On Monday, Comedy Central announced that the new host of “The Daily Show,” who will replace Jon Stewart when he leaves sometime within the next year, is a thirty-one-year-old comedian from South Africa named Trevor Noah. For most Americans, and even many regular viewers of “The Daily Show,” the name was unfamiliar. Noah made his first appearance as the show’s “senior international correspondent” in December, and since then he has made just two additional appearances—meaning that, among the stable of correspondents who now host or will soon host their own shows (Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Samantha Bee), Noah’s rise has surely been the most expeditious.
Though it is not necessarily precipitous: Noah has hosted shows on both radio and television in South Africa, and he has a big international following—the kind of person you’ve never heard of who also has two million followers on Twitter. Noah may also be unique among serious candidates, if the trade gossip is to be believed, in that he wants the job at all. Taking over “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart may be an even more daunting prospect than what Colbert faces in succeeding Letterman at CBS: no one thinks that Colbert will do top-ten lists or stupid pet tricks, but viewers of “The Daily Show” will expect the show’s essential political and comedic identity to remain in place. There is reason to put faith in the show’s machine of writers and producers, which has, with Stewart’s help, created its own impressive star system. But the question is not only whether Noah will succeed in the role but whether “The Daily Show” can, or even should, continue to exist without Jon Stewart. Stewart, for his part, thinks so: his short endorsement of Noah, issued to the Times, ended with three exclamation points.
Will Noah turn out to be three-exclamation-point worthy? We won’t know for a while, and by then it will be too late to speculate wildly on whether he can adequately cover and skewer an American election, or whether this marks an attempt to internationalize “The Daily Show,” or why Comedy Central didn’t replace Stewart with a woman. The network’s announcement, and the media’s response, was not entirely unlike what happened the previous Monday, when Ted Cruz announced that he was running for President. Both announcements made the top of the Times’ Web site and were greeted with a flurry of explainers and comments on their long-shot status. By Tuesday morning, as happens to many upstart political candidates, Noah’s past comments were coming back to haunt him: online, people have begun calling out old tweets for apparent sexism and anti-Semitism. As the journalist Mark Harris joked, “Trevor Noah’s advance team should have known this was coming when he decided to run for President.”
These days, the most interesting thing about late-night television is the one thing that it has in common with a Presidential election: the race to fill an open chair. And in both governance and late night, once the work begins many people lose interest.
The stories around late night have long been more compelling than the shows themselves. It is high-stakes corporate warfare mixed with Greek tragedy; Jay Leno hiding in a closet and Letterman stabbed in the back; and Conan O’Brien, years later, being chased into a comedy wilderness. These behind-the-scenes stories were several degrees more interesting than the monologues and celebrity patter that went on in front of the camera—the drama produced by the personalities was mostly incommensurate with the banality of their profession. (It was telling when New York reported that, “according to a high-level source,” Brian Williams had lobbied to replace David Letterman.)
This vision of late night has persisted long after the significance of the shows themselves has eroded. The days of a few network gatekeepers is long gone; the most interesting comedy is happening elsewhere, on all kinds of platforms; and the number of viewers, even for a successful franchise like “The Tonight Show,” are a slim percentage of those from the glory days. As Emily Nussbaum wrote last year, the late-night genre is mostly dull, and has been for years. Monologue, sketches, remote pieces, banter, music. “The Daily Show” may not be a typical talk show, but it is still a place where famous people go to promote things. And yet at some point we decided to think of late-night shows as venerable civic institutions.
In the rounds of high-profile late-night reshuffling during the past few years, a pattern has emerged: after a host announces his impending retirement, some months in the future, speculation mounts as to who is on the short list to replace him, with the discussion quickly becoming not about what comedian will be chosen but exactly what kind of comedian will be chosen—namely, what that person’s gender, ethnicity, and sexuality will be, or what it should be. Then the replacement is named, and the color of his skin or his accent, or the fact that he is yet again, maddeningly, another man, is immediately cause for a new round of comment and analysis.
When Jon Stewart said that he was leaving, last month, there was a push among fans for Comedy Central to name a woman as his replacement. It was high time, generally, and it made specific sense for the “The Daily Show,” where correspondents like Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams were smart, funny, popular, and obviously as capable of reading from a teleprompter as their male colleagues. (Williams, who is twenty-five, responded to a draft campaign from fans by saying she was “under-qualified” for the job. She has, it may be worth nothing, been on the show more than three times.) Outside the show’s staff, the names suggested included Aisha Tyler, Amy Schumer, and even Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
The show’s producers and the network’s executives surely knew that many fans wanted them to name a woman as host. Yet, as Joy Behar told the Daily Beast, of Noah, “I never heard of him…. But he’s a guy—and that is the only thing you have to know.” The choice might be evidence for any number of things, some malicious and some benign. Perhaps the executives caved to some imagined silent majority of men who they believe would stop watching the show if they put a woman behind the desk. Or maybe they tried to recruit a woman, failed, and settled instead on Noah. This kind of speculation is perhaps a fair way to pass the time—and it is certainly discouraging to think that high-powered entertainment executives might hesitate at all to hand a popular program to a female host. But when we talk about storming the gates, it’s worth remembering what’s on the other side. In this case, it’s a talk show.
There is real dissonance between the energy that the culture expends in discussing late-night television and the actual enthusiasm that it brings to watching it. I was reminded of this last year when, while feeling sad that Stephen Colbert was leaving Comedy Central, I realized that I hadn’t watched a full episode of his show in years. It was simply knowing that he was there, and perhaps seeing the occasional segment of the show on Twitter or Facebook, that was comforting. That latter platform, in particular, may be relevant here. As these shows attract fewer viewers, late-night hosts become like your Facebook friends: you hear about them a lot, and catch stray details from their lives, but you rarely schedule time to see them.