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Can guest hosts save ‘The Daily Show’?

Hasan Minhaj, Wanda Sykes, John Leguizamo and a few others make a strong case.

A series of celebrities guest hosted "The Daily Show" in the wake of Trevor Noah's departure. Can they save it? (The Washington Post illustration; Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Cindy Ord/Getty Images; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Mindy Small/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images; and Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
9 min

It feels exactly right that “The Daily Show” — once a comedy upstart, now a comedy institution — has remade itself into a reality show, at least temporarily.

Trevor Noah left his gig as the show’s host in December after a seven-plus-year run during which he covered (among other things) the Trump administration, the ongoing radicalization of the Republican Party and a global pandemic. Light stuff. He acquitted himself well, but many a revered institution flailed during this period, and “The Daily Show’s” recipe for satire was no exception. President Donald Trump was satire-proof, and so — in a strange twist — political comedy started to compensate by supplying the seriousness he lacked. It became increasingly predictable, alarmed, even sanctimonious.

The show was already in something of an identity crisis, and more creaky than nimble, when Noah decided to move on. His departure was therefore a major blow, leaving a gaping hole at the center of (arguably) Comedy Central’s most important program, particularly with its longtime host Jon Stewart hosting his own show about current events over on Apple TV Plus. The cable channel needed to make a splash.

So for the past 10 weeks, celebrities ranging from Leslie Jones to Hasan Minhaj to Wanda Sykes to Marlon Wayans spent a week hosting the show, interviewing people they choose and platforming issues they care about. (Beginning in April, the show will hand over the reins to its own correspondents for a week each, as well.)

Rotating hosts has not solved the problem political comedy now faces, but the contest has at least revitalized a property that had started to feel stale. Ratings are up, partly because it’s fun to watch famous people compete — and these feel like auditions, even if showrunner Jen Flanz argues they’re no such thing. Favors are clearly being called in, causes espoused, connections displayed.

The hosts’ topics overlap — classified documents in President Biden’s garage, George Santos, Tucker Carlson — but their emphases differ. D.L. Hughley covered the death of Tyre Nichols — a 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten by Memphis police in January — every night. Sykes and Jones took on abortion rights. Sarah Silverman focused on the outrage economy’s role in driving polarization. John Leguizamo, a longtime advocate for Latino representation, joked about flaky solidarity (“I’m especially glad to be hosting during Hispanic Heritage Month!” he said as he greeted the audience. “No, no, no,” he yelled, waving his hands as the crowd cheered. “That was moronic. It’s not Hispanic Heritage Month. That’s in September! That was a test, y’all!”)

This last was a refreshing way to highlight an artifact of the show’s success — namely, that “Daily Show” viewers who consider themselves relatively sophisticated will readily believe whatever the host of their favorite show says. The once-revolutionary format has fallen victim to its own polish and matured into respectable middle age. Not a wholly desirable change.

There’s some welcome edge, therefore, to this latest iteration, which asks celebrities to risk failing. Political comedy has gotten exponentially harder to do well since the show’s inception. Stewart’s rise mirrored that of Fox News, but the tactics that felt urgent and hilariously effective then — intelligent mockery chief among them — feel dated now. Anyone watching his current Apple TV Plus show can attest that not even Jon Stewart can be what Jon Stewart once was.

This, of course, isn’t the first time “The Daily Show” has faced an identity crisis — no one knew what the original would look like after Stewart left.

When he took over in 1999, Stewart threaded the needle between comedy and political passion with a heady and highly particular combination of rueful incredulity, ease and, occasionally, tremendously effective outrage.

It was catnip for a generation trapped between irony and earnestness, that wanted to mock everything but also needed to care. Stewart’s knack for skewering right-wing hypocrisies was unparalleled, and he was a much better interviewer than he needed to be. So were the correspondents. The show often seemed to drift closer to real journalism than the “straight” media it lampooned.

The sense of fun animating all this made rather meaty political confrontations feel joyful, almost like pranks. It also, on the flip side, made ridicule feel like activism. Or victory.

Both are harder to pull off these days.

If satire requires its targets to at least aspire to something like seriousness or consistency, that basic condition went unmet during the alarming and consequential unseriousness of the Trump years.

So it isn’t Noah’s fault that “The Daily Show” lost some relevance. Blame that on social media, which cheapened the thrill of watching someone smart and funny process politics in real time. Virality and streaming took major chunks out of basic cable, and there’s been more competition on TV, too — from Seth Meyers and Sam Bee and Larry Wilmore and Michelle Wolf, among others.

It’s a good thing, in short, that the higher-ups at Comedy Central are looking to innovate in the wake of Noah’s departure. “We’re going to use the back half of the broadcast year — call it from now until June — to really experiment and try different things,” Chris McCarthy, the president and CEO of Paramount Media Networks, told Vulture. “And then our goal would be to relaunch in the fall.”

Jones launched the proceedings with a raunchy and fantastic takedown of the widely mocked Boston statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife’s disembodied arms that many claimed looked like a sexual act. The SNL alum’s sketches were, unsurprisingly, the best out of the 10 hosts. Her rapport with the correspondents set a high bar, and she brought a level of energy to the monologue that only Minhaj, who hosted his own “Daily Show”-esque program on Netflix, could match.

Her interviews, however, were weak. So were Chelsea Handler’s, who made up for it with her pitch-perfect, dry, half-flirty delivery during the Headlines segment. “He walked off his big, strong plane and his aviator sunglasses,” she said of Biden during Balloongate, “looking like a real tough guy popping a balloon.”

Hughley’s conversations, by contrast, were riveting. A standout was his discussion of art with Mac Phipps, a New Orleans rapper whose lyrics were used as “evidence” that sent him to prison.

Sykes’s exasperated calm made a bit on a bizarre Trump speech unforgettable. And while she seemed a little out of step with the correspondents, her segment on how police over-ticket poor communities — inspired by personal experience — was terrific “Daily Show” fare. Silverman, whose comedy chops are undeniable, gambled by toggling between being funny and responsible. Not an easy balance, but she mostly pulled it off.

While all the hosts leaned on their personal brands, some arguably overdid it: Kal Penn’s many, many, many jokes about having worked in the White House yielded diminishing returns (as did his interview with Biden, clearly a called-in favor).

It all begs a question: What do contemporary audiences want from a “Daily Show”? Is the goal impish irreverence? If so, Handler or Leguizamo probably deserve to host. Is it to better understand (and combat) the media’s dedication to stoking political rage? If so, the desk should be Silverman’s. Principled single-mindedness? Hughley’s the clear choice. Is it polish? Penn’s optimistic approach found him lobbing softballs at his fancy guests (which included Grover the Muppet).

Or is what’s wanted now rather the opposite of polish — a faux-naive approach to politics, say, that could be downright refreshing in a moment saturated with half-informed, Twitter-crazed know-it-alls? If so, Jones wins.

Is the point robust debate? Ex-Senator Al Franken courted tension by inviting his former friend Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to debate Trump’s legacy on the show. The results were mixed.

Most of these performances were so surprisingly solid that a part of me wishes the show could stick to temporary hosts; an old formula can’t help but be more interesting when you don’t know what you’re going to get, week to week.

That still wouldn’t overcome the show’s main obstacle: that political comedy right now consists largely of thinly veiled affirmations, scoldings and sermons. It’s the kind of humor that in lieu of genuine laughs elicits the response some comics call “clapter”: whoops, hollers and applause for expressing the “correct” sentiments (or the appropriate insults).

It’s better when a comic finds a new way to talk about old outrage. If what’s wanted is someone equipped to compete for prominence on the social media battlefields while deriding our internet-addled consumption habits (and the corporate entities profiting off American fury), someone who can work up a good head of steam over political misbehavior and channel it into challenging ideological enemies, and someone who can usually find a comparatively fresh angle, the answer is probably Minhaj.

He’s a young grumpy old man, an anti-tech guy whose show streamed on Netflix (he deleted his Twitter account on the air) and a “Daily Show” alum who dedicated his first day as host to roasting (and being roasted by) correspondent Ronny Chieng.

His coverage of pump-and-dump grifters proves he can tell a complicated story simply and well, milking every beat. He’s smart, quick and has a frightening amount of energy.

While “The Daily Show” faces some formidable challenges, Minhaj has occupied impossible positions before.

As he tells Chieng (who objects to having to cover a story about Asians), he was always the show’s one Muslim guy on the hook to cover subway bombings and the like while remaining palatable to a mass audience. It’s a searing indictment of the show he wants to host — exactly the shake-up “The Daily Show” needs.

“So yeah,” he says vengefully to Chieng. “The Asian guy has to do the Asian story. And it has to be funny, it has to be deep, and it has to be deemed comedically acceptable by