Trevor Noah Finds His Footing on ‘The Daily Show’
Let’s get one thing out of the way: if the question was whether Trevor Noah could pull off hosting The Daily Show, the answer is yes. From his first night at the desk, he has been confident and sharp and sometimes very funny, and if he seems too delighted by his own jokes, well, let’s all take a moment to remember Jon Stewart.
What we’re still learning is who Trevor Noah is. So far, the show has mostly existed in a sort of comedic uncanny valley: it’s still Jon Stewart’s show, except with Trevor Noah sitting at the desk instead. The similarities should come as no surprise — the writers and producers are largely the same, and the show’s structure is virtually identical (except that Noah stands up for his Moment of Zen, a twist on the ol’ Stewart sitdown). On the one hand, this is comforting — presumably, most of us are watching because we liked The Daily Show and would like to continue to like The Daily Show. But it’s hard to watch someone who is not Jon Stewart do a show so specifically built for Jon Stewart and have it not feel a little bit like a letdown. This isn’t Trevor Noah’s fault — he’s managed a seamless transition and assured us that The Daily Show we knew will live on. But once he’d established that, yes, he could keep the ship upright — which he did before the first commercial break — it immediately raised a new question: if he would never be as good at being Jon Stewart as actual Jon Stewart, then what would he do instead?
For most of the first week, the answer was: not much. In the months leading up to his debut, Noah had hinted that his particular Bullshit Mountain might be slightly different than Stewart’s — less Fox, more BuzzFeed — but the early segments were straight out of the Stewart playbook, albeit with more pop-culture references. With one exception, they could have just as easily run on Stewart’s Daily Show, and frankly, it was hard to be too disappointed by that. As Jessica Williams’s Wolf Blitzer impression confirmed, we may not get our news from CNN anymore, but the 24-hour news cycle remains fertile ground. But the exception was also the highlight: a bit that imagined Donald Trump as an African president (“there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home,” Noah said, before launching into an inspired soundbite montage) and gave us a glimpse of the much-ballyhooed “global perspective” that Noah might bring to the show. This outsider status is part of what made John Oliver so effective — and funny — as a correspondent, reminding us, with a sort of detached amusement, that there might be other ways of seeing things. (Not coincidentally, it also allowed for what may in fact be the world’s only genuinely fresh Trump joke.)
And as Noah heads into the second week, all signs suggest an upward trajectory: Monday’s episode, with a long riff on gun control, was solid; Tuesday’s episode was by far the best yet. It’s not that the show has worked out every last kink; it’s that the good parts, the parts that feel distinctly like Noah rather than Noah-as-Stewart, are coming faster, with fewer gaps in between. He’s started to develop his own rapport with the correspondents, not as their wizened master of ceremonies — the Stewart model — but, by necessity, as their peer. His piece last night, on Uber and the gig economy, did everything you’d want it to do (be funny, be relevant, grapple with complicated questions), but it also laid out Noah’s claim to the show. The difference isn’t the subject matter — had Stewart stayed another year, he would have dealt with Uber, too, presumably — but the perspective. When you watch Noah, a person who seems like he might actually use Uber, riff on the ambiguous morality of the on-demand economy, it feels personal. (It’s possible that Jon Stewart is actually really into Uber, but on the show, his standard persona was tech-naïf.) This and the Africa/Trump piece are the first segments of the new show that feel not just okay but better for having been done by Trevor Noah.
Which doesn’t mean the show has it all figured out. At 31, Noah is not going to be our collective dad, he doesn’t have the bolstering advantage of the Bush years, and his default mode — impeccable deadpan — also precludes one of the old Daily Show’s strengths: Stewart’s specific brand of moral outrage. While Stewart’s indignation could border on, let’s say, insufferable self-righteousness, it also gave the show its humanity, a vital asset for something frequently accused of engendering cynicism and complacency. Noah’s deadpan, meanwhile, is almost too good; even in his most sincere moments, you’re waiting for the punchline and wry smile. This is true even when you know the punchline isn’t coming, as in his obviously heartfelt but ultimately unsatisfying acknowledgement of the Oregon shooting. Asking a relatively unknown 31-year-old comedian — whose job, until four days prior, was to be a comedian — to assuage our national grief is an unreasonable request, but the ineffectiveness of Noah’s attempt highlights the challenge ahead for him. He doesn’t have to mimic Stewart, but for the show to have the weight we’ve come to expect — for it to be more than just a comedy show — he will, eventually, need to find his own emotional range.
Luckily, while occasions requiring deep displays of emotion happen more often than they should, they don’t happen nightly. Unfortunately, interviews do, and right now, they’re Noah’s greatest weakness. His main contribution to the conversations so far has been repeated praise of his guests — he seemed genuinely amazed that he was talking to Seth Rogen — which somewhat limits the scope of discussion. Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe told us that Bumble is a great dating app that will probably change gender politics in America. Chris Christie told us that we should vote for Chris Christie. You get the sense that producers and writers had gotten so used to Jon Stewart’s being able to wing an interview that they just sort of forgot this part, and Noah didn’t say anything because he’s new here. Both interviews so far this week were better, though less because of any real questions from Noah than because of the particular charms of Seth Rogen (funny, interesting) and Aaron Sorkin (good at talking).
But if the greatest criticisms of Noah’s Daily Show so far are that, after six episodes, he is not yet a moral authority, is too fawning in celebrity interviews, and laughs at his own jokes to a degree that is genuinely baffling (Is it an affectation? Is he just a hard-core laugher?), then the future is looking bright. Noah isn’t struggling with being a comedian on television; he’s struggling with the specific requirements of The Daily Show. Give him a month.