Trevor Noah Brings ‘Daily Show’ to Times Square as TV’s Late-Night Crowd Starts to Shrink

Trevor Noah Variety Cover Story
Wayne Lawrence for Variety

When Trevor Noah takes to a new stage Monday evening and re-starts Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” after a hiatus, he may look around and wonder where some of his competitors have gone.

In recent months, WarnerMedia decided to end its long-running “Conan” late-night program on TBS with Conan O’Brien. NBC and the late-night host Lilly Singh, a digital entertainment influencer who had launched a new show on the network in the wee hours of the morning, decided to part ways. Both Noah and ABC rival Jimmy Kimmel are coming back on the air after taking the entire summer off — a practice that would have been unheard of in the days of David Letterman and Jay Leno.

Noah resurfaces this evening in a new Times Square studio that is housed in the midtown headquarters of Comedy Central’s corporate owner ViacomCBS (it may be part of the same venue that also hosts the retooled “CBS Mornings” morning-news program; Comedy Central declined to make executives available to discuss changes at the show, which previously held forth in a studio on Manhattan’s west side). Comedy Central expects the program to feature some of the more intimate moments Noah featured when he did the program from his apartment under pandemic conditions, even as the new environment gives him access to a lively part of New York City.

Late-night programs gained new traction during the presidency of Donald Trump, offering up a nightly insta-referendum on that Commander-in-Chief’s norm-busting maneuvers and cultural offenses. But the pandemic sent all of the shows scurrying into new scaled-down models that were cheaper to produce. For months, viewers saw no live crowds cheering for Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, and no celebrities clambering into James Corden’s “Late Late Show” studio or a seat next to Seth Meyers at NBCUniversal’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters. One thought that has been going around in late-night circles is that the networks might seek to preserve some of the lower production costs they discovered in the process.

Indeed, the networks have trimmed other parts of late-night, which had started to expand as networks sought to create bespoke programs for a bevy of different demographics. At various points in the past several years, Netflix and Hulu sought to get into the wee-hours game with shows led by Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman. BET launched a weekly show led by Robin Thede.

Only a few of the new shows have survived. Comedy Central, which once boasted of three late-night programs with some degree of critical acclaim — “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “@midnight — has put all of its backing into an expanded hour-long “Daily’ broadcast led by Noah. The network, which launched companion programs starring Larry Wilmore, Jordan Klepper and David Spade, seem to have abandoned all efforts to find something to pair with “Daily.” The recent merger between Viacom and CBS may have something to do with it: Why keep launching 11:30 programs on Comedy Central when there are two big-budget late-night shows on CBS that need to capture viewers?

Meanwhile, the shows are seeing new competition from unlikely places. Fox News Channel bills its 11 p.m. program “Gutfeld!” as a new take on the format for its viewers, who tend to skew older than the people who tune in to watch Noah, Kimmel, and the rest. Still, “Gutfeld!” has drawn bigger crowds than many of the late-night mainstays in recent weeks.

As the networks tamp down on the traditional concept of a five-nights-a-week program, they are giving new consideration to weekly programs that try to emulate the spirt of a late-night talk show. John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO lent the concept new momentum, followed by Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS. Now viewers can also pick Amber Ruffin’s program on NBCU’s Peacock or Showtime’s “Desus & Mero.” Conan O’Brien, who is at present the host who has served the longest in the late-night slot, is working on a new weekly program slated to run on HBO Max.

In an era when more late-night aficionados connect to the shows through viral clips and bits passed along via social media, the weekly format seems to have emerged as a popular solution. Some of the executive producers of the various shows have begun to focus more intently on YouTube views and other means of feedback other than Nielsen ratings, and perhaps with good reason.

At least one late-night regular has benefitted from the new trend. Bill Maher once jumped from Comedy Central to ABC, where he hosted a late-night roundtable program called “Politically Incorrect.” He went weekly years ago, launching HBO’s Friday-night “Real Time” in 2003 after backlash to some of his remarks about 9/11 spurred ABC to take him off the air. HBO, however, clearly sees more potential in his weekly format. Just last year, the WarnerMedia outlet renewed the show through 2022. And last week extended the program through 2024, even though its current contractual terms were nowhere near expiring.