Under the leadership of new host Trevor Noah, “The Daily Show” seems to have lost its way — but in the most amiable manner possible. Ever since Noah took over six months ago, the show has assumed an air of easygoing chill. It’s not that he doesn’t tell reasonably good jokes now and then, but few, if any, are aimed at the jugular. And he rarely loses his expression of gentle bemusement.
Given that the current American political season is more chaotic and unpredictable than any in recent memory, the show’s strange affability creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance. It’s as if our reliable attack dog had suddenly lost its teeth and self-medicated with Xanax.
One of Noah’s main problems is that he treats his opening news round-up as if it were a stand-up set at a comedy club. Stewart’s pointed opening remarks often drove viewership, especially in an election year. But Noah’s routine is merely a string of middling, even groan-worthy jokes tied together with nothing more substantial than the host’s dimpled grin.
He delivers his jokes as if he’s already charmed by them, even though they often lack bite and have tired hooks. Noah on Marco Rubio: “Like so many Cubans before him, he got smoked by an obnoxious, rich man in Florida.”
|“John Oliver and Samantha Bee have built loyal followings by energetically delivering the one thing Noah’s show needs most: a distinct point of view.”
The lack of urgency in this new “Daily Show,” coupled with the absence of a strongly defined worldview, have conspired to make the show eminently missable. That translates to ratings that have sunk more than 30% vs. a year ago, even though one would expect an election-year boost.
Another problem is that the writing simply isn’t as sharp as that of its competitors, particularly that of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” a show that’s been the bracing blast the year has needed.
But Bee isn’t alone. While “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” hasn’t achieved the heights of its predecessor, “The Colbert Report,” it has a host whose deadpan delivery and improvisational chops make for a dependably funny half-hour. In an election year in which race is part of the conversation as it rarely has been in the past, Wilmore has found a multitude of serious and sarcastic ways to come at that crucial topic, and his riffs on the news of the day are often dryly amusing as well.
Meanwhile, another “Daily Show” alum, John Oliver, has built a loyal following by energetically delivering the one thing Noah’s show needs most: a distinct point of view. “Last Week Tonight’s” long segments have the kind of thematic unity, intelligent structure and logical crescendos you find in a well-wrought piece of music. Oliver is angry, but somehow his wry British accent makes his rage seem both accessible and justifiable, whatever the topic.
And while it’s true that Oliver (Sundays) and Bee (Mondays) have to be funny just one night a week, they deliver more laughs than four days of “The Daily Show.” Bee may well be even angrier than Oliver, but like him, she wields her revulsion and frustration like finely wrought blades.
In a world where mainstream programs like “Scandal,” “Black-ish” and “Master of None” are willing to take on hot-potato political topics with gusto, the only real way to stand out is to go even further — but it’s not mere sensationalism that drives “Full Frontal.” The fact is, the show stands out because it’s willing to take a stand. Bee is a virtuoso of brilliant sarcasm when it comes to feminist topics, of course, but she makes mincemeat of hapless politicians of either gender who wander into her field of fire. (And yes, that means even Hillary Clinton doesn’t go unscathed.)
Now more than ever, viewers want comedy commentators who not only make sense of the current-events cyclone we’re living in, but who bring an agenda of their own. It’s clear by this point who’s winning and losing the election from a comedic perspective. While Noah complacently floats above the fray, Oliver and Bee sting.