Today’s announcement that the 31-year-old South African comedian Trevor Noah will be taking over from Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show is an indication of just how much the network has changed since Stewart came on.
When Stewart began his run as the host of The Daily Show in 1999, he had already been both a host on MTV and in conversations about potential gigs on network TV; his reputation as an ambitious rising star was so cemented that it was the basis of a plotline on the fictional talk show The Larry Sanders Show. Compare that to Noah, who doesn’t just look different from the typical late-night host as a relatively young man, and as a person of color; he’s also emerged from relative obscurity, and done so quickly. The success of The Daily Show has emboldened Comedy Central, over the past decade or so, to take more and more risks across the rest of its schedule. Now, that risk-taking has spread back to The Daily Show itself.
Comedy Central is, after all, the network where Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s outré, often vulgar, and deeply hilarious humor found a home after FX passed; it’s lately provided homes to Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and, in his first significant on-camera work, Larry Wilmore. All of these are people who don’t just look different from the comedy stars on other networks, but who had been working in obscurity, or just behind-the-scenes, rather than brought in as a ringer. (Key and Peele, for instance, worked for the low-wattage and critically derided MADtv, rather than the more glamorous, and more reliably star-making, Saturday Night Live.)
Those who had hoped the likes of Amy Poehler would take over The Daily Show discounted both how unattractive such a job would likely be for a superstar and how Comedy Central has, lately, used its airtime to establish stars, rather than using established stars to juke its viewership. And though Noah’s start date hasn’t even been announced yet, his employment already makes recent hirings of SNL-minted on-camera stars to host NBC’s late-night offerings seem dully over-familiar. Between Noah and James Corden, the famous-overseas new host of CBS’s The Late Late Show, TV talk finally has, again, the high-wire sense of careers potentially being made.
The choice of Noah, who’s only appeared on The Daily Show three times, is a major statement of faith in his charisma and wit. It’s, more importantly, a declaration of faith in the established processes that underpin The Daily Show (its writing staff and booking team), and the show’s power to draw viewers over and above Stewart’s fanbase. Comedy Central built one of television’s defining franchises under Stewart. Now, in a too-rare show of support for their program’s drawing power, they’re handing the keys to a nascent star and trusting the show will survive. It may be a bold move, but if history is any indication, it’s likely to pay off.