last Week Tonight, which has gone on to win multiple Emmys and is popular on YouTube and HBO Max as well. With a weekly, single-topic program, Oliver has the luxury of choosing his subject in advance, giving his researchers and writers time to develop a show-length monologue that’s perfectly tailored to his delivery style. Trevor Noah, by contrast, is host of something called The Daily Show — a title that reflects its 20th-century origins, back when nightly ratings were still a thing and people were starved for late-night entertainment. And the job description hasn’t changed in two decades: react caustically to the day’s headlines, then chat with a celeb (or politician).
It’s easy for right-wing commentators to blame the show’s 75 percent ratings decline on Noah’s support of Democrats, but the more obvious reason is that in an on-demand world, there are now many ways to get your anti-MAGA fix. Seth Meyers’s nightly feature “A Closer Look” on his NBC Late Night show is sharper and more addictive (as evidenced by its high YouTube counts). One of Meyers’ writers, Amber Ruffin, has found her own sweetly satirical voice on Peacock. She could be in line for the Daily Show job, as could any one of the talented hosts of political and comedy podcasts out there. Podcasting, after all, gave us the Bodega Boys, who crossed over and became Desus and Mero on Showtime.
Because it is on basic cable, and because much of its audience has vanished, The Daily Show is not the premier gig it used to be. This will make it harder for Comedy Central executives, now that they’ve recovered from Noah’s surprise announcement, to land the right person as his successor. Which is why it’s imperative that they give the next host and their team the freedom to do what Noah and his team weren’t able to do — a total refresh of a show that has barely changed since the Bill Clinton era.
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.