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Kal Penn's Joe Biden Interview Made Him a Worthy Daily Show Host Contender

The actor's experience with comedy and politics makes for a winning combination.
  • Joe Biden gives Kal Penn a tour of the Oval Office on The Daily Show.
    Joe Biden gives Kal Penn a tour of the Oval Office on The Daily Show.

    Ever since Trevor Noah announced his surprise departure from The Daily Show With Trevor Noah back in September 2022, there’s been a lot of speculation about who will take over next and how the structure of the show should change. Comedy Central itself seems unsure of the show’s future — since January 17, guest hosts have been taking over the show a week at a time, which could be part of each performer's ongoing audition for the permanent gig or a tactic to buy time for the network. So far those guest hosts have reached varying degrees of success, with Leslie Jones earning rave reviews as the first one out the gate while D.L. Hughley struggled to settle in. During the week of March 13, it’s Kal Penn’s turn on stage, and on his first night out he’s risen to the occasion.

    Penn is somewhat of a wild card in the current pool of guest hosts (and the show’s history of full-time hosts and correspondents for that matter). Every other person to take that role comes from a stand-up or improv background, with the one exception being the show’s original host, Craig Kilborn, and even he had 500 episodes as a Sportscenter correspondent under his belt before The Daily Show. Penn’s known as a comedic actor, but he’s always playing a part or in an ensemble. The experience that uniquely qualifies him for the position, however, is his stint in the White House as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011 — though he had to take a brief break from office to film A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas.

    That combination of experience in politics and ability to embrace comedy at its silliest proved to be a winning one for his first night as guest host of The Daily Show. Penn delivered the night’s headlines from the desk with charm, ease, and spot-on comedic timing. His excitement to be at the desk was palpable, but not in a way that overwhelmed his performance. Whereas Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show became known for its cynicism, an attitude that carried over to Noah’s tenure, Penn showed what a more hopeful version of the show might look like. That doesn’t mean that he played nice on all topics — he still slammed Donald Trump and Fox News correspondents blaming “woke” attitudes for the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, he just managed to do so with more joy than snark.

    Penn’s rookie outing was bolstered by his special guest: President Joe Biden. Biden’s last appearance on The Daily Show was in June 2020, and this sit-down with Penn marked his first time on the show since taking office. Biden’s familiarity with Penn served the interview well. There was no discomfort hanging in the air from the anticipation of a sharp comedic turn or “gotcha” question for the sake of a laugh. Biden was able to touch on a number of topics — the urgent need for legislation protecting trans rights, the impending disasters of climate change, how the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia compelled him to run for president — and connect with Penn on a personal level. It was a change of pace from the canned interviews and speeches that we’re used to seeing from the leader of our country, even on comedy shows like this one.

    On a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Penn wasn’t able to hide his desire for the full-time The Daily Show hosting job. “It is a dream job,” Penn said. “I have spent my career being humble and putting my head down and all that, but this is a job I want! I want people to know I want the job!” One night in, he’s proven himself to be a worthy contender.

    The Daily Show airs weeknights at 11:00 PM ET on Comedy Central. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Comedy Central, Joe Biden, Kal Penn