Szuhaj: The Tragedy of Comedy

by Ben Szuhaj | 2/25/16 7:00pm

After going on Reddit this past week to promote “The Nightly Show,” Larry Wilmore, who occupies the time-slot once filled by Stephen Colbert, was bombarded by angry Redditors. One third of the comments focused on a segment from September wherein host Wilmore and a panel of comedians cracked jokes at the expense of celebrity scientist Bill Nye. In response to one Redditor’s accusation that “The Nightly Show” “has done nothing but pander to the lowest common racial tensions denominator,” Wilmore emphasized his desire of he and his staff to focus on issues of “race, class and gender.”

“It’s really those three things,” Wilmore wrote. “Though it seems like a lot of talk on race. It’s one of the ways we were distinguishing ourselves from ‘The Daily Show.’”

But “The Daily Show” isn’t doing much better. Trevor Noah, Stewart’s, successor has lost over 30 percent of his audience over the course of just one year, compared to the 55 percent drop in viewership for Wilmore. While it’s hard to account for intangibles like the loss of a charismatic host, clearly both shows — insofar as the ratings are concerned — are doing something wrong.

Wilmore is a more distinguished comedian than Noah. Among other accolades, Wilmore has won an Emmy for writing the pilot episode of “The Bernie Mac Show.” Noah is the up-and-comer. New to the scene, he’s fresh off the plane from South Africa, having moved to the United States in 2011. With big, bright eyes and a charming smile, he’s fun to watch. Be that as it may, he never lets you forget that he’s an outsider.

Noah often jokes about his heritage on “The Daily Show.” As he cheekily pointed out, Donald Trump, with his “light xenophobia with a dash of diplomacy…is the perfect African president.” It would have been difficult — if not impossible — for Stewart to have made this joke. Noah and his writers aren’t dumb. They’re fully aware of this. They take advantage of the new angle. Noah has joked about his race and his continent of origin countless times, often for the purpose of satirizing America. It’s funny. It gets a laugh. Sometimes it carries a message. But, for some, it can cause discomfort.

If Noah is the outsider observing America for the first time, then Wilmore is the quasi-disenchanted, truth-telling American commentating on the news from within his own, all too familiar country. Much of his show focuses on and discusses near-comical examples of injustice, mostly those of “race, class and gender.” Wilmore runs a reoccurring segment called “Blacklash 2016: The Unblackening,” about how Republicans and Democrats alike are trying to “unblacken” the White House. For Black History Month, he has shared seemingly-unrelated daily facts with the audience, facts which he has acknowledged most people probably don’t have much interest in hearing. The idea is a good one — and the desire to educate is noble — but it doesn’t get views.

Experimentation is not something new for Comedy Central. Colbert was given the chance to shine in his cutting-edge satirical portrayal of the American conservative. From his platform, he critiqued major flaws in political and social dogma. While he inevitably offended some people, he was, for the most part, warm and likable. Stewart, the founder of “The Daily Show,” while more of a stark conversationalist than Colbert, handled major issues with grace, often times turning serious for the camera, aware of his dual position as the head of a comedy news show that also served as the main source of news for many viewers.

Noah and Wilmore are equally talented, but, as far as the ratings are concerned, it seems they have either been too quick to shine their spotlight on issues of “race, class and gender,” or they have been going about it in the wrong way. Perhaps Wilmore is too abrasive, unapologetic as he is. Perhaps Noah is overemphasizing his outsider-status. It could very well be that a large percentage of Americans aren’t ready to watch a South African make fun of them on cable — the same as they might not prefer to tune-in for a blunt and honest discussion of American inequality every night at midnight. The other possibility is more grave. As a nation, we aren’t ready to have these kinds of talks. In any event, Noah and Wilmore are bringing important issues to the public’s attention, even if it means a shrinking audience. Hopefully, the recoil is only temporary.