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Finding a new host for The Daily Show wasn’t on anyone’s to-do list at Comedy Central. Not anytime soon, anyway. That changed Sept. 29, as the face of the network’s late night franchise, Trevor Noah, revealed on air that he’d be stepping down after seven years in the role. Until then, executives including Noah’s boss, MTV Entertainment Group CEO Chris McCarthy, who’d had lunch with Noah the previous day, believed he would be staying put at least through the 2023-24 season. After all, he had re-upped his eight-figure deal for two more years at parent company Paramount Global in June. Then, in a stunning twist, Noah announced that he was done.
“We were completely shocked,” says one high-ranking insider, with others there acknowledging they’d watched Noah’s signoff with mouths agape. The South African comedian, who gathered his staff after the show to discuss what he clearly didn’t feel comfortable sharing before, is said to be eager to spend more time on tour and building out his Day Zero production company. “I feel like it’s time,” he told viewers, noting how clarifying the pandemic had been. If all goes as Noah hopes, he’ll be off the show by the year’s end.
To many in Hollywood, it was the latest reminder, albeit a particularly glaring one, that Comedy Central is no longer the comedy force it once was. In fact, plenty argue that the brand, formerly home to seminal hits like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, has been so dismantled, it’s barely in the comedy business at all. “Comedy Central never even comes up anymore,” says a prominent comedy producer. “It’s like no one takes pitches to them.” A scan of the network’s primetime lineup today consists largely of reruns of old, non-Comedy Central programming. And the company’s all-important streaming service, Paramount+, hasn’t provided viewers a comedy home the way, say, Hulu has for FX.
To be sure, Comedy Central has struggled with talent retention for years, with the first exodus happening around Jon Stewart’s Daily Show departure. At that time, the company was being run by then-Viacom chief Philippe Dauman, who’d famously offered the network and its stars little by way of resources or cross-company opportunities. Still, the late 2019 ousting of Comedy Central president Kent Alterman, who’d made do on a strong reputation and long-standing relationships in the comedy community, is often cited as “the beginning of the end” for Comedy Central. His No. 2, Sarah Babineau, and the remainder of their programming team were booted some six months later.
In the nearly three years since, McCarthy, a Wharton MBA who came up through unscripted at Viacom, has ushered Comedy Central out of the live-action, scripted comedy business. As part of the strategy overhaul, he’s also reversed renewals (Tosh.0, Drunk History), off-loaded series (South Side, The Other Two, both to HBO Max) and nixed deals, including one with producers Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello, who went on to create Emmy darling Hacks for HBO Max. “There’s more DNA of Comedy Central on HBO Max than on Paramount+, which is crazy,” notes a comedy producer.
By all accounts, McCarthy is focused on adult animation instead, with a heavy emphasis on still gestating nostalgia plays like Ren & Stimpy, a Daria spinoff and an animated version of Everybody Hates Chris. (An exec was hired in summer 2020 to run a centralized adult animation unit for the MTV Entertainment Group.) South Park remains a programming priority, and a new animated project from its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is said to be in the works.
Depending on who in town you ask, McCarthy is either “a smart, thoughtful straight shooter” who’s executing a strategy that’s necessary in an increasingly challenged entertainment environment, or an “aloof bean counter” more interested in squeezing margins and pumping out press releases than in cultivating talent or hit shows. At one of his first all-hands meetings at Comedy Central, McCarthy allegedly was asked what his favorite show was, and, according to one employee present, he said he liked watching CNN. “He couldn’t think of one TV show,” offers the still incredulous source.
What’s become clear is that McCarthy isn’t interested in playing the traditional Hollywood game. While he’s said to have forged a good relationship with Noah — though some question how good, if Noah couldn’t trust him with his news over lunch 24 hours before going public with it — he’s spent very little time wooing talent or their representatives. “At least David Zaslav did the tour when he took over,” snipes an agency partner, referring to the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO’s series of get-to-know-you meetings and meals, which preceded a string of cuts and cancellations.
Nevertheless, McCarthy is committed to keeping The Daily Show the keystone of Comedy Central, which is why Noah’s announcement hit as hard as it did. Though the show’s viewership has plummeted in seven seasons from 1.09 million night-of viewers and a 0.44 rating among the 18-49 demographic to 384,000 viewers and an 0.11 rating, it maintains a massive social footprint and, in the first half of 2022 alone, generated nearly $25 million in advertising revenue, per Kantar. According to sources close to production, McCarthy made clear to Noah that the company would be willing to accommodate his schedule so that Noah could pursue other projects and “feel creatively energized.” In fact, over lunch, the two had even discussed the prospect of having his Daily Show correspondents fill in for him in different weeks. Now those same correspondents’ names will come up as possible full-time replacements for Noah.
Though the precise timeline of Noah’s Daily Show departure was still being hammered out at press time, he continues to have plenty of business at parent company Paramount Global, where he has both a deal and a joint venture through his Day Zero productions. There’s a podcast, for instance, and a growing collection of films in development, at least some of which he will now have the time and bandwidth to star in. But on Sept. 30, a day after announcing his Daily Show exit, Noah had moved on. In fact, that night, he stood before a packed audience in Toronto, filming his next hour of comedy. Fittingly, it will be available on Netflix rather than Comedy Central.
This story appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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