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The Sad State of TV Satire

We need a nightly antidote to political toxicity (and Trevor Noah’s not cutting it)

To write this essay I had to do something I’ve been putting off: watch Jon Stewart’s last episode as host of The Daily Show. It was not easy. Seeing the faces of every correspondent from his tenure reminded me of all the segments I’d loved — “This Week in God,” “Even Stephen,” “We Love Showbiz,” “Meet Me at Camera 3.” Stephen Colbert’s on-the-spot thank-you to his former boss led my eyes from teary to weepy. Jon Stewart wasn’t just any comedian. Here was someone daily taking to task the American government, its leaders, news networks, media conglomerates, hateful laws passed in various parts of the country, wars, treaties, appointments, deaths. Nothing escaped the show’s grasp. It was satire: bold, funny, shocking, eye-opening. It was unlike any TV I’d seen before, from any country.

Substance has never been the focus of late-night talk shows. The network brand of this programming has always focused on a comedian — his monologue, his guests (actors reciting anecdotes to promote forthcoming films), a venue for comedians and musicians to be introduced to the American audience. The Daily Show altered this formula, focusing its energies instead on humor and satire, with one short segment roped off for celebrities, writers, journalists, and politicians.

In 2015, Jon Stewart left the show that galvanized this mode of television; he has not since reappeared in any entertainment capacity. Stewart’s departure, which came after Stephen Colbert’s from the Report, created a vacuum. There is no shortage of material. But the knives in the kitchen are blunt. His successor, a South African comedian named Trevor Noah, runs “a milquetoast and broad” version of the original show. Colbert said goodbye to his Bill O’Reilly doppelgänger to restore the classic late-night talk show tradition at CBS. Mo Rocca, one of the show’s most talented grads, has embarked on a career across varied media (TV, radio) and subject areas (news, satire, cooking). Steve Carell and Ed Helms are now international stars, thanks to The Office and subsequent film careers. Samantha Bee is the only woman to have a late-night slot, but her weekly show, while excellent, has yet to achieve the kind of critical mass the Colbert Report enjoyed, and that Last Week Tonight built fairly rapidly. John Oliver, Stewart’s true heir, hosts the latter; it’s the sharpest satire program currently on TV, albeit for only 30 minutes a week. Almost everyone else in late-night relies more on game show antics and video virality than actual substance.

I’ll admit that Trevor Noah’s iteration of The Daily Show has made me laugh. He’s having fun with it, I texted my brother one day. I liked that he wasn’t taking things too seriously when he first started; that he was playing loose with content and delivery. Noah’s style of comedy is observational, calm, even appreciative of the wealth of material the current state of American politics affords him. Stewart’s writers wrote for his voice, which was first finessed during his stand-up career, and his work did frequently have a tone of “the guy who yells at the TV news.” That is, however, what made him so relatable: He was fighting for us all.

There are probably a few execs at Comedy Central who are none too pleased that two black men have replaced two white men during their prestige weeknight slots, and the change is a positive one. But Stewart was a powerhouse who supported so many talented comedians whose work continues today: Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were all correspondents. Wilmore was the show’s “Senior Black Correspondent.” At its peak The Daily Show was the world’s most elite finishing school for young comedians, wielding kingmaking power stronger than that of Saturday Night Live creator, Lorne Michaels. The success its graduates found upon leaving Stewart’s stewardship must, I think, make their old boss proud.

In contrast, while Stewart’s correspondents would go on to great things, Noah’s correspondents already outshine him on a daily basis. Jordan Klepper and Hasan Minhaj (holdovers from Stewart’s era) have occupied the Stephen Colbert-esque conservative, straight-man position; Ronny Chieng also trades on his outsider status to deliver the show’s funniest lines. Jessica Williams, another former member of Stewart’s roster, has turned in consistently good work, but things always feel off-kilter when she’s onscreen with Noah (it may be relevant that she was once floated as a replacement for Stewart). Roy Wood Jr. offers a wary, dry voice, frequently expressing joking dislike for his boss (whom he calls “the African”).

When it first aired, Last Week Tonight, Oliver’s HBO show, was a bit unsteady, relying a bit too heavily on righteous indignation. But over time the show hit its stride: Instead of weekly dissections of the past week’s politics, Oliver and his team selected very specific policies, in various arenas, to disassemble and question. HBO relied on the success of clips on YouTube, too, since not everyone who would follow Oliver from Comedy Central to premium cable can afford the service. And it worked: Each major investigative segment clocks at at least 1.5 million views. Among his targets the last few years: net neutrality (his first number-one hit, if you will), public defenders, our crumbling roads and bridges, the tobacco industry’s marketing wiles, bail, the standardized testing industrial complex, and FIFA, the evil governing body that rules over Oliver’s beloved soccer.

The show’s premium-cable budget has helped create some extraordinary long-running gag/policy observation combos; for example, Oliver created his own church, tax-exempt, to which viewers contributed tens of thousands of dollars (plus a few other… tokens, including a four-foot-tall carved penis). Years of field pieces on The Daily Show sharpened Oliver’s interview skills. It’s a strength he reserves for highest possible impact: a hilarious exchange with Stephen Hawking, a deeply moving interview with a former prisoner who has re-entered American civilian life, even a trip to Russia to interview one Edward Snowden. Oliver channels his resources and humor toward issues that have the potential to respond to change. Alerting internet commenters to the FCC’s call for comments during the net neutrality debate was the first example of this. During the piece about the Miss America pageant’s specious claims about scholarship offers, Oliver highlighted organizations that do offer funds to all women. One of the groups mentioned, the Society of Women Engineers, reported a 15-percent bump in donations following the segment. Last Week Tonight does something even The Daily Show often could not do: combine reportage with sharp satirical chops to transcend the issue and introduce the viewer to actual solutions.

Late Night with Seth Meyers may be the most surprising Daily Show successor. I expected Late Night, which follows the Tonight Show, to be modeled on similar tropes: A-list Hollywood celebrities; party games masquerading as segments; antics pulled from 1950s television. Yet Meyers diverges in two great ways: a desk without cards, and a guest list peppered with names not commonly associated with network late-night television. Authors Alexander Chee, Hanya Yanagihara and Helen Oyeyemi, for example, have appeared on the show to promote their novels and discuss the writing and editing processes. David Remnick, executive editor of the New Yorker, has been on several times. His appearances are interesting perhaps because they feel like a page from former executive editor Tina Brown’s book: Chatting on a late-night show is a solid way to promote the magazine to people who might not otherwise read it. Other luminaries you might associate with literary Twitter, public radio or college classrooms: Azar Nafisi, Allison Bechdel (who explained the origins of her eponymous Test), and Momofuku pastry chef Christina Tosi.

We need a nightly antidote to political toxicity. We need a voice of sanity that criticizes the fray. We need to laugh before we go to bed—and not because a starlet told one of the Jimmys a convoluted tale about her wacky holiday in Amsterdam. The iteration of The Daily Show Jon Stewart inherited was a weak spot on the edges of basic cable, a wheezing engine for celebrity news and jokes thereof. The 2000 presidential election, combined with a new roster of writers and Stewart’s own evolution to a more vigorous satiric presence, created the show we knew and loved. Noah deserves the same latitude; I’d only urge him to hurry. The next real laugh cannot come a moment too soon.

Nandini Balial is a staff writer at Lit Hub and the media editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, MidnightBreakfast,Men’s Journal, Slate and the Los Angeles Review of Books.