Has Comedy Central's late-night talk lineup lost some of its intellectualism since the departures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Yes, according to quite a few viewers on Reddit, and they can tell you the exact moment they noticed the change.
On Wednesday, The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore dropped by Reddit for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, promoting the return of new episodes next Monday.
While participants raised a wide array of topics, there was one recurring theme: disappointment.
According to several commenters, Wilmore too often falls back on vapid pop culture commentary or race relations in America for his punch lines and segment focuses, abandoning the humorous-but-heartfelt championing of science and reason that was a recurring theme for The Daily Show's Stewart and Wilmore's predecessor, Colbert.
One specific clip seemed to be a rallying point for those disappointed with the tonal shift. It was a Wilmore-moderated panel featuring science advocate Bill Nye, who was asked to defend why we should "give a shit" about water being found on Mars.
The segment aired back in September, but Reddit users were quick to raise it with Wilmore as the moment that they felt he had turned away from Colbert's legacy of intellectualism.
Check out the clip yourself before we get into the commentary and Wilmore's rather dismissive defense:
"This segment made me so angry," noted one commenter. "Such blatant and proud anti-intellectualism and anti-science for the sake of some cheap laughs on a show that used to pride itself on being entertaining without sacrificing intelligence. Definitely was the deciding factor in losing me as a viewer."
"I'm not going to lie, Larry, that really turned me off from the show," said another. "I've always been a life-long fan of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, and of you personally, but that incident seemed to signal a change in the tone of the show. It seemed like the show was trying to target the people watching E! and MTV as opposed to the viewers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report."
These weren't isolated opinions. More than 1,000 comments were posted in the AMA about this one clip—meaning more than a third of the entire AMA discussion was centered on this specific topic. A few defended the segment, noting that it gave Nye an opportunity to confront the nation's widespread apathy toward scientific discovery, but most said Wilmore's approach simply worsened the problem by reveling in disinterest rather than mocking it.
"I saw the commercial advertising Bill Nye and got fairly excited because I thought they were going to be discussing key interests of mine—space and science," one Redditor said about the clip. "Instead it was an ambush not only drowning out Nye but heckling the very topics I tuned in to hear about. The whole point of booking a guest that specializes a niche topic is to draw those viewers. They spent the entire panel mocking it. That was not refreshing. I haven't watched since."
Wilmore's response certainly didn't help matters. He essentially shrugged it off with a tone of "what's the big deal?"
"It was just a conversation," Wilmore wrote in the AMA, responding to a question about the Nye segment. "People are allowed to have a point of view. Bill Nye had a great time on that panel. He's been on the show a couple of times. People are allowed to have opinions. For the life of me, I really don't understand why people are so upset that someone would disagree with Bill Nye. I was on Bill's side of that, but still, who cares? It's just a conversation."
As you might imagine, Wilmore didn't win over any fence-sitters by asking, "Who cares?"
"The response Willmore just gave us seems to sum it up," a commenter said. "Not only does he not care, but he thinks his viewers shouldn't care either. Which means that anyone who cares must not be in his demographic of viewers."
Wilmore, for his part, acknowledged that there has been an intentional shift in the Nightly Show's core areas of coverage, largely to help differentiate it from The Daily Show, now helmed by Trevor Noah.
Asked why the Nightly Show "has done nothing but pander to the lowest common racial tensions denominator," Wilmore explained that from Day 1 he and his writers wanted a different focus than The Colbert Report or Noah's Daily Show.
"One of the missions of the show when we started was to be an answer to The Daily Show and focus on race, class and gender," Wilmore wrote. "It's really those three things, though it seems like a lot of talk on race. It's one of the ways we were distinguishing ourselves from The Daily Show."
The kind of criticisms leveled in Wilmore's AMA could be key factors in the show's decline in viewership since it replaced The Colbert Report in January 2015.
The Colbert Report averaged 1.3 million total viewers in February 2014, according to Nielsen. A year later, Wilmore's recently launched Nightly Show was holding a respectable average of 812,000 viewers. Moving forward another year to this month, Wilmore averaged 580,000 total viewers each night in the first week of February.
In other words, Wilmore's audience is 55 percent lower than Colbert's was in the same timeslot and 29 percent lower than Wilmore was attracting a year ago.
The struggle to keep viewers is not Wilmore's alone. A year ago, Jon Stewart's Daily Show was drawing 1.2 million viewers. In the first week of February, Nielsen showed replacement host Noah's audience down by more than 30 percent, averaging 812,000 each night.