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Jessica Williams’ Departure Points to Bigger Problems at ‘The Daily Show’

On Wednesday, longtime “The Daily Show” correspondent and fan-favorite Jessica Williams announced that she would be leaving the show to work on a scripted pilot with “Broad City” and “Difficult People” writer Naomi Ekperigin. With her, she takes one of the finest voices at “The Daily Show.” Williams was an important hire for the Comedy Central fake-news late-night comedy show: She came in after the lack of women in the writers’ room and in front of the camera caught the attention of Jezebel writer Irin Carmon. There was a brief period of time, too, where Williams was a favorite to replace Jon Stewart in the host’s chair.

Right now, the vision of that alternate universe is a rosy one. Williams takes her talent with her, and what’s left behind is a show that has been struggling ever since Stewart announced his retirement. It is not totally a surprise that “The Daily Show” was going to struggle after he left last August — the show only sprang to life when Stewart took over it from previous host Craig Kilborn in 1999. Stewart made “The Daily Show” not just a venue for political jokes but also a platform for everyday media criticism. The show did have a behind-the-scenes crew that stayed with “The Daily Show” through the host transition, and Stewart, still an executive producer on the show, gave new host Trevor Noah his seal of approval. But without Stewart’s sensibility and presence, the show was always going to be irrevocably different. Transitions take time for everyone to get used to, especially the audience at home.

Given this, what is most confusing about “The Daily Show” since Stewart announced his resignation last February are its unforced errors — the decisions made either within the organization, by Noah, or by Comedy Central that are so bafflingly wrongheaded that it undermines the audience’s trust. For a show that so successfully built its audience by gaining its trust, these missteps have proven to have a chilling effect on the new “Daily Show”’s ability to gain critical momentum.

This week offers up a perfect example. On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a controversial statute Texas which was designed to drastically limit access to abortion. “The Daily Show” chose to celebrate the news, as many other personalities and shows were doing on Twitter. But the tweet they chose was almost comically off-base: “Celebrate the #SCOTUS ruling! Go knock someone up in Texas!”

Indeed: A bastion of liberal thought in America made a joke about women having broader freedoms in reproductive health by addressing a joke specifically at people with penises. It’s a logical loop that doesn’t compute. And while there’s apparently plenty to say on the topic, it’s not just about poor taste and taking offense; it’s the type of thing that prompts the question: “Who’s driving this thing?”

Post-Stewart, “The Daily Show” has been inundated with these moments. The biggest question has taken the shape of one of the show’s biggest competitors. Six months after Noah started, former (and longtime) “The Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee launched “Full Frontal” on TBS. It’s a similar type of show populated by a lot of “The Daily Show” alums, and she is much better in her role than Noah is in his. And yet, for unclear reasons, Comedy Central never asked her to host the show during their talent search.

Meanwhile, Noah’s hiring revealed a startling lack of consideration: In addition to the immediate (and highly avoidable) excavation of embarrassing tweets, Noah did not seem to understand that being the host of “The Daily Show” would require an element of reportage and investigation. He told Linda Holmes on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, “I did not anticipate how much journalism I would have to do.” He added, in a sentiment that doesn’t seem to understand what made “The Daily Show” beloved, that “It’s sad that a comedy show is looked to to be the number one source of authentic news.”

This disconnect has been borne out in behind-the-scenes tremors, too. Just two months after the show premiered, the Daily Beast reported that several of the show’s writers had disclosed concerns with a scheduled segment where Noah would interview R&B singer Chris Brown on the subject of domestic violence. (Brown was convicted of felony assault against his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009.) The segment was then cancelled without further explanation.

There’s an extraordinary lack of poise at play here. The above examples aren’t issues with execution, or symptoms of overambition; these are bizarre lapses in vision and a systemic lack of consideration. It is worrying that so many of these incidents seem to be motivated by nothing more than casual sexism, but the point is that a well-functioning show wouldn’t make it quite so easy for casual sexism to reach the audience.

Technically, Jessica Williams’ decision to leave “The Daily Show” this week has nothing to do with that tweet. The well-liked correspondent is leaving the show to work on a scripted comedy for Comedy Central. Williams is moving from the late-night format to the scripted format, joining the ranks of Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, and Abbi Jacobson — three other female comedians who have found success at the network. After losing the likes of Bee, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, Comedy Central is eager to keep talent in-house.

But it’s worth noting that “The Daily Show,” once a vaunted institution, is losing its most well-known correspondent, just a few months after a comedian with a history of bad jokes about women ascends to the host’s chair. Reading through Williams’ comments to Entertainment Weekly about her departure is an exercise in reading between the lines; when asked about her favorite memories, she reminisces exclusively about working with Stewart. And when asked about leaving during an election year, Williams says: “We’re in good hands as long as we have Sam and Oliver and Trevor. I think they got it covered.” She cites Bee and Oliver, “The Daily Show”‘s rivals, before citing her own boss.

Often, a story about a show’s apparent missteps is a story about a management issue or a human resources problem. These glimpses into the inner workings of “The Daily Show” do not suggest an environment where a person as talented as Williams would want to stick around. “The Daily Show,” as an organization, is struggling. Williams is not wasting any time, either: Her final outing with “The Daily Show” is tonight.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the TBS weekly series “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” has twice the viewership of “The Daily Show,” which airs originals Monday-Thursday. For the second quarter, “Daily Show” averaged 1.3 million viewers in Nielsen’s live-plus-7 ratings while “Full Frontal” averaged 1.2 million in L7s.

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