Review: Trevor Noah’s bombshell was almost predictable

Editor’s note: Bill Carter, a CNN media analyst, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years and has written four books on television, including “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. see more reviews on CNN


I was really surprised when I learned last week that Trevor Noah would be stepping down as host of “The Daily Show” after a seven-year run marked by an impressive comedic stint and growing popularity.

I mean, I was shocked for about five minutes. Then I remembered a few conversations I had with Noah, first about his initial reluctance to join “The Daily Show,” and his career overview, which revealed that he takes a much more American-centric world view of things. than Just what you’d expect from the typical host of a US satirical news show.

It was also a more recent and undeniable seismic shift in what was once a prominent world of late-night television that excited almost everyone.

Taking all of this into account, Noah’s decision – if not his exact timing – seemed almost predictable.

Not so long ago the definition of late night TV was broad and easily understood and appreciated: from 11pm with a charismatic host, some comedy, a panel, a guest or two, maybe a band and then “Good night”. , everyone!”

Even the field of television held up well to the winds of change. So much so that in the face of the accelerated erosion of linear TV due to cord-cutting and the flight of streaming, new late-night shows were being added across the landscape: “Desus & Mero” and “Ziwe” on Showtime, “The Amber.” Ruffin Show” at the Peacock. Even Fox News got in on the act with “Gutfeld!” with a mix of comedy and right-wing agitprop.

That was then. In recent months, the night picture has become covered in static.

Desus Nice and The Kid Mero broke up over the summer, abruptly ending their Showtime series (no other legend than David Letterman called it “the future of late night” when he was a guest on the show). Ziwe Fumudoh, continued. The Showtime duo has new episodes starting Nov. 18, but their show has yet to be renewed for a third season.

Critically acclaimed Amber Ruffin is back on the Peacock, but is 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 that he will leave 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 operating four nights a week since 1996. Jon Stewart achieved must-see in his 16-year career. He and the show won 11 consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Variety Talk Series.

That was one reason the 1,000-watt klieg lights were aimed at Noah when he landed the role of host in 2015. He was a virtual unknown in the US, and hardly established a profile as a program correspondent. And, as he told me for the documentary series “The Story of Late Night,” Stewart twice turned down personal offers for a role on the show.

How coveted was such an offer? Just ask Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and “The Daily Show” alumni. It was a star-making vehicle rivaled only by “Saturday Night Live.”

But Noah had another beat in his mind from the start. He wanted to recast the show with a broader comedic perspective that looked more at the world, rather than the United States, according to Noah’s South African-born global perspective.

It was a wise choice. Following Stewart was always going to be a potential challenge. Noah took over and remade the show to his specifications.

A major sign of this was how diverse the show became. Noah’s cohorts have provided comic talent across racial, ethnic, and gender lines: Roy Wood Jr., Ronny Chieng, Dulcé Sloan, and Noah himself represent the high point of minority representation among established late-night shows.

Given the incredible representation of minorities and women that marked the night’s first 60 years, that’s been Noah’s “Daily Show” proud flag-waving.

This now raises troubling questions about the future. Earlier in the night, the departure of a major star was the starting gun in a mad battle between potential successors. And yes, the speculation game has already begun: Maybe Wood will move up. Maybe Bee will come back. Maybe Comedy Central tries to get rid of Ruffin.

Notably, all of these names would continue their progress against long-term white male supremacy overnight, which Noah’s tenure has validated as a priority.

And of course, someone else that many of us never thought might be lurking under the radar, an unknown comic talent like Noah in 2015.

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

A big part of that is because what many people watch now isn’t TV: it’s any viewing, any form of entertainment on any device. Today, what happens at night is often seen in the subscriptions, and not in the night.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested. The same Forbes article noted that “The Daily Show” has more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube, a huge number.

So any suggestion that “The Daily Show’s” Noah will leave (leaving his departure date in doubt) is likely miles off base. More than ever, television is about sticking to established brands. “The Daily Show” is Comedy Central’s biggest. (“South Park” is still on, but much less frequently.) If networks are bringing back “Quantum Leap,” “The Equalizer” and “The Mole,” it seems crazy to walk away from “The Daily Show.”

The basic problem is familiar and daunting: how to replace a special talent?