The brand is in an unfunny place, lacking vision for the streaming era under leadership that partners claim is more interested in squeezing margins.
Nobody at Comedy Central expected to find a new host for The Daily Show. At least not anytime soon. That changed on September 29 when Trevor Noah, the face of the network’s late-night franchise, announced on air that he would be stepping down after seven years in the role. Until then, executives such as Noah’s boss, MTV Entertainment Group CEO Chris McCarthy, who had lunch with Noah the day before, anticipated he would continue at least through the 2023-24 season. After all, he had renewed his eight-figure contract with parent firm Paramount Global for another two years in June. Then, in a surprising turn of events, Noah declared that he was done.
“We were extremely surprised,” says one high-ranking insider, with others present admitting to having observed. Noah’s signoff with mouth agape. The South African comedian, who gathered his staff after the show to discuss what he clearly didn’t feel comfortable sharing before, is said to be eager to spend more time on tour and building out his Day Zero production company. “I feel like it’s time,” he told viewers, noting how clarifying the pandemic had been. If all goes as Noah hopes, he’ll be off the show by the year’s end.
To many in Hollywood, it was the latest reminder, albeit a particularly glaring one, that Comedy Central is no longer the comedy force it once was. In fact, plenty argue that the brand, formerly home to seminal hits like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City, has been so dismantled, it’s barely in the comedy business at all. “Comedy Central never even comes up anymore,” says a prominent comedy producer. “It’s like no one takes pitches to them.” A scan of the network’s primetime lineup today consists largely of reruns of old, non-Comedy Central programming. And the company’s all-important streaming service, Paramount+, hasn’t provided viewers a comedy home the way, say, Hulu has for FX.
To be clear, Comedy Central has suffered with talent retention for years, with the initial exodus taking place after Jon Stewart’s exit from The Daily Show. At the time, the corporation was led by then-Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, who famously offered nothing in terms of resources or cross-company prospects to the network and its stars. Nonetheless, the late 2019 ouster of Comedy Central president Kent Alterman, who had made do with a solid reputation and long-standing contacts in the comedy scene, is widely regarded as the “beginning of the end” for Comedy Central. Six months later, his No. 2 Sarah Babineau, and the rest of their programming team were fired.
Depending on who you ask in town, McCarthy is either “a smart, thoughtful straight shooter” executing a necessary strategy in an increasingly challenged entertainment environment, or an “aloof bean counter” more interested in squeezing margins and pumping out press releases than cultivating talent or hit shows. McCarthy apparently was asked what his favorite show was at one of his first all-hands meetings at Comedy Central, and according to one employee there, he answered he preferred watching CNN. “He couldn’t think of a single TV show,” says the still skeptical source.
McCarthy, a Wharton MBA who rose through Viacom’s unscripted ranks, has led Comedy Central out of the live-action, scripted comedy business in the nearly three years since. He’s also overturned renewals (Tosh.0, Drunk History), off-loaded programs (South Side, The Other Two, both to HBO Max), and canceled deals, including one with Emmy-winning producers Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello, who went on to create Emmy-winning Hacks for HBO Max. “There’s more DNA of Comedy Central on HBO Max than on Paramount+,” a comedy producer observes.
McCarthy appears to be focusing on adult animation instead, with a major emphasis on still-in-development nostalgia plays like Ren & Stimpy, a Daria spinoff, and an animated rendition of Everybody Hates Chris. (An exec was hired in the summer of 2020 to run a centralized adult animation unit for the MTV Entertainment Group.) South Park remains a programming priority, and a new animated project from its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is said to be in the works.
Though the exact timeframe for Noah’s exit from The Daily Show was still being worked out at press time, he still has plenty of work at parent firm Paramount Global, where he has both a deal and a joint venture through his Day Zero projects. There’s a podcast, for example, and a growing list of projects in the works, at least some of which he’ll now have the time and resources to star in. But, a day after announcing his departure from The Daily Show, Noah had moved on. In fact, he was filming his next hour of comedy in front of a packed house in Toronto that night. It will, appropriately, be available on Netflix rather than Comedy Central.