Trevor Noah’s Moment of Zen

trevor noah
It wasn’t a secret that Noah struggled to balance his other endeavors with shooting a talk show in New York four nights a week. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
October 2, 2022

Trevor Noah surprised Paramount Global C.E.O. Bob Bakish, Noah’s key producers, his staff, and even some of his own representatives by announcing his exit from The Daily Show at the end of Thursday’s taping. What’s more surprising, I learned this weekend, is that Noah actually had lunch with Chris McCarthy, president and C.E.O. of MTV Entertainment Group—who, with oversight of Comedy Central, is Noah’s boss—the day before the announcement, and Noah didn’t even suggest he might be quitting.

That’s one way to avoid leaks, I guess, though it certainly left Paramount executives scrambling to articulate what happened to their network’s marquee late-night star, on its flagship franchise that, while declining in linear ratings, still generates millions in high-C.P.M. ad revenue, does well on Paramount+, and is huge on social. It’s a big loss.

As I mentioned Thursday, money is always a factor in these situations, and Noah makes millions as a top-grossing touring comic, with lucrative specials like the one he filmed Friday in Toronto for Netflix. But it’s not like there was bad blood at Comedy Central. McCarthy and Noah have had a good relationship and a pretty open dialogue, according to two sources close to the show. (Comedy Central and Noah’s reps declined to comment.)

According to one well-placed source, when McCarthy gained oversight of the network in 2019, there were two years left on Noah’s eight-figure-a-year deal. McCarthy quietly extended it three additional years, with a series of options potentially going through 2025. The most recent two-year option was triggered by McCarthy this past June, which should have taken Noah through the 2023-24 season. (There was a one-year option left after that, which I’m told McCarthy likely would have picked up as well.) As is customary, the deal included pay increases with each pickup, so Noah ultimately would have been paid in the same neighborhood as his late-night peers in broadcast TV.  

But it wasn’t a secret that Noah, who was already rich and a big star in his native South Africa when he joined The Daily Show in 2014 as a correspondent, struggled to balance his other endeavors with shooting a talk show in New York four nights a week. In fact, during the lunch last week, and at a separate dinner during the summer, McCarthy had discussed with Noah possible ways to make The Daily Show’s schedule less onerous. Options included shooting four episodes in three days, or having certain correspondents take over nights here and there. Remember, The Daily Show went on a summer hiatus in 2021; Jimmy Kimmel has taken the past few summers off, and that didn’t stop ABC from re-upping him another three years. These late-night guys are valuable faces of their networks beyond just the shows they host, and given the declining TV ecosystem, it’s really hard to make new stars. 

So, if Noah was under contract, why would McCarthy let him go? Good luck keeping a big star against his will, especially if Noah’s agency, CAA, gets involved. Plus, McCarthy is still in business with Noah on a production joint venture to adapt his bestselling memoir Born a Crime as a film, another animated film, a podcast, as well as other TV stuff. The company’s late (and litigious) owner Sumner Redstone might have disagreed, but if you’re in McCarthy’s chair these days, you express your disappointment that Noah is quitting and take the high road for the good of the remaining relationship. That’s what happened.

The Daily Show franchise will continue, but its economics are likely to change significantly. As my Puck partner Dylan Byers noted on Friday, the eight-figure late-night host increasingly doesn’t match the new economics of the late-night business, and with the recent exits of Conan O’Brien, Samantha Bee, Desus & Mero, and, next year, James Corden, it’s pretty clear that beyond this current generation of hosts, late-night is a contracting genre.

Still, Daily Show is a big platform, and through it, Noah became a household name in the U.S., hosting the Grammys and the White House Correspondents Dinner. So McCarthy’s phone was said to be blowing up on Friday with pitches for Noah’s replacement. (God bless agents.) Ronny Chieng, Roy Wood Jr. and other names have spilled out—personally, I’d love to see Jena Friedman get the job—but Noah isn’t leaving until later this season. McCarthy and Noah’s manager, Norm Aladjem, began discussing the transition timeline this weekend, I’m told, and it’ll likely happen at the end of December or early 2023, after the midterm elections and once a successor is found. “In time, we will turn to the next chapter of The Daily Show and all of our incredible correspondents will be at the top of that list,” a Comedy Central rep told me today in a statement. “Until then, we are focused on celebrating Trevor and thanking him for his many contributions.”

That’s the high road in a tough situation.