When Trevor Noah succeeds Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show in September, Comedy Central (and, by extension, its Canadian counterpart The Comedy Network) will play host to a quartet of black-led prime-time and late-night programs the likes of which haven't been seen on mainstream screens for 20 years.
Noah's revamped Daily Show will be the third series helmed by a black or biracial comedian to launch, or re-launch, on the network this year, alongside The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Why? with Hannibal Buress, which made its debut this past Wednesday. Also premiering this week, and rounding out the foursome, is the fifth season of the channel's hit sketch series Key & Peele.
Not since the mid-nineties, when a fledgling Fox network aggressively courted African-American audiences with the combination of In Living Color and its Thursday night "black block" lineup – Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover – has a station with such broad appeal provided a comparable spotlight for entertainers of colour.
But whereas Fox was then engaged in a calculated strategy to expand its viewership by catering to an underrepresented niche, Comedy Central's emergent status as a robust platform for minority talent appears not to be the product of a grand demographic design. In contrast to Fox's deliberate bid to tap into the Def Comedy Jam-era zeitgeist for archetypically "urban" content, Comedy Central's new regime is comprised of comics whose personas as black performers are notably non-traditional.
Take Buress, who, in addition to his laconic, semi-absurdist stand-up routines and recurring role as Ilana Glazer's laid-back love interest on Broad City, is best known for casually laying waste to Bill Cosby's legacy with a joke about the elder comic's alleged predatory proclivities that went viral last year. Buress's alternative style, slacker-nerd sensibility and obvious irreverence for one of the genre's previously untouchable pioneers serves to distance him from the conventional lineage of crossover African-American comedians.
Similarly, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele owe more to the self-effacement and pop literacy associated with nerd culture than to the swaggering bravado of Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock. And while, unlike Buress, their bits frequently tackle the topics of race and racism – subject matter audiences have come to expect from Afrocentric sketch shows – the duo offer a distinct perspective on those issues that subtly but significantly sets them apart from their apparent predecessors.
Key and Peele are both biracial, and their mixed heritage has been integral to the show's ethos since its earliest segments. Over its four seasons, Key & Peele has mined laughs from the concepts, rarely explored on television, of code-switching and racial performativity, enabled by its stars' seemingly limitless ethnic malleability.
Initially hired to fill the void left by Chappelle's Show, Key and Peele have eschewed that program's raw and abrasive racial satire in favour of a broader, more inclusive approach. Writing for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith recently observed that their series does not so much play "the familiar, singular 'race card'" as offer up "the whole pack fanned out."
That same spirit of inclusivity animates The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, which, in January, debuted in the time slot previously occupied by The Colbert Report. Rather than attempt to echo Steven Colbert's singular cable-news-punditry-as-performance-art shtick, The Nightly Show seeks to comment on current events from the point of view of the under-represented. (Its working title was The Minority Report.)
In Wilmore, The Nightly Show has found an ideal figurehead. A cheerfully mild-mannered comedian who came of age at a time when black male comics were exclusively expected to trade in hyper-masculine braggadocio, he knows what it's like to struggle to be heard. He made his first breakthroughs behind the camera, writing for the kinds of shows that wouldn't hire him as a cast member (including In Living Color), before emerging as The Daily Show's "Senior Black Correspondent" in 2006.
Wilmore has used his new position as a platform to champion the cause of the underdog in all matters, including gender, class and disability, and rejects the notion that his status as America's only non-white late-night host obliges him to talk primarily about race. His writers' room is a diverse space headed by a woman, and the fact that race has, indeed, provided the show's most consistent talking point to date is a simple reflection of the extent to which racial flashpoints continue to dominate the news cycle.
Wilmore will soon be one of two of Comedy Central's "anchors," with Trevor Noah assuming Daily Show hosting duties on Sept. 28. A 31-year-old biracial South African with virtually no experience in American television, Noah represents Comedy Central's boldest gambit of the bunch, and has already endured a backlash. The network remains confident of his suitability for the role, though, and pundits have ascribed him a "post-national" appeal, based on his international perspective and upbringing as a mixed-race child in a segregated society.
His familiarity with the issue of structural racism will serve him well in addressing domestic affairs, too. After all, even in 2015, the willingness of a mainstream American network to entrust four prominent properties to archetype-defying, non-white performers is without precedent. While there is still significant progress to be made, Comedy Central's new vanguard is shifting perceptions one punch line at a time.