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Trevor Noah's True Successor On The Daily Show Must Be Kal Penn, And It's Not Even Close

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" not only defined the network, it became an institution in late night television. During the early-Netflix, pre-social media world of the early 2000s, Jon Stewart turned the show into a satirical news juggernaut that analyzed and spoofed not only newsmakers but news media as well. Stewart and his correspondents, like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee, all became expert interviewers and debaters who, though liberal-leaning, held all politicians accountable. It was a beacon of light for many during the intense 2004 presidential election, dubbed "Indecision 2004," which earned "The Daily Show" its second Peabody award. 

Trevor Noah took over hosting in 2015, shortly before the even more fraught 2016 presidential election. However, with Noah's unexpected exit in September 2022, the producers decided to try something different — using 2023 as a global audition, playing with formats and trying out hosts. And so, since 2023 began, "The Daily Show" has thrown us 10 different guest hosts, changing weekly, starting with Leslie Jones. With March 30, John Leguizamo brought the current chapter to a close.

We're curious to see how "The Daily Show" continues its transition, but at this point, we're ready to call who the best host is, and argue why he should be the one to inherit Noah's mantle — and yes, as you've gathered, it's definitely Kal Penn.

Kal Penn is his authentic self, even on The Daily Show

Despite Jon Stewart frequently insisting "The Daily Show" was just a comedy show, many viewers rely on it for news — especially in today's era of horrific headlines, conspiracy theories, and clickbait. The comfort of cathartic, less-terrifying news comes from hosts who are genuine. One of the best parts of Trevor Noah's reign, surprisingly, was the COVID-19 lockdown, when Noah broadcast in a sweatshirt from his apartment. It was quiet, effective, relatable, and he spoke as just another person going through the same ordeal as the rest of us.

Kal Penn achieved this authenticity better than 2023's other guest hosts. An actor first — most of the others were stand-up comics — Penn revealed his honest personality at the news desk, and even shared little-known facts about his life (for example, that he's been engaged to his partner Josh for five years). Not everyone can read jokes off a teleprompter and give them life, and some hosts looked downright uncomfortable (sorry DL Hughley and Marlon Wayans). While we were excited about Hasan Minhaj, he seemed to play a more theatrical, angry version of himself, as if he were doing a schtick. This might work for some correspondents, but it's hard to imagine pulling that off for a full-length daily program — not everybody was a fan of "The Colbert Report."

Speaking of Stephen Colbert, when Penn went on the latter's show, he said Stewart's advice was "Just be yourself and have fun." He obviously took that to heart. Penn was among the more confident hosts, like John Leguizamo, Chelsea Handler, and Sarah Silverman, who could react and play with their audiences. Penn seemed natural and relaxed, yet with impeccable comedic timing, telling jokes in his most authentic way.

Kal Penn used The Daily Show to tell new, relatable stories

"The Daily Show" producers clearly encouraged their diverse guest hosts to discuss topics that were important to them. One of the best new segments this year is "Long Story Short," a "Last Week Tonight"-style deep dive into a current subject that's significant to the host. That was one of the few moments Marlon Wayans seemed not only comfortable but passionate behind the desk, while discussing the underfunding of hugely important afterschool programs.

Kal Penn took advantage of this spot too, by exploring an aspect of policy and outreach he worked on during the Obama administration: the youth vote. While others, unfortunately, used the assignment of "telling your own stories" to mean "promote your projects" (for example, Wayans' first night included a silly, devoid-of-news segment about his movie roles), Penn did not. After Penn warned us upfront that he would talk about his White House experience a lot, he kept these credibility drops subtle, and while he did harken back to his earlier roles, it was always in service of political commentary — such as bringing back his "House, M.D." role for a hilarious sketch about the "Woke Mind Virus." He also did a fascinating report about a subject unfamiliar to many: the surprisingly diverse appeal of NASCAR racing. It was clearly important to him, and it showed both Penn and the subject in a new light.

Kal Penn knows how to give a good Daily Show interview

Watching different approaches to "The Daily Show" illustrates how difficult hosting can be. Like all great artists in their craft of choice, Trevor Noah made it look easy. 

Conducting a good interview is more complex than it seems. Penn succeeded, first by booking fascinating guests — including current U.S. president, Joe Biden. Again using his White House experience to his advantage, Penn struck a relaxed closeness unseen in many interviews — again, with the president – and gave us access to the Oval Office that we don't usually get.

Chelsea Handler's roundtable discussion was new, but reminiscent of her own show, and she did more of the talking. Al Franken's respectful conversation with Senator Lindsay Graham was risky, though he could have taken it further to hold Graham's feet to the fire. Hasan Minhaj gets props for asking hard-hitting questions, such as with "Shark Tank" investor Kevin O'Leary, but he also encouraged NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo to be something he wasn't for a schtick (that is, trash talking his fellow players). Sports commentator Skip Bayless criticized the athlete for it, out of context, and while Minhaj called Bayless out in a behind the scenes segment, it's hard to ignore that Minhaj goaded Antetokounmpo into the joke in the first place, which wasn't worth the laugh.

Like all good interviewers, Penn struck a healthy balance between conversing and moderating, asking clear, interesting questions that engage both speaker and viewer, without sucking up. For example, he asked Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Radhika Jones about her work in a complimentary and contextual way, without gushing. He also allowed her the time to speak, without summarizing her points for her. He was comfortable and easygoing, while allowing his guests to shine.

Kal Penn's positivity goes a long way for The Daily Show

Given the old, white, male late-night landscape, it's been especially exciting to see such diverse hosts add their individual spin on "The Daily Show." The stand-up comics, particularly Leslie Jones, brought a new energy to the desk, while those with hosting experience, like Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Hasan Minhaj, confidently told jokes while making important points. Al Franken had a fun, self-deprecating humor, though his slow pacing sometimes obscured whether he was joking. John Leguizamo easily rolled with the responses of his audiences, even if his enthusiasm interfered with his interviews. 

Kal Penn, though, was clearly the best. He not only had comedy, camera, and hosting experience, but an insider's perspective through his policy and political work. 

Finally, perhaps the best thing that Penn had above everyone else was his endearing positivity. As he told Stephen Colbert about his show "Getting Warmer," Penn finds the positive angle, focusing not on "the doom and gloom thing" but on "who's doing things right." He was motivating, even giving advice on how viewers can help fix problems. While Handler saying congress acting like animals makes the State of the Union watchable is a funny sentiment, it also adds to our current cultural negativity. Yes, it's fully acceptable to be angry in this divisive climate, but that makes it even more impressive how Penn can present the news in a heartening and inspiring way.

Penn told Colbert that hosting "The Daily Show" was his "dream job." While it's exciting to ponder what new formatting changes might be ahead for "The Daily Show," we'd also be happy to see more Penn at the podium.