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'The Daily Show' guest hosts (so far): Why Leslie Jones soared and D.L. Hughley sank

<em>Saturday Night Live</em> alum Leslie Jones was <em>The Daily Show'</em>s first guest host. She brought energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the gig.
The Daily Show/Comedy Central
Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones was The Daily Show's first guest host. She brought energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the gig.

So far, five well-known comics have taken over as guest host at Comedy Central's news satire The Daily Show. Former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj will make the sixth, returning to the program Monday night.

But before Minhaj kicks off another round of well-known guest hosts — Comedy Central's response to Trevor Noah's surprise resignation back in September — its worth considering who performed best among the five comics who have tried it so far.

And, most importantly, what their successes and failures might say about the future of Comedy Central's landmark news satire show.

Noah's departure revealed some uncomfortable problems with late night TV: hosting the shows are a grind, they attract a fraction of the audiencethey once did and it's tough for media companies to justify the large salaries they once paid to stars like Jay Leno and David Letterman (consider news that CBS is expected to replace departing Late, Late Show host James Corden with a reboot of the old Comedy Central game show, @midnight).

With all that in mind, it's worth asking: Is there any clue who might get the gig long-term at The Daily Show? Or, at least, whether Comedy Central will even bother hiring a new regular host at all?

Here's my take on all that and more, with an analysis of the guest hosts arranged in order of who I liked most.

Number 1: Leslie Jones (week of Jan. 17)

The Saturday Night Live alum – who was the show's first guest host – was also my favorite so far, mostly because of the energy, enthusiasm and commitment she brought to the gig. Other hosts may have an aura of cool or detachment that they used to provide a little distance – Jones is known as a comic for bringing her whole self to any bit, with little regard for how she looks when the dust clears.

I loved when Jones took on the bizarre, controversial sculptureof Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife in Boston, turning to the secondary camera to tell white viewers "you don't need to be saying s--- about this statue," before turning back to the main camera and admitting, "You know it's messed up when Black people and the Proud Boys hate the same statue." She also implied the statute resembled Dr. King, um, servicing his wife.

A few flowers to hand out here. I appreciate that the first two guest hosts were Black women (Jones and Wanda Sykes) and all the comics so far are women and/or people of color, given how white males are overrepresented already in the world of late night TV. I also want to give props to the staff writers and producers on The Daily Show – who not only had to deal with the sudden uncertainty of their employment in the face of Noah's surprise announcement, but also have had to figure out how to adapt the show to the style of a new host every week.

Any TV show with a host works best when its format reflects the ideas, interests and talents of that person. In announcing a long roster of guest hosts, Comedy Central essentially told the remaining Daily Show staff they would have to reshape the show every seven days.

That's a dynamic which emerged in a conversation between Jones, her writing partner Lenny Marcus and Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr., talking about the process of developing material for her guest hosting stint on the podcast Beyond the Scenes. Marcus and Jones spoke about how bits on the need for men to accept therapy and an interview with the head of Planned Parenthood relate to her personal passions.

"I always look on the other side of the joke," said Jones. "Men, literally are going through it. And honestly, I don't think that you have been given the permission to get help for that."

"I'm smart and grown," she added. "I didn't realize how many people ain't smart and grown." I will say, given how hilarious she is on social media, I'm not buying that Jones didn't realize how many ignorant people there are out there.

I would love to see what Jones might do with a chance to spend more time in the host's chair. But I fear she may be too big a star to find tethering herself to a late-night program long term is a good move.

Number 2: Sarah Silverman (week of Feb. 13)

Yeah, I'm surprised, too. But I really enjoyed Silverman's touch with jokes. I know her shtick is often that she's the innocent-looking, cute woman who says raunchy things, but she's also a comic who has an earnestness that she can reveal at surprising times to make a joke land a little harder.

In her first episode, she uncorked a montage of right-wing pundits, mostly on Fox News Channel, calling her horrible things, like "diabolically dumb" and a "god-hating whore." Her response, after insinuating they hated her like they hate gender neutral bathrooms: "What am I, a grown woman with an opin-- Oh yeah, that's it."

Later, in noting how some conservative pundits try to use the word "woke" as an insult, she noted, "It feels cooler to say 'I'm not woke,' than the truth, which is 'I'm terrified by what I don't understand, and I only know how to process that as anger.'" Earnest and telling.

I love the show's longform take on a big issue, called Long Story Short. And I really enjoyed the Long Story Short Silverman presented on how politicians and media platforms — especially social media/tech companies and cable TV news channels — leverage anger and division to increase engagement, boosting their profits while also fanning the flames of conflicts which threaten to tear the country apart.

"They can say anything, as long as it's what their audience wants to believe," Silverman says, right before telling the audience that conservative firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene killed legislation requiring the factchecking of fundraising emails ... then admitting that was a lie she made up as the audience was reacting.

Number 3: Chelsea Handler (week of Feb. 6)

Far as I know, Handler is the first comic among the guest hosts who has said publicly she wants the job, permanently. Given that, I was surprised that she didn't make more of her week in the host's chair.

Reading jokes from a teleprompter with ease and good humor is harder than it looks (one of Noah's secret weapons was how sharp he was at making the show's riffs on the headlines funnier than the actual lines). And since Handler has hosted comedic talk shows for E! and Netflix, I thought she'd be a little better at delivering jokes from behind the desk than she was.

Another tweak she brought to her guest hosting stint was roundtable discussions with a panel of comics about the day's news. But the panels didn't include the show's correspondents, who are the program's in-house experts on making news funny. Despite including some great comics, like Sam Jay and Atsuko Okatsuka, these panels didn't have quite the spark they needed and felt a little too much like Handler was trying to turn The Daily Show into her old show, Chelsea Lately.

One great segment she did present was a Long Story Short on being childless by choice (it does also reflect her biggest weakness as a host, however, which is that Handler seems most interested in subjects that are, in some way, about her).

Number 4: Wanda Sykes (week of Jan. 23)

Wanda Sykes
/ The Daily Show/Comedy Central
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The Daily Show/Comedy Central
Wanda Sykes

I have been a Wanda Sykes fan since her early days as a writer/performer on Chris Rock's groundbreaking HBO late night show (search on YouTube for Sykes and The Chris Rock Show to see what I mean).

So it pains me to admit that I liked but didn't love her turn in the host's chair. Though I did like her Long Story Short on how law enforcement often uses speeding tickets to raise municipal revenue, suggesting that communities create a "broke lane" on the highway, so folks who are speeding from their second job to their third job can do so without a penalty.

Number 5: D.L. Hughley (week of Jan. 30)

Domonique Foxworth and D.L. Hughley
/ The Daily Show/Comedy Central
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The Daily Show/Comedy Central
Domonique Foxworth and D.L. Hughley

Remember that thing I wrote about the difficulty of reading jokes effortlessly off a teleprompter? Since Hughley has done everything from host a show on CNN to leading a radio show, his struggle to find a groove delivering the show's monologues early on seemed puzzling. (He had the additional challenge of starting a few days after video was released of Tyre Nichols' beating by police, forcing him to try to joke about a terrible national tragedy.)

My theory: Hughley had a tough time negotiating the shifts between serious and side-splitting that riffing on the day's news requires. And the studio audience seemed to throw him off, particularly when they didn't like a joke – as happened after he said Kamala Harris was the first vice president to speak at the funeral of a Black person killed by police. Hughley added, one good thing about having a Black V.P. is "if you're not going to do anything about police reform, at least you can have somebody who goes to those funerals."

Ugh. That's a tough line to drop in a monologue that was mostly offering tart one-liners about the day's news. It also reveals that filling the host chair permanently – if that's what Comedy Central intends to do – may be a lot tougher than many people realize.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.