Late night wars go international

Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)

Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)

Yesterday, Comedy Central surprised nearly everyone by announcing Trevor Noah as the next host of its flagship “The Daily Show,” succeeding the accomplished Jon Stewart. Noah is a Daily Show correspondent, but had only filed three pieces before the announcement. He’s no rookie though, having extensively toured the world as a stand-up comedian and hosted his own news comedy show in his native South Africa.

I have not seen Noah’s pieces on The Daily Show, but I have seen his stand-up act and heard a few interviews he’s done. Knowing that much, I can completely see how this might be a good move by Comedy Central. Noah is sharp and funny, but also powerfully serious when he wants to be. In fact, my first impression of him after hearing him on Marc Maron’s podcast was that of “fascinating person,” not necessary “just a comic.” I can imagine him being an insightful interviewer of top politicians while still able to deliver barbed wit in the sketches beforehand. That’s the gig. You might not know his name, but he can do the job.

This has been a remarkable time of turnover in late night TV institutions. Jay Leno is off the air, soon to be joined by David Letterman and Jon Stewart. Jimmy Fallon’s raucous show biz party bus Tonight Show is dominating the ratings and pop culture, while Stephen Colbert is waiting to take over Letterman’s Late Night, hoping to win one for the grown-ups. In addition to Colbert, other Daily Show alums have spun off, too. Larry Wilmore has taken over for Colbert in the 10:30 CST slot on Comedy Central. Sam Bee and Jason Jones are doing their own cable show. And, of course, John Oliver left the Daily Show after his successful guest hosting stint last summer and is doing remarkable work on HBO.

Somehow, Oliver’s success seems related to Comedy Central’s selection of Noah. The Brit Oliver and the South African Noah provide an international fluency not found in your typical American comedian. And that’s a huge part of the success of these shows. Jon Stewart turned The Daily Show into an international hit, a way for people all over the world to understand the United States “behind the scenes.”

There’s a discernable international twist in late night, as I haven’t even mentioned Britain’s James Corden as the new Late Late Show host, or that Conan O’Brien went to Cuba. As in the business sector the rest of the world is rising to capture the market share that once belonged to America alone.

Another viewpoint is that new voices are finding new ways to reach the mainstream. In fact, they were already there.

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