A question about comedy as John Oliver takes over The Daily Show

Whatever happened to Daily Show segments?

Tonight’s big TV event is that John Oliver begins his stint guest-hosting The Daily Show, filling in for Jon Stewart, who is going off to write and direct a serious dramatic movie. It will be the first time anyone has replaced Stewart for such a length of time (though Stephen Colbert and others filled in sometimes when he wasn’t available), and it’s a big break for Oliver, who has become the show’s most visible correspondent – and the one who constantly cracks up Stewart when they’re together – but hasn’t yet broken through to full-fledged household-word stardom. What we’re all going to want to see, though, is whether Oliver can pep up the show a bit, or at least bring something new to the table.

In recent years, The Daily Show has been accused of taking itself too seriously, especially with Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and his dogged sensible-centrist belief that there is some kind of middle ground the government could find if only the parties would put their partisan bickering aside. (Like many pundits, Stewart seems reluctant to admit that centrist or middle-of-the-road views can be partisan too.) But that’s not what has made the show seem a little low-energy lately. To some extent it’s just the usual dullness of a post-election year; things usually get better when the elections start providing the writers with more material. But one thing about The Daily Show that makes it particularly prone to slumps is that it’s almost completely given up on recurring segments, the lifeblood of the talk show form.

I started watching TDS around 2001, when even though Stewart had been hosting for several years, it was still in transition from the Craig Kilborn era to some extent: some correspondents and segments were holdovers from that era (including the most famous holdover of all, Colbert), and Stewart was even continuing Kilborn’s practice of calling the opening segment “Headlines.” The show had a ton of recurring segments: “This Week in God” (religion); “Ad Nauseam” (making fun of commercials), “We Love Showbiz,” and Stewart’s own favourite, “Even Stevephen,” where Colbert and Steve Carell argued with each other. Most of the segments were framed as parodies of the segments you would see on a real news broadcast: showbiz news, pundits arguing, a review of recent commercials. But they were also in the talk-show tradition of creating relatively easy-to-write comic templates that could be filled in with appropriate topical jokes. Most talk shows have these recurring bits because it makes it easier to turn out so much material every week: having segments with a clear pre-set format allows the writers to give structure to the jokes, and gives the audience at home something to look forward to.

The Colbert Report still revolves mostly around recurring bits, many of which have very rigid formats: my own favourite, “Cheating Death With Dr. Stephen T. Colbert D.F.A.,” always has exactly the same types of jokes in the same exact places, always ends with the same line (“I’ll see you in health!”). But The Daily Show has eliminated virtually all the recurring bits. There’s the perennial “Back in Black” for whenever Lewis Black appears, and more recently John Hodgman’s appearances were titled “You’re Welcome” after they hit on the idea of characterizing him as an entitled, bubble-dwelling rich person (which made his appearances much more consistently funny). But otherwise, almost everything is gone. Even “The Toss” between Stewart and Colbert is gone. Instead, the first act is almost always an extended version of what Kilborn and Stewart used to call “Headlines,” and the second act is often the same, unless it’s a pre-taped field piece. Free-form riffing on the day’s news, field pieces and interviews; that’s pretty much all she wrote.

I don’t know why this happened, exactly, or why the show hasn’t developed new segments to replace the ones that were retired. (Some of them had to be retired, like “Ad Nauseam,” which became dated after YouTube made it possible to make fun of new ads on the day they appear. Others went out with the performers, like the Colbert/Carell feud bit.) Maybe the dependence of The Colbert Report on segments made The Daily Show reluctant to do the same, since the shows are always trying to avoid stepping on each other’s material. And the show has had trouble coming up with new correspondents who could do their own bits – but then, even the popular correspondents haven’t done a lot in that particular form; Samantha Bee and Jason Jones did a lot of work together as a team, but didn’t have a segment together (Bee took over “This Week in God” for a while, and attempted to kick-start her own segment a couple of times).

But I wonder if the segments didn’t just seem too much of a relic of the Kilborn era, or of the traditional talk show form. The show as it has developed tends to let bits run longer than a segment can accommodate, and really dig into the issues that concern Stewart and his writers. That’s also why the material about non-political stuff – tech, entertainment, sports – has mostly been eliminated or shifted to Colbert as TDS has become more of a hybrid of comedy and political analysis.

Which is fine when the show has great material at its disposal. It presents problems on slower news weeks, when they have to strain to find things to be funny about. This is where the talk show staples do come in handy: because we can grab onto them even if we don’t find the individual jokes all that interesting; because they provide a breather from the regular business of the show; because they provide a sense of continuity to a format that otherwise is bound together only by the guy at the desk.

Oliver will be working with the same writers (including himself), so I don’t anticipate a change in form. Also he’s lucky enough to be taking over just after the surveillance story broke, which will give him plenty of material to cover. It’s a good Daily Show story because it has created tons of clips of people being hypocritical on national TV: they could fill weeks of shows just running clips of TV pundits reversing their positions on the issues from the Bush years to now. So Oliver could stick to Stewart’s format and still be fine. However, I do kind of hope he tries something new, and that that something involves bringing more variety to the show: even if it involves trying out segments that bomb and are never seen again, at least that’s something new. Or he could just go back to the Kilborn era and lift some of those old bits. I think Kilborn still owns “five questions,” though.

Anyway, in light of the issues that Oliver will be exploring, here’s one of my favourite Daily Show bits that is not part of a regular segment: Colbert’s “So You’re Living in a Police State,” a dark satire about Patriot Act-era concerns (which I guess are also today’s concerns, since today is still the Patriot Act era) and a spoof of old educational videos from the ’50s, which used to be one of the most popular parody targets in comedy.

And that reminds me: Because of when I started watching TDS, I still expect the correspondents to end their reports by saying “Jon…” sarcastically. Proving only that the “definitive” form of a show is just the form in which we first encountered it.