Comedy Central’s naming of South African comic/show host Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show is today being called late-night TV’s boldest move ever born of necessity, after the network lost its top candidates from its second-to-none farm team.
“Ninety-nine percent of the country has not heard of this guy and that’s bold in itself,” late-night TV pundit Bill Carter pronounced this morning. Word that Noah was the network’s pick had leaked Friday afternoon.
“Also, he’s not an American; he’s from a different continent; he’s clearly a guy who hasn’t been steeped in the culture the way you’d think that’s what they’d want in a host,” Carter said on CNN, ticking off the reasons Noah’s hiring is anti-intuitive.
His background may prove particularly tough for the show heading into the presidential election cycle, said Carter, who literally wrote the books on late-night TV. He’s author of The Late Shift, famously chronicling the 1990s battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman for Johnny Carson’s Tonight show desk. It later was turned into a movie for HBO. More recently, Carter wrote The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, about NBC’s battle with Conan O’Brien when he took over Tonight from Leno and Leno was bumped into a primetime slot.
Carter’s not the only industry navel-lint gazer expressing surprise over the network’s decision to transition the show from Stewart, a major force far beyond late-night TV, to a “total upstart with no track record,” as one exec put it in conversation with Deadline. That said, the political and cultural commentary that runs through Noah’s comedy is spot on for the show, and he’s described a very bright guy who speaks several languages.
And, of course, most conversation about the hire includes speculation Comedy Central’s first and second choice to replace Stewart had been Stephen Colbert and John Oliver — two very popular Stewart proteges who scored for Comedy Central on their own.
After Colbert left The Daily Show to play a conservative bloviator on Comedy Central’s very popular The Colbert Report, CBS last year snagged him to replace David Letterman. Likewise, Oliver slipped away to HBO after getting rave reviews filling in on The Daily Show when Stewart took a summer off to direct Rosewater. Shortly after Stewart announced he would leave The Daily Show, HBO announced it had given Oliver a contract extension for his still-brand-new show.
“They had a great farm team; they let it slip away,” one industry watcher told Deadline this morning.
Some insiders note today’s announcement is not so different from when NBC announced Lorne Michaels had plucked unknown writer Conan O’Brien to take over David Letterman’s post-Tonight show program Late Night back in 1993. Others said that NBC program always was intended as a place to groom new talent. Those who brought it up today noted O’Brien’s initial reviews weren’t positive and even NBC wasn’t overwhelmed, giving him weeks-long pickups, with pundits pronouncing him too sophisticated, among other criticisms. Washington Post critic Tom Shales famously advised him to “resume his previous identity, Conan O’Blivion.”
Still, some industry execs today credited Comedy Central for picking a relative unknown to “start fresh” and reinvent the franchise. Like Fallon has done with NBC’s Tonight Show, some say, except that Fallon spent years honing his on-air (and online) chops on Late Night, post-O’Brien.
Others wonder why Comedy Central would want to “start fresh” on a franchise Stewart spent 16 years transforming from a fairly sophomoric “5 Questions” franchise under former host Craig Kilborn into a political force that often transfixed Washington political circles.
David Paul Meyer, who made the documentary about Noah, You Laugh But It’s True, said Noah comes from a country where the comedy scene is “so young,” and where white comics tend to attract a white audience, he said, while black comics draw black crowds.
Noah, whose mother is African and father is Swiss, is “the one comic in South Africa that brought together a diverse audience,” Meyer told interviewers today. “He has a way to speak to all of them and get them to laugh about stuff. And that’s not a small thing, to be able to get a group of people in a country with wounds of apartheid so fresh. That’s awesome and what I think is so cool to see on The Daily Show.”
Meanwhile, Comedy Central’s announcement about Noah trended worldwide on Twitter this morning, and was still trending in the U.S. at the end of work day ET. Among the reax: