TV

Is Comedy Central In The Middle Of An Identity Crisis?

On Monday, Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and I suspect my reaction was common: This is wrong! I like Larry Wilmore! He’s smart, incisive, and an actual adult amid a late-night field overpopulated with man-children. When I watched him, I always found Wilmore insightful. But here’s the thing: I didn’t watch him all that oftenTo be honest, I sometimes forgot that The Nightly Show was even on. This, apparently, was also depressingly common.

The cancellation news is the most publicity that The Nightly Show received — outside of Wilmore’s polarizing appearance as host of the White House Correspondents dinner in May — since the program’s debut in January 2015. People knew that The Nightly Show was born, and they knew that The Nightly Show died. What happened in the middle is where things get hazy.

No matter Wilmore’s attributes, The Nightly Show simply did not have much of an impact on culture at large. That the show’s cancellation occurred during the strangest election season in many generations underscores this sad fact — the public had already canceled The Nightly Show from their consciousness, turning instead to a myriad of other options.

In that respect, The Nightly Show is indicative of the overall state of Comedy Central’s current programming. Once a destination for zeitgeist-y shows — from South Park to Chappelle’s Show to the network-defining franchises, The Daily Show and Colbert Report — it feels like the network’s cultural impact has declined a bit.

While the ratings for The Nightly Show appear to justify its cancellation — viewership was down nearly 1 million from Wilmore’s predecessor, Stephen Colbert — Comedy Central president Kent Alterman used the language of social media in an interview with the New York Times to describe the show’s shortcomings, claiming that it “hasn’t resonated.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment — Wilmore’s profile as a TV satirist has clearly been overshadowed by his former Daily Show colleagues John Oliver and Samantha Bee, not to mention all of his competitors in the daily scrum of late-night television, where Internet buzz seems to matter, if not as much as ratings, then certainly on a level that Wilmore was unable to manage.

But, again, the failure of The Nightly Show feels bigger than just Larry Wilmore. Comedy Central in general is in a slump, with declining ratings across the board and a talent drain that has stripped the network of its biggest stars and (at least temporarily) some of its stature. This is not to say that Comedy Central doesn’t still produce excellent shows — the network can claim two of TV’s funniest comedies, Nathan for You and Broad City, while Review (which was not renewed) and Another Period have been cult and critical favorites. Then there’s Tosh.0, which continues to thrive in its own self-contained bro-lar system, and the deathless South Park, which returns for its 20th season next month. But none of those shows are breakout cultural phenomena on the level of Comedy Central’s signature programs. And now that Key and Peele is no more, and the future of Inside Amy Schumer is uncertain beyond 2017, Comedy Central is struggling through a transitional period where, at times, the network has seemed less visible in an over-crowded media landscape populated with scores of fast-moving rivals.

Comedy Central’s woes in late night have garnered the most attention, though Alterman insisted in the New York Times that Trevor Noah is doing well with younger viewers. Nevertheless, The Daily Show‘s ratings are down 800,000 viewers (from 2.1 million to 1.3 million) from Stewart’s average during his final year as host in 2015, even though Noah is competing in the heart of a (truly insane) presidential election season, when interest in political comedy should be peaking.

The ratings tell one story, but ask yourself: When was the last time a Daily Show bit took over your social media feed? The battle for buzz is where Comedy Central is hurting most these days. While Noah has done better than Wilmore when it comes to engaging morning-after audiences, there’s no doubt that The Daily Show brand as a go-to source for political comedy has diminished some. Noah is quite likable and he’s grown more assured as a host, but he’s competing against more seasoned political comedians like Oliver, Bee, Bill Maher, and Seth Meyers. Perhaps that’s why, for the first time since 2000, The Daily Show wasn’t nominated for an Emmy in the Best Variety Show category.

It would be one thing if Comedy Central’s problems were contained to late night, but the network’s other marquee shows are sputtering a bit too. The biggest star on Comedy Central right now is Amy Schumer, but the fourth season of Inside Amy Schumer landed with kind of a thud — critics were iffy, but more surprising was the apparent lack of audience enthusiasm. Ratings for this season’s premiere were lower than the season three premiere, in spite of Schumer coming off of Trainwreck and a barrage of largely positive media coverage. As the season unfolded, the lack of breakout sketches (a la season three’s “Trial of Bill Cosby” episode) suggested a deepening malaise over what proved to be some of the series’ weakest episodes. By the end of Inside Amy Schumer‘s fourth season, it had entered a “virtually invisible” zone; unless you sought Inside Amy Schumer out every week, it just wasn’t something you heard much about.

There’s no shortage of theories for why Inside Amy Schumer stumbled this year — an over-reliance on celebrity cameos and wan bits about intrusive fans and insensitive media coverage of celebrities set Schumer up for inevitable “fame changed you!” accusations. But no comedy show can churn out viral content forever, and it’s possible that season four was the moment that Inside Amy Schumer‘s moment passed. While Inside Amy Schumer will be back for at least one more season, it feels like something of an afterthought to Schumer’s burgeoning film career.

Like Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City seemed stuck in a holding pattern for much of its most recent season, reiterating what made the first two seasons so funny — mainly the chemistry between stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer and the lived-in weirdness of the show’s urban setting — without expanding or deepening it. It’s still a fun watch, but Broad City is emblematic of all Comedy Central shows right now — the network no longer provokes the sorts of conversations associated with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle, or the South Park guys. Rather, it now specializes in miniaturist sitcoms with passionate but limited (and slowly shrinking) followings.

Looking ahead, Comedy Central is rebooting some old ideas, empowering rising stars like Jessica Williams, and giving lots of budding internet comedy performers a shot at over-the-air TV. There’s also another season of Nathan for You on deck, which I for one am very excited about. What’s not known is whether any of this will enhance Comedy Central’s stature again. The so-called “Peak TV” era has distributed worthwhile quality shows far and wide — programs that might’ve fit well on Comedy Central, like BoJack Horseman or Difficult People, now end up at places like Netflix or Hulu. The days of tuning in at 11 p.m. ET to watch Comedy Central’s all-time can’t-miss block of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (with Chappelle’s Show or The Sarah Silverman Program as a lead-in) are gone. As for what will replace that once-essential tradition for viewers, Comedy Central still has to figure that out.

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