late night

What Happens to The Daily Show After Trevor Noah Leaves?

Photo: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah/YouTube

Trevor Noah’s September 28 announcement that he has decided to leave The Daily Show wasn’t just a surprise to his viewers. The news also came as a shock to execs at Comedy Central and its parent company, MTV Entertainment, as well as almost all staffers on the production, three people familiar with the circumstances told Vulture. “We all learned about it the same way you did,” a show insider said. The out-of-the-blue nature of Noah’s decision to join the Great Resignation has sent Comedy Central execs scrambling to figure out what’s next for the 26-year-old late-night institution.

Some online pundits and other prognosticators have speculated that the network might be looking to downsize in late night, a daypart that has proved increasingly challenging as audiences flee linear TV. But echoing a statement released by Comedy Central after Noah’s announcement, network insiders insist the future of TDS is not in doubt. “It’s 100 percent that The Daily Show is going to move forward,” a source told Vulture. “It’s the flagship and the crown jewel of the network. It isn’t going anywhere.”

Everything else, however — including a timetable for the transition from Noah to whatever comes next — seems to be very much up in the air. Because Noah apparently gave nobody a heads-up, Comedy Central hasn’t had the time to put together a transition plan or figure out next steps. A production source told Vulture that, as of October 2, Noah hasn’t even worked out exactly how many weeks or months he plans to stay with TDS. If he wants to be gone by year’s end, it seems likely Comedy Central will have to vamp for a few months with substitute hosts, relying on its bench of TDS correspondents. But if Noah is willing to finish the just-started new season and continue working until early next summer, that would theoretically give execs time to identify a successor and start a new chapter with them next fall.

Either way, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a stunner Noah’s news was for Comedy Central execs. Vulture and other outlets reported in 2017 that the comic had worked out a new five-year contract extension to lock in his gig until this fall. But while it was never publicized, a source at TDS said Comedy Central quietly negotiated a new deal framework with Noah just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Per that agreement, which is understood to have included a significant pay hike, Noah was under contract until the 2024–25 season with Comedy Central able to trigger renewal options for TDS annually.

Our production source said that the network did just that back in June and that, at the time, Noah gave no hint he was interested in walking away from the anchor desk. The comedian had expressed a desire to squeeze in more outside projects and stand-up dates, as he noted in his announcement, but Comedy Central execs seemed willing to work with him to make sure he had the time to do that, the production source said. (Comedy Central reps declined comment for this story, while Noah’s longtime manager, the respected industry vet Norman Aladjem, did not reply to three requests for comment.)

Because Noah’s departure announcement happened so quickly, industry observers initially reacted to the news by wondering whether it was yet another sign of the decline of linear TV in general — and cable TV in particular. Networks have been rapidly reducing spending on original content both because of long-term viewing trends (everyone’s streaming) and short-term pressures (the Netflix crash of last spring has prompted all conglomerates to look for cost savings). CBS, for example, has made it clear that whatever replaces The Late Late Show With James Corden next year will probably be produced at a much lower price point than what the network spends now. TBS and NBC similarly aren’t expected to replace shows from Samantha Bee and Lilly Singh, respectively.

Comedy Central has not been immune to the original-content downsizing that’s overtaken the cable industry. A few years ago, it pretty much got out of the business of scripted originals save for adult animation and some legacy projects tied to IP. But that retrenchment hasn’t applied to The Daily Show; in fact, it’s just the opposite. As other forms of original content have diminished, the network has looked to TDS to be even more of a signature series than it already had been. “It’s an institution that’s critical to the Comedy Central brand,” the TDS production insider said in explaining why it’s unlikely the show will be downsized or reduced to a weekly format. What’s more, while TDS same-day total viewer numbers are down, the series continues to overperform with its target audience of adults under 35, often beating its network rivals. Streaming and social-media numbers are also healthy.

What’s less clear, however, is whether Noah felt that same sense of commitment from Comedy Central that some sources close to the show maintain still exists. We don’t know if he wanted more time off than the network was willing to give him or if, even with recent pay hikes, he felt undervalued. But if Noah does have such issues, he certainly hasn’t given any hints he was unhappy — so far, at least: There have been no well-timed leaks to news outlets, no blind items in the trades, and no hints of any animus in his announcement. And the production insider we spoke to said he’s heard zero hint of animus between the two parties. So unless and until he says otherwise, it’s probably best to just accept the reason Noah himself gave Thursday when explaining why he’s decided to move on. “I realized that, after seven years, my time is up,” he said.

What Happens to The Daily Show After Trevor Noah Leaves?