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Comedy Central president talks Jessica Williams and The Daily Show

Kent Alterman: ‘We see how it’s evolving much in the image of Trevor [Noah]’

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Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

By leaving The Daily Show before anyone wants them to, Jessica Williams joins a select group. It includes the likes Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Oliver, and others who left seemingly at their prime for the chance to develop their own projects elsewhere. (And that’s to say nothing of Jon Stewart’s move to HBO.)

But this situation is different: Williams is staying with the Comedy Central thanks to an independent development deal that will allow her to anchor her own title at the network. As Comedy Central president Kent Alterman puts it, it’s part of a new strategy to actively ensure that the network gets to keep The Daily Show’s homegrown talent. Around the same time Williams signed her deal, Jordan Klepper, another one of the show’s young breakout correspondents, also entered a similar contract with the network. “There’s no reason for us to be passive about saying goodbye to talent,” Alterman says.

Alterman — who was promoted to his new position just last month after years as the network’s head of original programming — spoke to EW about the adjustments Comedy Central is making to better utilize one of its biggest franchises. With Trevor Noah’s one-year anniversary as host approaching, he also offered his thoughts on The Daily Show’s evolving role in a landscape that’s only getting more crowded with buzzy late-night satirists. And, of course, he spoke about Jessica Williams’ promising new future with the network.  

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After four years as a correspondent, Jessica Williams has proven herself as a standout talent. How would you describe her Daily Show impact and legacy?

KENT ALTERMAN: It’s where she grew up. She was on our radar before she even was on The Daily Show. When I first came back to the network in 2010, she was part of a pilot we did — a pilot for a sketch show. So that’s how she came to my attention.

She was super young and just an incredible presence. So when she came on to join The Daily Show, we were really thrilled that she found such a great platform to evolve… She’s made such an impact and found her voice so much, so it feels like a natural progression for us that we continue to develop with her and continue our relationship and figure out what’s the next incarnation.

She’ll be the first correspondent to leave the series since Noah took over from Stewart. Do you think the show will feel different without her?

One of the great things about The Daily Show is that there’s a continual influx of talent that go through varying degrees of time. But I think it’s the collective voices and diverse voices of the different correspondents and writers that really help exemplify what The Daily Show is. She’s been a really vital part of it, but there’ll continue to be other vital voices that are part of The Daily Show, as there is right now. There’s so many diverse voices right now, starting with Trevor, obviously, and Roy Wood Jr., and Hasan [Minhaj]. We just see The Daily Show as a great conduit for talent. And now we want to make sure as talent goes through, like in the case of Jessica — like I said, she’s kind of grown up there at The Daily Show — well, rather than say goodbye to her for her to go somewhere else, we want to make sure that we’re developing with her so that when she’s ready for her next platform, it can actually be with us.

So this is part of a more concerted effort to keep The Daily Show’s talent in the fold? Is it a response to seeing alums like Samantha Bee and John Oliver launch successful shows at other networks?

Yeah, I think we’re just trying to be smarter and more thoughtful as we move into the world. We have so much to offer, and there’s no reason for us to be passive about saying goodbye to talent. So we definitely want to find that balance where we’re supporting The Daily Show and helping them.

I would say that we have several different conduits for talent development. Stand-up is a good example, where we nurture talent at various levels, with really young emerging talent having platforms to come and do five minutes of stand-up. And the ones who really rise to a certain level get half-hours. And the people who do half-hours, a certain amount of them, whether it’s the [Daniel] Toshes or Amy Schumers of the world, evolve to getting their own hour specials. Or we develop shows with them, or give them appearances on a roast, for example.

So, yeah, there’s no reason we shouldn’t see The Daily Show the same way, rather than it being a self-contained thing. When people evolved to moving on to other things, there’s no reason they shouldn’t evolve to moving on to other things with us rather than somewhere else.

Jessica’s departure is one of many changes the show has undergone lately — obviously the biggest is Noah taking over for Stewart, but, as you mentioned, there’s also key people who’ve left to do their own shows, like Bee and Oliver. How do you see The Daily Show ’s place in the late-night ecosystem today compared to a year ago?

Well, first I would say that as far as the departure of John Oliver and Sam, those are all situational. When John Oliver left, Jon Stewart was still in his chair, and Stephen Colbert was still in his chair. And when Samantha Bee left, she was not so interested in doing a strict show. Like, what she’s doing is such a different animal than doing The Daily Show. Doing a show once a week is a much different proposition than doing a nightly show — or more aptly, a daily show.

But in any case, in terms of how The Daily Show has evolved, I would say that evolving is the right word. When we brought in Trevor to replace Jon, we never looked at it as a caretaker position. In other words, it wasn’t about “Oh, how do we replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and keep everything the same?” Part of the excitement of bringing in someone like Trevor was the opportunity to start evolving the show in a different way, and in the way that Trevor would evolve it. And that’s analogous to how Jon evolved it in his day 16 years ago from what Craig Kilborn did. It didn’t happen overnight — none of them happened overnight. Craig Kilborn’s Daily Show didn’t arrive fully baked. It took time for it to evolve to what it was. And when Jon took the reins, it also took a while for it to evolve. So our view is always the long view. And we see that the show is already evolving. Just in the six or eight months that Trevor’s been there, we see how it’s evolving much in the image of Trevor. And as he gets his footing and his voice honed and continues to evolve it, we’re excited for that process to continue.

Switching gears a bit, give me a little backstory on how Jessica Williams’ new project got developed and what it’ll look like.

We see her as a great voice. She’s so dynamic, she’s so funny, she has a great presence, and she has a great voice. When we first started talking to her, it was completely with an open-mindedness as to what kind of genre or what direction it would take. Because our interest is just in serving whatever is the best vehicle for talent to express their point of view and their vision and their voice.

So we started out totally open on whether it could be a very presentational show or a scripted show. The thing that’s exciting is that she has such a strong view of what she wants. So it’s going to be scripted. But it’s going to be very faithful to who she is and her presence, which is sort of already established in the world.

Jordan Klepper also signed a deal to develop his own projects at the network — will that affect his Daily Show tenure?

No, no, with Jordan, he’s going to continue on The Daily Show for a while. He won’t be leaving the show, we’re just going to do his development in a longer framework concurrently with him being on the show.

I know it’s early, but is there any timeline or a general sense of when Jessica Williams’ show might debut?

It’s hard to say. Everything takes its own course. But everyone is mutually excited enough that it made sense for her to transition her full commitment to it, which is really why she’s leaving The Daily Show — so she can be fully committed to developing it. And we’re just about to get started on that course.