Last week Comedy Central cancelled The Opposition with Jordan Klepper after one season. It’s the third high-profile show to have come and gone in the post-Daily Show timeslot since The Colbert Report ended in December 2014, and the second to explicitly focus on politics, and so we’ll gladly use it as further proof of one of our regular theories here at Paste: people are overwhelmed by political comedy right now.
Look at the shows that have filled Comedy Central’s 11:30 PM slot since Colbert left. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, despite smart writing and a sharply defined voice, lasted only two seasons in 2015 and 2016. Like The Daily Show, it was heavily political, and in its short life was actually both smarter and more entertaining than its far more famous lead-in. Still, it was a political comedy show following the preeminent political comedy show; its days were numbered from the start, even if Wilmore, a fine host, hadn’t lacked the bite and fantastic acting skills of Colbert.
Then there’s The Opposition. Ostensibly a Trump-era reboot of The Colbert Report, but with its satire focused less on Fox News bloviation and more on Infowars conspiracy mongering and Breitbartian trolling, The Opposition never found its footing or voice during its nine-month run. As Seth Simons wrote here in January, little distinguished it from The Daily Show, which Klepper used to be a correspondent on, and which, again, aired immediately before The Opposition on Comedy Central’s schedule. Instead of a precise parody of Alex Jones and alt-right media, The Opposition just felt like another comedy news show written by and for liberals, a show as thoroughly in its own little hermetically sealed bubble as anything on Fox News.
The major outlier during this stretch: @Midnight. A ratings hit in its original midnight slot, the stand-up game show wasn’t especially political—it was mostly about memes and whatever nonsense was trending on Twitter that day. It moved up a half-hour when Wilmore’s show ended, and was eventually cancelled less than a year later, in July 2017. Moving behind The Daily Show might’ve been the kiss of death for a show whose future had looked bright. (Of course it probably would’ve been cancelled by now either way, since its host, Chris Hardwick, is the latest accused abuser to get thrown in the trash compactor.)
Both The Nightly Show and The Opposition had to contend not just with The Daily Show and Colbert’s legacy but with other Daily Show stars who launched their own comedy news shows on other networks. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver got the jump on the competition, launching in April 2014, when The Colbert Report was still on the air. It’s generally the most successful show from the Daily Show diaspora, and has even eclipsed the original in the eyes of many viewers. But it’s on HBO, so its audience is greatly limited compared to the households that get Comedy Central. Samantha Bee followed with Full Frontal on TBS in early 2016, and although it doesn’t get the kind of weekly viral attention that Oliver’s show often does, it still has more of a buzz about it than any of Comedy Central’s political comedy shows. Wyatt Cenac, Hasan Minhaj and Michelle Wolf all have, or will soon have, weekly half-hour shows that use comedy to discuss serious issues.
Then factor in the network late-night shows. CBS promised a less political Colbert when he took over Letterman’s old time slot, but that didn’t last long. The first half of any episode of The Late Show is as political as the Report. Meanwhile Seth Meyers turned his late-night show into an extended version of SNL’s Weekend Update (which, yes, also still exists on its own 21 Saturdays a year). Even Jimmy Kimmel, the guy who got famous for having girls jump on trampolines on his first big show, has become unflinchingly political on his ABC talk show. If it wasn’t for Jimmy Fallon and James Corden yukking it up with celebs every night, the Carson wing of network TV would basically all be Daily Show derivatives.
That’s a ridiculous amount of political comedy, even for these ridiculous times. The Opposition was doomed from the start, and there’s little reason to think the weekly show Klepper will be launching on Comedy Central will fare any better. There’s just too much political comedy out there for any person to consume. And the news is so relentlessly bad now, just like a constant tidal wave of horror and depression and misery, that many just want to escape it all together with their entertainment. The anger and the frustration of the Bush years was palpable at the time, but even despite the criminal invasion of Iraq, the massive amount of deaths directly attributable to America’s foreign policy, the drastic escalation in rank partisanship within the government, and the continued rise of the right-wing media, it somehow pales in comparison to what we’re seeing today with Donald Trump. The news simply feels worse today than it did during the height of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and comedy about it is less a catharsis than another reminder of how debased everything’s become.
The Daily Show itself has rebounded significantly in the ratings after Trevor Noah’s shaky first year at the helm. Its minority viewership has particularly grown under Noah, and although it lags behind Last Week Tonight on YouTube, it fares better there than most of its competition. Still, it generally lacks the buzz of most of its newer competition. Instead of using its reputation to prop up another political comedy show that nobody needs right now, Comedy Central might want to focus on trying to make The Daily Show as strong as it can be. After the failure of The Nightly Show and now The Opposition, it’s clear the network won’t be recapturing the highs of the Stewart / Colbert tandem any time soon.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.