It used to be as simple and essential as water. For practically a decade, every night, from 11 pm to midnight, my DVR would record two television shows that—no hyperbole—truly helped me through some turbulent times.
Those shows were (duh) THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART
and THE COLBERT REPORT
: Razor sharp political and social satire served with acuity and élan, frequently angry, commonly rousing, and more cathartic to a frustrated lefty than anything else on the tube. Also, they were damn entertaining.
I usually watched THE DAILY SHOW
the next morning as a righteous kick start to my day. Over the years, I would burn particularly good segments and interviews to DVD-R compilations for which I would then make covers and re-watch frequently. When I would compile my annual “Best of” pop culture lists, those two shows were given perpetual top spots.
When Stephen Colbert announced his retirement in spring of 2014, I had a feeling that Jon Stewart wouldn’t be too far behind. THE DAILY SHOW
had nurtured so much talent that went on to, well, let’s face it, bigger (if not always better) things, that it had to have been a little frustrating for Stewart to remain in a state of stasis. Plus, while THE REPORT
never faltered creatively, TDS
had begun to show signs of age, humor giving way to anger on a more frequent basis, Stewart showing signs of fatigue. I was way more upset about Colbert leaving his post than Jon, even though Stephen’s departure from the tube was not going to be permanent.
Still, it was going to be hard to live without these shows. I could only hope that what followed would fill the void at least to a degree. And now that everything new is in place, it’s a mixed bag to say the least.
First came the disappointing THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE
, debuting in January, 2015. The former TDS
correspondent initially flailed about trying to settle into something new but not new. He chuckled awkwardly through semi-funny monologues, moderated an overstuffed, brief panel segment (that quickly and wisely cut the participants from four to three, but still left little time to have any true dialogue), and desperately tried to make a thing out of a segment called, “Keep it 100” (in which guests had to answer difficult questions honestly or suffer the punishment of having tea bags thrown at them). I like Wilmore, but the show mostly left me with the feeling that he works better as a supporting player than headlining a show. After about three months, I tuned out.
When Jon Stewart left THE DAILY SHOW
in August, and with THE NIGHTLY SHOW
long-deleted from my DVR, I had a hole to fill in my morning tee-vee routine. And so I started recording THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
on MSNBC. I’ve watched Rachel’s show off and on over the years, and always found her to be a smart, insightful, thoughtful steward of information (liberal slant taken for granted, and sung to this choir). But what made me want to watch regularly is that she often uses humor as part of her arsenal, at times evoking the same kind of smart sarcasm in which Stewart and Colbert trafficked. And while the show routinely feels like a half hour padded to an hour (Maddow spends as much time teasing segments as she does reporting them), it helped.
And then, finally, in September, our long national nightmare ended, and Stephen Colbert returned to late night TV as the new host of THE LATE SHOW
on CBS. And the first week… was fine. But it was just fine.
Like so many fans of Stephen Colbert (the real guy), I had high—undoubtedly too much so—hopes that he was going to bring something new to the late night talk show format. Most of the other hosts in the 11pm-2am time slot are certainly funny enough, but none of them are the renaissance man that Colbert is. He can crack jokes with the best of ‘em, but he can also improv, act, sing, dance, and, when the need arises, be serious and thoughtful.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. The format of THE LATE SHOW
and its ilk is pretty much set in stone: Monologue, comedy bit, a couple guests, a musical performance. Anything other than that isn’t really a late night talk show. But I wanted more. I wanted the real Stephen Colbert to be as essential as the fake one was… and he wasn’t (a few segments such as a recurring piece called “The Hat Has Spoken” felt like anachronistic odes to the Johnny Carson era of absurdist—but not that funny—humor).
But as the weeks progressed, something happened. While the show initially seemed a tad reluctant to spend too much time on politics and social issues, they began to creep in more prominently. The monologue shortened, and Stephen returned to doing more topical comedy at the desk with accompanying graphics (at times, Stephen even seemed to slip back into his old REPORT
character, no doubt a hard seven-year habit to break).
There’s also a charming elegance to the proceedings. Colbert may not be old enough to have watched THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW
, but he’s keenly aware of the variety show’s legacy of presenting all aspects of culture, high and low, and seems to revel in bringing some erudition to the affair.
Colbert has featured performances by Broadway stars, ballet dancers, classical artists, and more. He did a duet with James Corden
on the 1927 standard, “Me and My Shadow”… in short, he’s not afraid to be smart, demographic demands be damned. THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT
may not be as essential as THE COLBERT REPORT
, but it’s settled into a nice niche, and it’s the first of its kind that I’ve ever DVR’d.
Which brings us to the last and latest piece of the puzzle, THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH
. I had no preconceptions because, like, well, everyone, I knew next to nothing about the South African comedian tapped to replace Jon Stewart. I tried to keep an open mind. I tried to not compare (although that’s impossible). I tried to judge it on its merits. But by any measure, the new DAILY SHOW
is mostly… meh.
Unlike with Colbert’s new show, I wasn’t expecting a reinvention of TDS
. It doesn’t need it; it’s a perfect format. It’s all about the execution. And thus far, the execution has been excruciating to watch.
Trevor Noah… well, he’s pretty, to be sure (in fact, his dimples and gleaming smile are distracting), and has an exuberance that’s… no, actually, that’s a detriment. One of the things that made Jon Stewart so effective in his evisceration of the bullshit in our culture was his hard-earned weariness.
Trevor Noah possesses none of the gravitas required to shepherd us through the morass. He’s an excited puppy (his gushing over Seth Rogen was so sycophantic and misplaced that it even made Rogen uncomfortable). He’s anxious to please. But as a recent transplant to our shores, he comes across as being completely disconnected from the material.
Why Comedy Central tapped a foreign comedian to anchor a show about American politics is a mystery. One can only presume they were hoping he’d bring a fresh perspective to the material, but all he does is seem lost at sea (he even refers to America in the second person, emphasizing his lack of connection to what happens in this country). In fact, the only time Noah seems to slip into a comfortable groove is when he discusses issues of oppression or race, topics in which he’s well versed.
But most of the show just feels forced. Worse, it feels desperate. In stark contrast to Colbert’s embrace of high culture, TDS
wallows in pandering to the millennial audience it covets. A bit about virtual reality glasses
that place you in the middle of a symphony orchestra was played for ridicule, the main thrust of the bit being that classical music is boring.
A few of the people with whom I’ve discussed Noah’s TDS
have pointed out that neither Stewart nor Colbert were fully formed from the first show. While I dispute that claim for Colbert (the show was great from first to last episode), it’s true that it took some time for Jon Stewart to find his voice (we call it “9/11”). And maybe Trevor Noah will get better. I just don’t feel like sticking around to wait.
The lackluster correspondents don’t help. None of the leftovers from the final Stewart days ever clicked with me the way Carell, Colbert, Oliver, Cenac, or Jones did. Aasif Mandvi’s okay, and Al Madrigal has his moments, but Jordan Klepper and Hasan Minhaj have never made me laugh. Jessica Williams’ painful “I’m so young I don’t understand old stuff!” shtick that was just tiresome with Stewart has no traction with the 31 year-old Noah, so now she’s just awkwardly unfunny.
Of the new kids on the block, Ronny Chieng and Desi Lydec make me pine for the glory days of Vance DeGeneres (that’s sarcasm, Internet). But there is one bright spot: Roy Wood, Jr.
(who cut his teeth doing prank call CDs) is absolutely hilarious, a quick wit with the kind of goofy charm that made Steve Carell work so well on the show.
But Roy Wood’s infrequent appearances are not enough. I found myself slogging through THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH
, waiting for it to be over so I can delete it from my queue and move on with my life. And then it hit me (as it did with THE NIGHTLY SHOW
, THE STRAIN
, and FEAR THE WALKING DEAD
)…. I don’t HAVE to watch this show! And so, sadly (and perhaps prematurely), for the first time in almost twenty years, I stopped watching THE DAILY SHOW
Which leaves my morning routine in kind of disarray. Honestly, with my full work schedule as a “daytime bartender” (the quotes indicate a tale that I’ll share sometime), I don’t usually get to leisurely take in the previous night’s comedy / news mélange in one sitting. But when I do, it’s usually Maddow first (with a lotta fast forwarding past all the teases and interviews that lose me), then Colbert (likewise skipping interviews and musical guests that involve people in whom I have no interest).
Which is fine. But it indicates that I no longer have a nighttime show in which I’m 100% invested. And, sure, in the grand scheme of things, who cares, right? It’s just TV.
But that’s the thing… when they were in their prime, that one-hour block on Comedy Central of THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART
and THE COLBERT REPORT
was most decidedly not “just TV.” It was essential.