- Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin
The Daily Show is Back!
Perhaps the first quarter of 2023 has been such an easy time to be a late-night comedian with the Chinese spy balloons, George Santos, Ron DeSantis, all those Fox News texts, and Tucker Carlson bringing new meaning to the word “brazen” in his editing and description of January 6th videos that anybody could host The Daily Show successfully, but D.L. Hughley, Leslie Jones, and Chelsea Handler are not anybodies. After the departure of Trevor Noah, viewers might have wondered if anyone could fill the chair, just as they wondered if Jon Stewart could replace Craig Kilborn, but it is undeniable that TDS headlined by a roster of guest hosts is currently as fresh as ever and has become essential viewing for fans of late-night topical comedy.
The success of so many of the guest hosts (eight so far since the start of the year) points to the strength of the show itself. Fans of The Grand Old Opry, Reggae Sun Splash, or The Last Waltz of The Band know that if you have a great house band, writing, and arranging, a lot of singers will sound like superstars. This formula has recently been delivering enduring success for American Idol and The Voice. So, director David Paul Mayer, head writer Dan Amira, and dozens of other
writers and segment producers who can find the funny in the torrent of tragedies and outrages that make up television and cable television news broadcasts, created a blueprint that has helped Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and the latest guest hosts to be funny, smart, and culturally forward night after night. And then there are the supporting cast members who provide continuity with the TDS of the Trevor Noah era, called “correspondents”: Dulse Sloan, Roy Wood Jr., Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, Ronnie Chang and occasionally distinguished alums like Jordan Klepper. The correspondents gallop in like the cavalry to save the host if they are struggling, or more often to join the host in elevating the first block to a higher level -- except in those cases where the first and only guest is President Joe Biden interviewed by Kal Penn who may have reminded viewers, once or twice, that he had worked in the White House when President Obama lived there.
The rotating hosts have been good, very good, or excellent. When Sarah Silverman concluded her “Long Story Short” segment on political polarization with the contention that false manufactured outrage had become so essential to the political money chase that Marjorie Taylor Green blocked a bill that would have required fact checking for fundraising emails, only to reveal the claim was false and the audience’s disappointment proved her point, we thought, “OK, you can stop the experiment. This is the Daily Show host we have been waiting for.” But then Hasan Minhaj (after telling us Jon Stewart had been mispronouncing his name throughout his tenure as a correspondent) got into a freewheeling viciously combative exchange with Ronnie Chang over whether Indian Americans are Asian Americans, and we said, “let’s keep this experiment going!” And that is a large part of what is making The Daily Show seem so fresh in 2023; the rotating hosts bring a constant insertion of new energy and the mystery of the unknown. With just four episodes to make an impression, each new host is looking for that soul bearing moment of self-deprecation to make their connection with the audience.
The hosts have offered an impressive representation of diversity with respect to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and importantly age, and this has real advantages. When the issue leading the news on one particular Monday was the release of the footage showing the beating of Tyre Nichols, they had D.L. Hughley, Roy Wood Jr., Ben Crump, and Ibram X. Kendi on the show to discuss it. These are the people you want to hear from, and this was all in just one episode. These were not “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” And lest one worry that this spectacular show of diversity means white men need not apply, fear not. Former Senator and Saturday Night Live Alum Al Franken takes over the anchor chair this week.
There is one question facing The Daily Show and all the other late-night topical comedy programs, not on an episode-by-episode basis but joke-by-joke. The question is to what degree is the show uniting America by giving us a chance to laugh at ourselves, and to what degree is the show dividing America by giving us a chance to laugh at each other. In the old formula of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno the monologues tried to be equal opportunity offenders, insulting Presidents and politicians of both parties with roughly the same frequency. As America polarized, all late-night, led by Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, took sides with the left reflecting urban progressive values in rants and satire lampooning conservatives and, on more than a few occasions, mocking residents of red-state America.
By the time Donald Trump entered the White House, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon and TDS alum Stephen Colbert, now at the center of network late-night comedy, abandoned any pretext of balance as their audiences self-selected to be as reliably young, urban, and urbane as the Fox News Channel was old and conservative two hours earlier in the evening. We took an extended journey through towns like Culpepper VA, Huntington WV, Lexington KY, and Nashville and Chattanooga TN, and in conversations in bars and coffeehouses we learned even red and purple state Democrats were offended by and tuning out the late-night derision. If America is to heal from the divisiveness of the Trump/Fox News era, late-night comedy has a crucial role to play.
There is clear evidence The Daily Show and all of late-night comedy understands this challenge, even if the degree of difficulty is high and the road to winning back a more politically diverse audience will be long and treacherous. From late 2017 to early 2019, Sarah Silverman had a show on Hulu called “I Love You America” seeking comedic common ground. The Daily Show has always, and especially in this new iteration, been a leader in self-reflection, frank discussions of America’s political divisions, and in showing a willingness to joke about excess and intolerance on the left as well as the right. We see that The Daily Show is struggling to reach higher common ground, and we applaud the effort.