Fill-ins for Trevor Noah have shown how exciting the lack of a permanent replacement could be. It’s an option with an illustrious history in television.
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By Jason Zinoman
For two months, Comedy Central has conducted something of a public audition. Nine different guest hosts have each taken over “The Daily Show” for a week, including Chelsea Handler, Wanda Sykes, Leslie Jones, Hasan Minhaj, Sarah Silverman and, currently, the former Democratic Senator Al Franken. Who should get the job?
I’m a mere critic, not a network pinhead, as David Letterman referred to executives who made these kinds of decisions, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream up cockamamie ideas. My original preference was for a veteran correspondent like Roy Wood Jr. to fill the shoes of former hosts like Trevor Noah, who stepped down in December, or Jon Stewart before him. But after watching this lively parade of hosts, and surveying the shrinking late-night landscape, a more radical rethinking seems worth considering: Why not make temporary guest hosts permanent?
My proposal rests in part on the reality that the success of “The Daily Show” has already made it less unique. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” has shrewdly filled the role that Stewart’s desk pieces once played by providing funny, progressive-leaning deadline comedy on the big news of the day. As for the prickly interviews that Stewart made famous on Comedy Central, you can now see them on his Apple TV+ series or, more likely, social media, where they go viral.
“The Daily Show” remains a beloved institution with strong comedic bones primed for exploitation. It has always featured one of the best supporting casts in comedy, with its team of correspondents, many of them stalwarts of the New York standup scene, and nimble writers, whose skill and professionalism has only become more evident from watching these guest hosts.
Even though each fill-in brought a distinct style, what stands out is the consistency of their desk monologues. Handler spits out jokes with a sneaky swagger, deftly skewering the machismo of President Biden announcing he shot down the Chinese balloon and offering a setup that you would never hear from a veteran host. “I’m going to be honest,” she said. “I have never watched the State of the Union before because I have a life.”
Sykes dug deeper into wonky policy, offering a surgical breakdown of how over-ticketing by police punish the poor before suggesting we learn from Finland, which adjusts fines according to wealth: “$30 for a rich person is not a punishment,” she said. “Rich people don’t even know money goes that low.”
Minhaj brought a more flamboyant theatrical streak, turning a bit on giving up Twitter into a virtuoso and hilarious one-man show. Jones, who added elevated lewdness to analyzing a new Martin Luther King Jr. statue, may not have had the precision delivery of Silverman. Kal Penn was more likely to gush, while D.L. Hughley adopted a skeptical eye. The most impressive accomplishment is how everyone, with the benefit of typical “Daily Show” video and script, is, at least, fine.
It’s evidence that this vehicle, more than a quarter century old, has become a smooth-running, user-friendly machine, a strength and a weakness. You saw both sides in the Trevor Noah era, which was competent, charming if a little dull. The current guest-host shows are not that. They display passion, unpredictability and the looming possibility of disaster, particularly in the interviews.
As you might expect, these hosts, some of whom have publicly lobbied for the job, are trying to impress, calling in favors. Penn, who has called “Daily Show” host his dream job in the press, got a (mostly wasted) interview with Biden, and Marlon Wayans not only talked to Mayor Eric Adams, but also did it in the character of a kid name Quan. Was it a little cringey? Sure, but that made for fun TV.
Not surprisingly, considering his experience as a correspondent and a host of his own show, Minhaj has put on the most impressive week so far, staging a confrontational interview about FTX with the businessman Kevin O’Leary from “Shark Tank” that was bracing in its tension. Franken also tried to introduce some much-needed tension into the talk-show interview by booking Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. It didn’t generate sparks but it was a worthy idea. Stewart once decried “Crossfire”-style talking-heads debate shows, but the relative dearth of debate that we have now is worse.
A full-time guest host might seem like a desperate move, but in fact it celebrates one of the most venerable television traditions. David Letterman, Jay Leno and Joan Rivers earned full-time talk show jobs by guest hosting for Johnny Carson, who was a fill-in on Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show. John Oliver got his current job, on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” based on a “Daily Show” guest-host stint replacing Stewart, who himself was one of many guest hosts of the longtime NBC show “Later.” That program pioneered the permanent guest host in the late 1990s, using everyone from Martin Mull to Cindy Crawford and even Joe Rogan (who interviewed a UFC fighter on network television long before he did on a podcast). Since “Later” aired in the early-morning hours, no one noticed, which The Onion giddily mocked with an article headlined, “Police Seek Suspect in Series of Random ‘Later’ Hostings.”
After Leno took over “The Tonight Show” and Letterman started “The Late Show,” these major combatants in the late-night wars of the 1990s stopped using guest hosts. (Conan O’Brien never used one either.) “Our attitude and Letterman’s was to ‘never give up the chair,’” the longtime Letterman producer Robert Morton told me in an email. Among the few times they did, in 2003, “The Late Show” offered Jimmy Fallon his first late-night hosting gig. Watching it now reveals an altogether different Fallon, more sarcastic wiseacre than chipper enthusiast. It’s clear he loved and was influenced by Letterman’s early comedy, and one of the fun aspects of guest hosts is seeing comics working out their personas.
Jimmy Kimmel has done more than anyone to bring back guest hosts, using them during his vacations. Some of the comics who substituted for him, like Handler, Franken and Sykes, have gone on to weeks on “The Daily Show,” creating something of a modern guest-host circuit.
The most successful model with a permanent guest host is of course “Saturday Night Live.” There are many decisions Lorne Michaels made that have resulted in a singularly enduring show, but this foundational idea is at the top of the list. It keeps the comedy staple in the news, builds anticipation and injects star power. In style and cadence, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” are very different machines, but both have an experienced staff, well-honed style and a deep bench of talent.
Imagine monthly stints with alumni Samantha Bee or Larry Wilmore. Give Josh Gad some time to plan a musical version with former “Daily Show” producer and musical maker David Javerbaum. If Eric André wants to promote a movie, let him smash up the set for a week.
If there is one conspicuous absence in the lineup of guest hosts so far, it’s youth. Many hungry young stand-ups would surely love the opportunity. The 24-year-old Leo Reich, the self-described “youngest comedian ever,” just finished a very funny downtown show about Generation Z called “Literally Who Cares?!” and represents the opposite of the engaged righteousness of Iraq war-era Jon Stewart. What mess would Reich make?
“The Daily Show” producers are probably cursing my name right now. Getting new talent up to speed is not easy. And sacrificing the advantages of consistency and experience should not be underestimated. But considering the dwindling ratings of late-night talk shows, their future is not secure. That James Corden’s show is not being replaced with a talk program is an ominous sign.
The late-night talk show is one of the most illustrious, essential genres in television history, one that many of us hope remains artistically vital. But that will require risk and reinvention.
The current plan is to keep rotating guest hosts through the spring and then restart “The Daily Show” in the fall. Every great late-night talk show starts with excitement and experimentation before settling into routine, but the utopian goal of a permanent guest host would be to build innovation into the DNA, to make it the point.
Could it produce train wrecks? For sure. But people like to gawk at those. More important: Better to fail interestingly than slowly fade into irrelevance.
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