In my line of work as a script reader, it would happen somewhat regularly that I'd be presented with a script that seemed to do everything right, but inspired zero enthusiasm. There's be a concept that you could see as a film, and a structure that ensured new twists and changes in direction every fifteen minutes, but in the end, the assessment of the script's prospects came out as "meh." Though those write-ups could be difficult to complete (it's much easier when a bad writer completely fucks up a character arc, or delivers an implausible story), it was even harder to express to the writer what they needed to improve.
That missing X-factor was often what we call "voice." The script was executing some of the right beats, but in an uninspired way, without any perspective or meaning behind them. Voice is one of those ephemeral concepts that's hard to break down into a concrete definition, but it boils down to how you tell the story and what is distinctive in the way you tell it as opposed to any other storyteller.
Trevor Noah has been at the helm of The Daily Show for over nine months now and he still hasn't found his voice. In fairness to Trevor, these things don't happen overnight and it was always going to be hard to follow the irreplaceable Jon Stewart. But after giving him a long wait-and-see period, I can't escape the sense that Trevor Noah runs the show like someone just keeping the chair warm for the next guy. He's like a VP serving out the previous Commander-in-Chief's term. He's Gerald Ford.
Don't try and tell me that I'm forgetting Jon Stewart wasn't brilliant out of the gate. I was there. I was there BEFORE Jon. I remember the summer of '96, watching MST3K reruns and Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and seeing ads for this new political comedy show. The ads didn't show this Craig Kilborn guy, but the voice - both in its smarmy nature and general cadence - reminded me of Dennis Miller, then one of my favorite comedians. So I tuned in and became a regular viewer.
Kilborn's show was a slightly different beast. He had this faux-pomposity that seemed half-artifice, half-truth. (In other words, he probably WAS that big an asshole, but put a lot of work into making it seem like an act.) The show didn't touch politics, and its favorite targets tended to be celebrity, odd stories, and shining a light on local odd balls. The tone of these pieces would occasionally veer towards the meanspirited. It's one thing to show people voting for Trump to be complete morons, it's quite another to put a guy on TV and laugh at him because he's built a "UFO Welcome Center" in his backyard.
Jon took over in January of 1999, and even though some aspects of the show took time to evolve, the tone of Jon's humor was already different. Kilborn was sort of the smarmy asshole who could land a good punchline, but he always felt like the guy who'd hit you below the belt when your back was turned just to make everyone else laugh. His whole persona was based on ego. Jon was a different sort of class clown - he was the guy you liked. In the high school that is the comedy world, Kilborn would be the guy doing a joke about how ugly a teacher was or how much they smelled. Jon would be the guy with a cutting remark about how a teacher trading sexual favors for grades might not be the guy to deliver a lesson plan on ethics.
I'm not saying Jon never took some cheap shots, but the overall tone of his humor was kinder and more observational. Even in the summer of 1999, I took it as a compliment when someone I was working for told me they'd seen a bit of this show and "that Jon Stewart guy reminds me of you." I think I got what he meant - a "nice-looking" guy who was presentable in a suit and could pass as series even while wryly commenting on the world around him. And you could feel Jon's observational persona trickle down through the correspondents he hired, such as Steve Carrell and Mo Rocca. Carrell and Colbert (a late holdover from the Kilborn era) could especially master the faux-seriousness of news correspondants and exaggerate to just enough to puncture the self-seriousness behind it.
I want to show you the moment where you really felt like Jon was putting his stamp on the show, and it happened less than a year after Jon took over - December 6, 1999. The 2000 election campaign gave Stewart and his team the first chance they had to put political humor front and center. For those of you who came to TDS later, this will seem tame, but at the time, the idea that a comedy show would actually send correspondents on the campaign trail as credentialed press was unheard of. Jon and team found their way in, by not just doing jokes about the candidates, but by sending up the people covering this event. The correspondents (and by extension, the media) were the butt of the joke.
Then, about two months later, Bob Dole showed up as a political analyst for the show in the first of several pieces that election season. This was about as unlikely as Paul McCartney showing up as a guest VeeJay for a weeklong stint on TRL. Obviously, the show's approach to political humor evolved over the years, particular with a target like the Bush Administration. It took a while before they landed on their trademark move of showing what a politician said yesterday, then reaching back months or even years to reveal them taking a completely opposite position. (This tactic would later be applied to Fox News, when calling out correspondants for taking a stance that happened to support the Bush Administration, then arguing the complete opposite of that stance when the original argument would benefit the Obama Administration.)
That's how Jon Stewart became the most trusted man in news, fake or otherwise. By calling out politician through the use of their own words, he was a watchdog. He was the mouthpiece for people frustrated by the corruption of Bush and his ilk. It was a breath of fresh air to have someone say, "Yeah, I see this too! And we're not gonna let you weasels get away with this bullshit!" And because every stance Jon took was rooted in a sort of intellectual honesty, that integrity became a hallmark of the show. You felt his passion. You believed him when he agreed with you, and when you weren't as versed in what he had to say, he had a way of making you listen.
Back when Conan O'Brien was having The Tonight Show taken away from him, I recall one article discussing the sort of fan passion the late night hosts garnered. One quote stuck with me: "The 20-35 crowd loves Conan, but they'd take a bullet for Jon Stewart." Sounds about right.
That was a long preamble, but I wanted to pre-answer a likely rebuttal: I know Jon Stewart didn't arrive on The Daily Show as the exact same guy he was in 2008, or 2012, or whatever particular peak you want to pull from. I'm not saying Trevor Noah needs to be that guy. I just want to see some evidence he has a voice to bring to TDS. Jon knew how to use election scene to redefine the show. The show spoke for him. Trevor Noah still feels like a guy reading someone else's lines.
The edge has been dulled off of most of The Daily Show's jokes. Even with Trump, the show feels content to do mostly safe material about how he's a racist and an egotistical asshole. I'm sure Jon would have been weary of Trump by this point, but I also feel like he'd have dug deeper and found a different angle. Maybe he'd be pointing out how the media is complicit in normalizing these fascist views. It wouldn't be hard to make noise about how few in the mainstream press are bold enough to call out Trump for the monster he is, at the risk of looking "biased."
Trevor doesn't even have the excuse that his outsider's perspective makes it harder for him to make the same attacks, because Englishman-by-birth John Oliver has had little trouble taking on all manner of issues, including Trump, in some brilliantly produced editorial pieces. This one from a few months ago is just a brutal piece of production, the product of a lot of research and razor-sharp satire to make its points.
And maybe that's what's missing from The Daily Show - any sense of research or depth of knowledge on the subjects they're satirizing. We're back to Weekend Update levels when it comes to the level of understanding about this year's campaign (or any topic.) To be fair, it's Noah's right to make over the show however he pleases, but half-interested approach does them no favors when they're followed up by The Nightly Show, which demonstrates that Larry Wilmore HAS learned from the Jon Stewart playbook.
With the departure of Jessica Williams, The Daily Show is left with Jordan Klepper as the only correspondent who consistently knocks it out of the park and has a honed comic persona. There are a couple with potential, but when taking the wider view, I don't see how this team in total reflects any coherent voice on the part of Noah. It's not as if Stewart hit it out of the park on every correspondent hire either (Olivia Munn's tenure was a distinct low, and I had to look it up to remember Josh Gad had been a correspondent), but it's a problem to have a team that doesn't, well, feel like a team.
On Wilmore's side of things, just about every correspondent is firing on all cylinders and they all compliment Larry's voice. Jordan Carlos is probably my favorite. His bits as Hillary Clinton's campaign manager (skip to 6:35) have shown some teeth that are completely absent on TDS these days. Mike Yard and Holly Walker are right on his heels. Frankly, the weakest member of Wilmore's team would be - at worst - the second-strongest player on The Daily Show bench.
Noah needs to find what he's passionate about. Nothing he has done so far matches the anger we get in Wilmore's voice when after a joke about Bill Cosby, he says, "That's right motherfucker, I haven't forgotten about you!" Like Stewart, he's personalized much of what he's talking about. It's the same sort of difference between an anchorman who's a newsreader, and one who's a journalist.
To be sure, Larry's tenure has been some seven months longer than Trevor's, and there were a fair amount of bumps in the first year. The difference there was that you could feel Larry adapting and had a sense that someone was in the driver's seat. Larry knew what kind of show he wanted and it was just trial and error to figure out how to best refine that voice. On top of that, he had years as a TV writer and as a correspondent for The Daily Show to develop that persona. Stewart himself had a number of failed talk shows before manning the desk.
Trevor Noah's resume shows some hosting experience, but mostly of the gossip show and dating show variety. Perhaps he wasn't prepared for just how much dedication a show like The Daily Show takes. He's closing in on a year in that seat and the most detectable change he's made is not sitting at the desk for the first segment. Writers, if you're trying to understand what voice can bring to material, watch The Daily Show and see if you can perceive what's missing.