What Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show' Hiring Means for Late-Night TV

On race, gender, opportunity and whether an audience will embrace change.
Comedy Central

In the spirit of the channel, a satirical congratulations to Comedy Central for bungling an opportunity to not only put a second African-American into a late night chair, but also a female, when it ill-advisedly passed over the wonderfully talented Aisha Tyler.

It’s another exasperating whiff for Comedy Central which, in a half-step forward for change, hired young, biracial South African comic Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show.

The move comes only (mumble, mumble) years after Comedy Central had hired Stephen Colbert, who is even whiter than Stewart, to host The Colbert Report. And as Colbert would no doubt say if he were asked to comment in character on Noah’s hiring: “He wasn’t even born in this country.”

OK, well, you get it.

We are now free to marvel at the fact that, with Noah as host of The Daily Show, which leads into The Nightly Show, hosted by former Daily Show “senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore, television now has two black late-night hosts back-to-back. Or as Chris Rock said on Twitter: “Thank you president Obama.”

And if you’re wondering whether we even have to talk about Noah’s hiring in these terms yes. Yes we do.

Because we’re not yet at a point in our culture and society where race doesn’t matter. Even in 2015, we just don't have the luxury of first discussing Noah’s greenness as a performer and host, and second his blackness.

The fact is that it’s a significant moment: viewers will see Noah for a half hour and then Wilmore for a half hour, and not some kind of business-as-usual, white-guy-follows-white-guy scenario. It may annoy some that focusing on race is “still a thing,” but it is. In a television season marked by surprising movements and even more surprising successes for diversity, yes, two black late-night hosts on Comedy Central is going to get noticed as part of an encouraging pattern.

This television season, we’ve seen ABC score hits with Black-ish (where Wilmore was involved as executive producer before scoring the slot formerly occupied by Colbert); Fresh Off the Boat, with its predominantly Asian cast; and Cristela, which is largely Hispanic.

The Noah hiring is another diversity success story, and should be duly noted.

It does, however, bring up a few issues. And the primary one has to do with the joke at the top, which really isn’t a joke if you think about it.

Why not Tyler? Why not a woman?

Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless told The Hollywood Reporter that she, Viacom Music and Entertainment head Doug Herzog and Stewart oversaw the hiring process, and did consider a woman for the slot. “We talked to women. We talked to men. And the more we talked to Trevor, the more we realized he was the best person for the job,” Ganeless said.

Read more Comedy Central's President on Why Trevor Noah Was Chosen as the Next 'Daily Show' Host (Q&A)

Of course, this is the perfect opportunity for someone tired of political correctness and the constant discussion of minority representation on TV to say: “See, sometimes checking off a box is not as important as hiring the best person for the job.” And given the desire of a segment of the TV-viewing public to see a woman get one of these prominent, high-profile jobs, it would be hard to imagine that Stewart, who champions the underdog, wouldn’t have at least considered how important such a hiring would be. Not to mention Ganeless, herself a woman.

So, yes, even on a day when one underdog gets a sweet gig, another does not. It’s less about an either-or choice here than it is about change being necessary and constant across the spectrum of under-represented groups. It’s why we’re having this conversation in the first place. It’s why it matters.

Moving on, the question now becomes Noah’s inexperience and relative lack of name recognition — relative because, as Ganeless noted in the THR interview, Noah’s got massive social media recognition/followers. That doesn’t always translate into ratings, as other massively popular people on social media who get TV shows can tell you in droves. But it probably can’t hurt.

The inexperience factor may also be less of an issue than it’s being made out to be. The Daily Show is one of those proverbial well-oiled machines. You can’t just stick anyone in there and expect the new host to find chemistry with the audience, of course, but by all accounts Noah is a likable, funny and quick-on-his-feet comedian who can be agile in his humor and suss out the pulse of the room (and by extension, the viewer) with alacrity — which sounds an awful lot like Stewart and the tools in his tool kit.

And, really, is Noah any riskier than new Late, Late Show host James Corden on a cable channel? Inexperience and lack of name recognition are minor stumbling blocks. In fact, such a thing was a far bigger deal with Conan O’Brien and what he went through at NBC in 1993 than it is in 2015. The audience and expectations evolve. It’s what brings us to these moments in the first place.

So we’ll see if an audience finds and embraces Noah. The likelihood of that is very good. There’s loyalty for The Daily Show to a degree much greater than there is for, say, The Late, Late Show on CBS. But Corden won over critics with his affable charm and his talents, and he’ll be given a long leash to draw in an audience as well. The same applies to Noah who, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, faces the unenviable task of replacing one of television’s legendary talents.

At least no one is expecting him to be Jon Stewart, who was one of a kind. Noah just has to be himself – and the audience will wait to see who that is, and judge accordingly.

And yes, it’s a big day for diversity and for Comedy Central. But it’s a bigger day for a 31-year-old who just got the chance of a lifetime. That’s pretty cool, too.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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