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Melanie McFarland

Thoughts on a Trevor Noah successor

As of Thursday night, Trevor Noah's seven-year watch over "The Daily Show" has ended.

Noah's closing statement as the host of Comedy Central's politically influential late night talk-show began with a simple expression of gratitude to his audience.  "I remember when we started the show, we couldn't get enough people to fill an audience," he said, eliciting gasps from the packed studio seats. "I always think it's good. That's how comedy is, funny enough. I remember all my shows people didn't want tickets, there were empty seats. And then I look at this now. I don't take it for granted, ever. Every seat that has ever been filled to watch something that I'm doing I always appreciate, because I know that empty seat that sits behind."

As Noah's era closes, he's in no danger of returning to those days. His latest stand-up special "I Wish You Would" is streaming on Netflix, and his 2023 tour will probably pack houses in cities across the country.

Comedy Central has yet to name his permanent replacement, and there are no guarantees that anyone on the existing correspondents team will be tapped for the job. Instead the cable channel's parent company Paramount is ushering the show into its next phase using a structurally sound yet entirely unadventurous bridge made of – please resist the urge to cue the "Jeopardy!" theme – celebrity hosts.

Currently the list includes Al Franken, Chelsea Handler, D. L. Hughley, Leslie Jones, John Leguizamo, Hasan Minhaj, Kal Penn, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes and Marlon Wayans. 

Paramount is ushering "The Daily Show" into its next phase using a structurally sound yet entirely unadventurous bridge made of celebrity hosts.

"Trevor redefined the show, as did Jon Stewart before him, and as we look to the future, we are excited to reimagine it yet again with the help of this incredible list of talent and correspondents, along with the immensely talented 'Daily Show' team," Paramount Media Networks chief Chris McCarthy said in a statement.

Trevor Noah greets the studio audience for his final episode of "The Daily Show" (Matt Wilson/Comedy Central)

Each of these performers has relevant experience. Handler, Hughley, Minhaj, Penn, Silverman and Sykes previously helmed topical comedy or late night talk shows, most featuring an interview component. Franken hosted a radio show on the defunct left-leaning Air America and has a podcast; Leguizamo has a long track record in live stage performance on top of an impressive film career. Jones and Wayans have both served as game show ringmasters.

Some are easier to envision slipping into that chair and doing the job on a full-time basis with the show's tone dropping a stitch. Minhaj brings the respectable track record he earned as the host and creator of Netflix's gone-too-soon "Patriot Act," which helped him develop the muscle required to produce a nightly political comedy series. 

Returning home to "The Daily Show" could allow him to tailor it to his style beyond remixing the theme song.

Or he may view the gig as a lateral step.  

On Hulu's "I Love You, America," Silverman proved her ability to deliver tough monologues and bridge partisan gaps through empathetic conversation, although she admitted she has some TV blackface baggage. Freeform's "Kal Penn Approves This Message" enabled the actor to dip his toe into the political talk variety space in a narrowly focused limited series related to educating young voters on relevant issues. Handler is a convivial interviewer, and among her peers listed here feels like the most mainstream choice. 

But if this is the production's version of a soft audition, Paramount's succession plan seems more geared toward stability than imagination. 

When Noah took over for the show's transformative host Jon Stewart, he was a relatively unknown South African comic whose biggest stateside TV debut before landing this gig was on FX's short-lived 2012 talk show "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." But Stewart hand-selected Noah, a move that bewildered many onlookers but was trusted nevertheless.

The runway up to his 2015 debut wasn't smooth. Social media bloodhounds dug up misguided sexist and antisemitic tweets for which he apologized. His coverage style favored a more internationalist outlook, requiring an adjustment period after 16 years of watching Stewart shred the hypocrisy in politicians' stances and statements and reveling in watching him draw blood whenever a right-wing figure dared to show up as a guest.

But for reasons I've outlined before, Noah evolved the show to suit the modern media age by appealing younger, more technologically savvy and diverse audience that includes 44 million followers across multiple platforms, according to the network. (Besides, the Olds can still bask in Stewart's presence on his Apple TV+ show.)

Noah leaves "The Daily Show" in a shape that reflects his paradigm with a more inclusive correspondent team than his predecessor put in place, which includes Roy Wood Jr., Dulcé Sloan, Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic, Jordan Klepper, Michael Kosta and elder statesman commentator Lewis Black. As the Paramount statement indicates, a few of them will receive their time in the host's chair.

Ultimately, and somewhat depressingly, it's tough to picture Paramount taking the same chance on one of them, let alone repeating what Stewart did seven years ago by tapping an up-and-comer.

If the point is to select someone who can make sense of fluctuations in the culture's political and social temperature, the host should be a woman.

Noah, as Stewart recognized, is a unique case for reasons he's established over most of the last decade and talked about in his 2016 bestseller "Born a Crime." He brings his curiosity about the world into his comedy, and that shone through the show's content, especially during the xenophobic Trump administration. With him taking over for Stewart, Comedy Central can claim it caught lightning in a bottle twice in a row.

As for who is capable of continuing that streak, that remains to be seen. However, if the point is to select someone who can notice and make sense of fluctuations in the culture's political and social temperature, the host should be a woman. If Paramount takes the hint Noah dropped to close out his finale show, it should be a Black woman.

Tressie McMillan Cottom on "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" (Comedy Central)

"This is random for some, but: special shout-out to Black women," he said with tears in his eyes, going on to acknowledge his mother, his grandmother and his aunt — the women in his life, but also women he's met in this position, including Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Tarana Burke and Zoe Samudzi. "I've often been credited with you know, having these grand ideas and people are like, 'Oh, you're so smart . . . I'm like, who do you think teaches me? You know, who do you think has shaped me? Nourish me informed me? 

"I always tell people if you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women. Cuz unlike everybody else, Black women can't afford to f**k and find out. Black people understand how hard it is when things go bad, especially in America, but any place where Black people exist, whether it's Brazil, whether it's South Africa — wherever it is, when things go bad, Black people know that it gets worse for them.

"But Black women in particular? They know what s**t is. Genuinely," he continued. "People always be shocked. They be like, 'Why do Black women turn out the way they do in America? Why do they vote the way — Yeah, because they know what happens if things do not go the way it should. They cannot afford to f**k and find out. . . .  I'll tell you now, do yourself a favor. If you truly want to know what to do, or how to do it, or maybe the best way or the most, the most equitable way? Talk to Black women. They're a lot of the reason that I'm here.

Mr. McCarthy, are you listening? We have a woman with relevant experience in Robin Thede, creator of "A Black Lady Sketch Show," who hosted her own talk variety series for BET and was the head writer for "The Nightly Show." She, Handler and Silverman hosted shows at a time — 2017, to be precise — when they, along with former "Daily Show" senior correspondent Samantha Bee, brought the count of women hosting talk-variety shows to, yes, four.

Bee was the last woman standing from that group, lasting until July of this year when Warner Bros. Discovery abruptly canceled her TBS show "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee."

Bee, you'll notice, is not on that host list. Then again, she could turn up later. If she doesn't the contenders should at least take a few notes on "Full Frontal"'s coverage of issues related to the rights of women and marginalized populations, i.e. the main thrust of Bee's show. Those are the topics steering most political conversations right now and will be on much of the audience's minds as we careen toward the next presidential election.

Indeed, several talented Black women on TV right now have demonstrated the ability can lead these conversations in ways that suit the jocular edge of "The Daily Show." One, Ziwe Fumudoh, already works for Paramount. Sloan's also right there, and she should serious consideration. If the company really wants to make headlines, it could poach Amber Ruffin from NBC Universal. But I've said all this already.

Sheryl Lee Ralph on "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" (Comedy Central)

What about those who have signed on to guest host? Well, Jones carved out a niche as the unofficial commentator on an array of live telecasts, memorably including her divine work covering the Olympic games. Nightly political humor represents a substantial tonal shift for her.

Sykes is a comeback quick-draw, politically savvy, personable and beyond qualified. She's also a showbiz veteran who is slightly younger than Stewart is now.

The counterpoint to this is that very few women have ever received the same opportunities, patience and grace granted to Noah and for that matter, other late-night talk show hosts whose shows took a while to find a direction that works. Note that there are four women on a list of 10 comedians, which hints at the way the wind is blowing – that is to say, in the direction it almost always does.

It would be pleasantly shocking to be proven wrong in the long run. For the time being, it may be enough to appreciate that the space this one-time unknown comedy leaves is wide enough to require a parade of celebrities to fill it. The fact that a multilingual son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father slipped through Hollywood's system to sit in one of its most rarified chairs in the first place is a miracle. Heaven knows those are challenging to repeat.

"The Daily Show" resumes with new episodes on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

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