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What’s Left at Comedy Central?

Jessica Williams and Michelle Wolf are gone, and now Hasan Minhaj is headed to Netflix. With all of its brightest young stars fleeing to greener pastures, the cable network is being forced into a reset.

A Comedy Central logo emitting a ray of light on Jessica Williams, Michelle Wolf, and Hassan Minhaj Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hasan Minhaj is leaving Comedy Central. On Thursday, Netflix announced that he has signed on with the streaming service to host a weekly comedy show, with a 32-episode commitment, beginning later this year.

For Minhaj, who will become the first Indian American to host a weekly television show, this is well deserved. The comedian is perhaps best recognized for his turn hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year, the first of the Donald Trump administration, in which he used his own status as a person of color to devastatingly hilarious effect. “I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact,” Minhaj said near the beginning of his opening monologue. “It is not. No one wanted to do this. So of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant.” Minhaj quickly gained notoriety after starting as a correspondent on The Daily Show in November 2014, just as Jon Stewart began transitioning out as the show’s host, ceding the desk to Trevor Noah. As a correspondent, Minhaj brought the wit that landed him the Correspondents’ Dinner, including a sit-down with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Syrian refugees. In May 2017, following the success of the Correspondents’ Dinner, the comedian released his first stand-up special, Homecoming King, on Netflix. He’s been a rising star for some time, and it’s no surprise to see him taking a bit more of the spotlight.

But for Comedy Central, this must be highly concerning. In the past two years, the network—The Daily Show, specifically—has lost Minhaj, Michelle Wolf, and Jessica Williams. Wolf produced a stand-up special with HBO and is working on her own late-night Netflix series, while Williams made a movie for Netflix called The Incredible Jessica James and turned her podcast series 2 Dope Queens into an HBO miniseries. While the reasons for their departures vary—Netflix reportedly outbid Comedy Central for Minhaj’s new show after he produced a pilot—one truth looms large: The network is not only losing its homegrown talent to greener or more lucrative pastures, but it has little in the way of replacing these comedic talents. Its brightest young stars have all slipped away; what’s left is a slate of series that are either past their primes, in desperate search of a prime, hopeful but risky, or tied to Noah.

Comedy Central probably wishes it were still 2015. That was a good year: With headline-grabbing episodes like “Last Fuckable Day” and “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” Inside Amy Schumer became one of the hottest, most talked-about comedies in its third season. A month before “Last Fuckable Day” aired, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson wrapped up the second season of their show, Broad City, on a high note with “St. Mark’s.” The network was suddenly home to two of the most critically adored, culturally relevant comedies on television, both led by women with strong voices and unignorable senses of humor. Elsewhere, Key and Peele was coming off of its best season, critically and commercially; Workaholics served the bro community; Drunk History, Review, and Nathan for You padded out the schedule as commendable shows with small but passionate bases; and Jon Stewart was still hosting The Daily Show. In June 2015, The New York Times declared that Comedy Central was “in the middle of a creative renaissance.”

In 2018, things feel a little—OK, a lot—different. Inside Amy Schumer technically hasn’t ended, but after an uneven fourth season that aired in 2016, Schumer is taking a Larry David–esque creative hiatus—all the while making more and more movies; movies that, in retrospect, call into question whether she is the comedic genius many thought she was in 2015. Schumer has said that a fifth season of Inside will happen eventually; it’s just hard to tell whether anyone will be pining for it when that time comes.

Broad City, too, despite producing a fourth season in 2017 that was often fresh, imaginative, and funny, seems to be fading as a cultural phenomenon. Compared with Season 2 ratings (which were slightly lower than Season 1’s), Season 4 dipped by about 22 percent, from about 740,000 viewers per episode to about 580,000. And whereas Broad City was a staple on year-end lists in its first two seasons, few publications recognized the fourth season as one of TV’s best in 2017.

Keegan-Michael Key is now on Netflix; Jordan Peele may accept an Oscar (maybe more than one!) on Sunday for his directorial debut, Get Out. Review is gone; Jon Stewart is gone. Longtime Daily Show correspondent (and current Ringer podcast host) Larry Wilmore saw his late-night show canceled after just two seasons following tepid ratings. Workaholics has been replaced by Corporate, which feels like a lesser Workaholics. (Comedy Central recently renewed Corporate for a second season.) Drunk History and Nathan for You remain on air—and both have recently broadcast some of their most critically praised episodes to date with the Tiffany Haddish–featuring “Heroines” and “Finding Frances,” respectively. But both continue to attract small audiences, a fact that feels more glaring now that their ratings aren’t held up by must-see comedy series.

Practically the only constants in Comedy Central’s lineup are South Park and, somehow, Tosh.0, which was renewed for three more seasons in February. The less said about Tosh.0 the better, but even South Park, a decades-long, profanity-laced staple of modern American culture, has seen its impact diminished. The show has failed to find a way to satirize the Trump administration, and as such appeals only to its devoted but niche fan base and folks who want to kill some time online.

Meanwhile, the series that Comedy Central has ordered to fill the holes haven’t been nearly as successful as their predecessors. The sitcom Another Period, from Drunk History cocreator Jeremy Konner, has seen its ratings drop precipitously since its first season in 2015, which peaked at just north of 700,000 views. January’s Season 3 premiere got fewer than 300,000 eyeballs. The 2017 comedy series Detroiters is coming back for a second season later this year, and while its reviews were mostly positive, it avoided the kind of effusive praise that deems the series must-watch as Peak TV continues to bloat. As for the Jillian Bell–starring Idiotsitter, the fact that Comedy Central reduced its second season from 10 episodes to seven speaks volumes: The ratings are down the drain.

And though The President Show has the best Trump impression on television—courtesy of Anthony Atamanuik—it’s Alec Baldwin’s tired impersonation on Saturday Night Live that consistently grabs headlines. Which is a shame, because sometimes Atamanuik’s can get very, very real.

Comedy Central is set to debut four new series in 2018, none of which carry enough big names or splashy-enough premises to guarantee that they’ll become part of the zeitgeist. The most promising upcoming project will be Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s still-untitled sitcom. Kelly and Schneider might not be household names, but they were influential to SNL’s biting, Emmy-winning political commentary in 2017. That SNL’s political humor has struggled since Kelly and Schneider left the show speaks volumes to what they brought to the table, but their new show, about “two struggling siblings who are forced to reevaluate their lives when their much younger 12-year-old brother becomes instantly famous without trying,” is cut from a different cloth. And without that name recognition, it’ll be a harder sell to viewers.

Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. will be starring in Re-Established, a half-hour comedy of his own creation. This is a good sign for Comedy Central—with Minhaj’s forthcoming departure, he’s probably the best Noah sidekick left—but it remains to be seen how Wood’s comedy translates outside of The Daily Show and his stand-up. Retaining Wood—who just had a Comedy Central stand-up special—will, or at least should, be a high priority now.

And then there’s Noah himself. He stumbled out of the gate when he took over Stewart’s desk in 2015, which makes sense. The stand-up comic was acclimating to a new setting and had to replace a legend. But Noah’s Daily Show has evolved along with him for the better. Unlike Stewart, Noah places an emphasis on global issues, contextualizing stories that most Americans aren’t familiar with and won’t find on other late-night shows. His interviews with comedians, actors, and political figures are as distinct as they are buzzworthy. The ratings aren’t as stellar as they were during Stewart’s tenure, but Noah is drawing more millennials to the show, which is what any cable network wants to see to lure in prospective advertisers. Noah needed some time, but he’s a Daily Show host the network can be proud of. The problem is that he’s one of the few in-house talents Comedy Central can boast about that hasn’t jumped ship.

In 2015, Comedy Central probably could’ve afforded to let Williams, Wolf, and Minhaj walk out the door. As we’ve covered: It’s not 2015 anymore. Netflix has transformed into not just an entertainment conglomerate, but into the new hub of stand-up comedy specials. HBO is making moves in similar spaces; all the while, traditional cable networks are a dying breed. Comedy Central’s talent-bleeding isn’t just disconcerting, it’s a sign of the shifting tides in entertainment consumption. The deep pockets of HBO and Netflix—while Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, continues to struggle financially—are a part of the problem, but the network also can’t keep up in terms of promising talents like Williams, Wolf, and Minhaj that they’ll be getting the most attention by sticking around. Relegated to a lower status in the entertainment landscape, Comedy Central is forced to watch its young stars leave and has no choice but to build another renaissance from the ground up. There’s no guarantee it will—and the forecast doesn’t look great—but hey, the network has done it before.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.