The Disappointing Shallowness of Trevor Noah’s ‘Daily Show’

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When we learned that Jon Stewart would be stepping down from The Daily Show desk just as the country ramped up for the 2016 presidential elections, it seemed, at first, like a grave injustice: how could he, collective moral compass and national dad, abandon us when we needed him most? But it also seemed like an incredible opportunity for his successor: comedically, the fourteen-month slog toward Election Day would be the ideal time for Trevor Noah to seize Stewart’s reins. There would be so much material! Absurd new quotes would be published every day! Never again (maybe?) would there be so many simultaneous over-the-top presidential hopefuls and also Jeb Bush!

Over the course of Noah’s first months on the job, the field, featuring staggeringly unlikely Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, has continued to one-up itself. (Lest we forget, this is an election cycle in which we have debated the origin and purpose of the pyramids.) In some ways, it is a comedic goldmine: there is, as promised, a never-ending stream of unhinged inanities to make jokes about, from the buffoonish to the terrifying. It’s a regular cornucopia of low-hanging fruit, and the still-new Noah-era Daily Show is feasting. So it’s counterintuitive, at least superficially, that the marathon build up to 2016 is exacerbating exactly what isn’t working about the current Daily Show: all the pieces are in place, but the result is puzzlingly hollow. The problem is bigger than election coverage, but election coverage throws it into high relief. While there is so much to laugh at, there is so little to engage with.

Segment after segment points out the absurdity of something an absurd candidate said, absurdly. And again, I’m not sure what else they’re supposed to do here: when life gives you Trump, are you supposed to not make Trump-ade? But the result is spending an awful lot of time on surface-level jokes pointing out the various ways that crazy people are crazy. The focus at the desk hasn’t been on dismantling broken systems of power (though there have been some excellent field segments from correspondents) but on highlighting the failings and eccentricities of a handful of powerful people. And the fact that, at the moment, none of the candidates actually have all that much power only adds to the weightlessness of the enterprise: it’s all a cartoon until someone gets the nomination.

That cartoon, to be clear, can be pretty funny. A recent “Trumpire” segment on Donald Trump’s alarming anti-immigration policy that took on the candidate’s bigotry/general existence was cleverly constructed, classic Daily Show bread and butter. Same for a (weirder) piece that reframed Jeb Bush as another Blackfish, a tortured presidential orca trapped in the captivity of his forced candidacy. (“Jeb Bush wants to be, no, he deserves to be set free.”) A piece mocking Huckabee began with his breathtaking comparison between Syrian refugees and peanuts (“If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts, and you knew that, in the five-pound bag of peanuts, there were about ten peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids?”) built into an amazing montage of the candidate’s food metaphors. But there’s nothing underneath the bits, no dismantling of Bullshit Mountain. Or as critic and Noah non-fan Sophia A. McClennen characterized it recently at Salon, “Noah seems to focus his show on finding examples of stupidity and laughing at them.”

But Noah has demonstrated as a standup he can do more than that: he is capable of exposing hypocrisy, both his own and other people’s, and, as his recent Comedy Central special Lost in Translation proved, he is capable of doing it in a way that is pointed, original, and hilarious. A bit about his preference to fly into the US on Middle Eastern airlines (“I feel there’s less chance that somebody will attack those planes”) — a show highlight — shows off just how strong Noah’s perspective can be. He can be personally invested; he isn’t always trivializing his own punchlines with a self-satisfied giggle. He can do characters with a specificity generally missing from The Daily Show. It’s fun to watch him get swept away by his material.

So it’s all the more frustrating that Noah seems to approach The Daily Show so gingerly, holding the material at arm’s length. Stewart ripped into his subjects; Noah seems to be studying them from a museum-appropriate distance. Where Stewart dug, Noah gestures, pointing toward various grotesque but amusing artifacts in the National Gallery of Political Absurdity, and then smirking on our behalf: aren’t those people ridiculous? (Though even here, the show tends to go for weirdly trivial details — Carly Fiorina’s bizarre lie about her closeness with Putin was definitely odd, but it hardly seemed like the most pressing target from the fourth GOP debate.) I can’t help but wonder if his still-baffling tendency to laugh at his own jokes is related: just when he edges up to really making a point, he backs off with his trademark winning smile, undercutting any principled investment he seemed to have. But the show desperately needs his anger, or at least his emotion, and right now, his slick charm walls off any glimpses of vulnerability or earnest and uncool caring. Even when Noah is responding to international tragedy — the moments when Stewart might have dropped his standard performance persona for something more raw — he feels just one step removed, like he’s responding from behind glass.

Plenty of Noah’s jokes — even the silliest ones — would have been right at home in the Stewart years; for one thing, it’s not as though every single Stewart-era segment was singularly incisive and policy-changing political commentary. But underneath even the most point-and-laugh bits, Stewart was mad. And his righteous anger anchored the show, making it feel urgent, giving it both gravitas and heart. Noah doesn’t need to be another Stewart. He just needs to let us in.

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