Trevor Noah had one of the least enviable jobs in comedy last night. Jon Stewart transformed The Daily Show into a bastion of media criticism and political analysis. It wasn’t just a comedy program anymore. Some considered The Daily Show and its host an important part of the nation’s conscience, a role Stewart always seemed reluctant to accept. During his infamous appearance on Crossfire in 2004, Stewart said, “I didn’t realize--and maybe this explains quite a bit--that news organizations looked to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.” *
I was an avid watcher of The Daily Show in the Craig Kilborn days. (It’s how I learned about The Story of Ricky, one of the greatest cult movies ever made.) I’d also been watching Jon Stewart since the early 90s because he was on MTV and Comedy Central. It would take Stewart years to turn The Daily Show into what it became, and the transition from Kilborn to Stewart was low-stakes and little-scrutinized. For most of the public, Trevor Noah had just one episode to make his transition work, and it was apparently simulcast on Comedy Central, MTV, MTV2, MTVU, Spike, BET, VH1, Nick at Nite, and other Paramount cable channels.
And you know what? The Daily Show will be okay. Stop worrying.
* Can you believe that CNN has somehow gotten even crappier in the last 10 years?
When Colin Quinn took over for Norm MacDonald on SNL‘s Weekend Update, he did a bit about going to your favorite bar and meeting the new bartender. Noah opened The Daily Show on a similar note: “Jon Stewart was more than just a late night host. He was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad. And it’s weird, because dad has left. And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he’s black.” You could almost see the relief and confidence shine through Noah’s smile when his jokes landed.
Noah seemed to do a whole body sigh at the end of his intro, vowing to carry on The Daily Show‘s legacy: “Thank you for joining us as we continue the war on bullshit.”
Noah proceeded to barrel through the show’s first segment. He sometimes talks a bit too fast--nerves, probably--but he was charming as he discussed The Pope’s visit, which is necessary when making papal dick jokes. It led into a bit about House Speaker John Boehner’s impending resignation from Congress. (Boner joke.) The biggest laugh from me came from his impression of a shocked Marco Rubio frightened by applause. The second segment of the show introduced new correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who discussed the news of running water found on Mars in a solid bit about race. (I wonder how many late night comedians made jokes about water on Mars but none in California.)
I believe it was Dana Stevens from Slate who likened the late night talk show to a literary form, like a sonnet or a sestina. Though not a traditional late night talk show, The Daily Show has its own format, and Trevor Noah is sticking to it. A lot of Jon Stewart’s writing staff is still in place as well, which will help with this transition as Noah finds his own identity as host. For now, the only notable differences are visual--the logo has become sans serif (works for The Daily Show, but not for Google), the set is busier/more involved, the graphics are reminiscent of Sky News and the BBC, and, oh yeah, the host is black. (There’s a nice gag, probably recurring this week, about using the words “international” and “global” to refer to Noah’s blackness/South African roots.)
The first episode wasn’t without its snags. The aides/AIDS joke and the crack/Whitney Houston joke both drew loads of ire online, and they’ll probably fuel some thinkpieces today about what comedians should and shouldn’t joke about. (Expect references to Noah’s bad jokes on Twitter in said thinkpieces.) I wonder whether or not the benign violation theory of humor even applies to either the aides/AIDS joke or the Whitney Houston joke. The issue is as much a question of tone and delivery as the actual content. To be honest, I wasn’t offended by either, but I sometimes like a good uncomfortable groaner.
Besides, South Park already did an aides/AIDS joke. As for the crack/Whitney Houston joke, just remember: when making a joke about crack, the safe punchline, even though he passed away more recently, is Marion Barry.
Noah’s interview skills could also use some work. His first guest was Kevin Hart, and Noah seemed a bit stilted, downright robotic, early on. He stared at a box of neck ties (Hart brought a gift) as if they were live squid, then proceeded to do some C-3PO dancing before finally laughing off his nerves. Their conversation together never quite flowed or found a rhythm, but that will come with time. In the literary form of the late night show, the interview is often the trickiest part.
Noah’s also got to work on his spit-take. That’s some weaksauce spray he’s got there.
When I looked at Stephen Colbert’s debut on The Late Show, I mentioned that it’s unfair to judge a late night show on its first episode. (Supposedly Trevor Noah’s first week on The Daily Show should be treated like a miniseries.) But I think you can kind of judge whether or not a host will be okay captaining the ship early on. Noah is off to a good start.
And so a nation that takes its moral cues from television programs can finally unclench.