At a Television Critics Association press conference on Sunday, TBS president Kevin Reilly spoke for many TV viewers when he said that he wants to “give Samantha Bee as many hours as she’d like” of her show Full Frontal. Reilly said there will be “expanded, hourlong” versions of Full Frontal “as the election progresses, as well as a more robust digital presence.” Good news. But it made me think about Bee’s alma mater, The Daily Show. Since she graduated from Jon Stewart’s institute of political humor, a new dean has moved in, but lots of us are cutting his classes. When was the last time you heard anyone talk about something they saw on The Daily Show?
It’s too bad that Trevor Noah, a likable TV personality, has not been able to impose his own style and substance on The Daily Show since taking over for Jon Stewart. He and his producers have retained much of the template Stewart developed — the opening desk rant, the use of mocking correspondents, the interview with a celebrity or politician — but he’s added almost nothing new.
Indeed, Noah has most frequently displayed what was always Stewart’s weakest flank: the latter’s tendency to resort to exaggerated outrage when analysis failed him. Sometimes Stewart’s rage was cathartic; more often, it was a canny comic dodge, because it prompted the audience to stop thinking and start cheering. Noah has become very good at dodging.
Take, for example, a show from last week, a week that The Daily Show should have dominated with pointed Democratic convention humor. During the main segment, Noah sought to compare Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He declared that there is no choice between the two, that Clinton is the only reasonable option. Yet Trump, said Noah, is “somehow leading in the polls … which baffles me.” Well, Noah, it’s baffling a lot of your viewers too. The difference is, you have a TV show about political matters, and you’re obliged to move beyond bafflement to an actual point of view. Expressing an exasperation your audience may feel can be, briefly, satisfying. Failing to offer some sort of alternative — anger that is somehow still entertainment, perhaps, or, even better and much preferred, carefully reasoned arguments stitched together as a piece of tough satire — suggests a fundamental failure of imagination.
The recent reunion of Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s Late Show was funny but also reminded us that the 11 p.m. Comedy Central spot remains a place where people still want to turn for an alternative to the network late-night jokiness that starts a half-hour later. I wish Noah could reinvent The Daily Show to achieve a sharper effect.
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah airs weeknights at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.