Opinion: Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show' departure hints at deeper problems in late night TV
Looking back, this moment may have been inevitable.
Delivering the news almost as an aside while talking about his seventh anniversary as host of Comedy Central's news parody program The Daily Show, comic and author Trevor Noah surprised his audience by announcing Thursday he would soon leave the job.
"I realized there's another part of my life that I want to ... carry on exploring," he said halfway through the show; Comedy Central had been working with him for a while to balance the show's demanding production schedule. "I miss learning other languages. I miss going to other countries and putting on shows. I miss just being everywhere, doing everything."
Comedy Central issued a statement praising Noah and noting there is no definitive timetable for his departure, saying they are working together on next steps — lending the sense his announcement surprised them, too.
Despite hints about the show's workload and his fondness for standup comedy, Noah also had increasingly looked like a performer whose promise and abilities were growing beyond the steady grind of a late-night show on Comedy Central.
And more than any departure from the genre announced so far – from the firing of Samantha Bee to the quitting of Desus and Mero and impending exit of James Corden – Noah's goodbye could send the most dire signals yet about the future of late night TV.
A standout performance
I saw it most clearly sitting in the audience of the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, watching Noah deftly thread an impossible needle. He had to tell jokes sharp enough to resonate with his savvy audience of journalists and politicos, but not so cutting that they seemed nasty or ill-intentioned. And from my spot in the room, he scored tremendously, relying on a quick wit and ready charm to leaven even his sharpest jabs.
He managed to sound even-handed while chiding us American journalists to produce work worthy of the press freedoms we have. "Ask yourself this question: If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods and their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing — if they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories, or to ask any questions, if they had basically what you have, would they be using it in the same way that you do?"
It was a career-making performance, I thought. The only question: What kind of career is Noah building?
In the traditional showbiz world, one possible next step for Noah would be a network TV gig, offering a bigger paycheck, wider audience and greater exposure. And there's a job coming open: Corden announced that sometime next year he's leaving his perch hosting The Late Late Show on CBS, a corporate cousin of Comedy Central.
But in an odd way, moving to that program might seem like a demotion for Noah. It's later in the evening in a spot where he would always be No. 2 to the network's primary late night host, Stephen Colbert. Since ABC's host Jimmy Kimmel just re-upped for three more years and all the top dog late night hosts are relatively young, taking Corden's gig might require Noah to wait an awfully long while for his shot at the big job.
That's all bad news for late night TV, which really needs a host like Noah; a talented, biracial, South African comedian who filled some of the biggest shoes in the business when he took over The Daily Show from venerated host Jon Stewart.
Slowly and with a consistent, relentless creativity, Noah and his team reshaped the program to feature a younger, more diverse and internationalist perspective, feeling more like the future of the medium than anything on the Big Three broadcast networks.
Succeeding by following a TV legend
Noah took over The Daily Show in September 2015. Back then, he was a 31-year-old rising star who had appeared on the show a handful of times before his hiring was announced.
He survived a scandal before he even appeared on camera as host – centered on terrible jokes about Jewish people, women's bodies and their weight that he had posted on Twitter years earlier. In his first episode as host, Noah joked about reports that better-known celebrities like Chris Rock had turned down the job by cracking "once more, a job Americans rejected, is now being done by an immigrant."
One of my favorite early bits of his was a commentary comparing Donald Trump, then an outlandish candidate for president, to some of the more infamous African presidents, like Uganda's Idi Amin and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe – in some cases, showing how they use the exact same words to brag about themselves and put down rivals.
He even remixed the show's theme song, debuting a new take produced by Timbaland and King Logan in early 2016, amping up the rock flavor and adding a percolating, club-friendly beat.
Jon Stewart had turned The Daily Show into a serious player by grounding the show's humor in real news events, pointing out the radicalization of the Republican party, the hypocrisy of the Democratic party and the cluelessness of news media which too often failed to expose either.
Noah seemed to enjoy finding unexpected takes on issues, avoiding traditional U.S. partisanship while exploring deeply issues affecting people of color and expanding the show's online footprint. The show incorporated his facility with accents and impressions; when he began recording the program from home during the pandemic lockdowns, they added jokes with graphic images superimposed on his face that have continued.
Even his discussions with the audience during commercial breaks were turned into an online feature called "Between the Scenes."
His profile was growing outside of the show as well. His 2016 memoir Born a Crime – referencing how, as the child of a white father and black mother born in Apartheid-era South Africa, his parents' relationship was illegal – became a New York Times bestseller. He hosted the Grammy awards, has continued standup comedy tours and appeared in films like Black Panther.
Now he's ready for something new that doesn't include regularly hosting The Daily Show, stepping down as the most prominent non-white host in late night. If he doesn't find another perch in the genre, the industry will be all the worse for it.
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