Nobody likes politicians and God is dead, so America has spent the last couple of years caring entirely too much about the philosophical symbolism of Late Night TV hosts. The eternal Leno-Letterman Cold War faded into history with a long whimper. CBS replaced white guys with white guys, and Comedy Central white guys with black guys. Late Night as a genre has started to feel almost reflexively about itself: The hosts are never women, which just means every host has to make at least one joke about not being a woman.
Trevor Noah’s first Daily Show was mostly a Daily Show about the Daily Show. (Our TV critic Jeff Jensen will have a full review of Noah’s first show tomorrow.) Noah sat onstage talking about how honored he was to be the host of The Daily Show. He made a few Jon Stewart jokes. He referenced several Daily Show meta-narratives: He said Comedy Central offered the job to a woman, although he didn’t mention Amy Schumer by name. The first correspondent check-in, from Jordan Klepper, was nominally about John Boehner, but “John” sounds exactly like “Jon,” so talking about Boehner’s replacement became a tangent about Stewart’s replacement. “I bet he’ll bring a new global perspective to things,” said Klepper. “I just keep hearing ‘global.’ I hear ‘viral’ and ‘youth’… everything’s just so f—ing new!”
Actually, though, not really. This new Daily Show featured an opening run of desk jokes, a correspondent check-in, a commercial break, a longer correspondent segment, and a celebrity interview. There were no profound political points made, but The Daily Show doesn’t make the news. It riffs, it attacks, it scathingly satirizes. And you could argue that the biggest news item of September 28 was “Trevor Noah’s first Daily Show,” so some navel-gazing felt justified.
Did Noah strike out in some new direction? Is his show global, or viral? It sure felt younger: He referred to Jon Stewart as “our political dad,” a compliment that also felt like a very careful statement of bright-young-thing new-ness. But Noah also said: “Now it feels like the family has a new stepdad, and he’s black.” His first big non-reflexive news item was about the Pope, which turned into a gag about Pope Emojis. I can’t decide if “jokes about emojis” are young and hip or the total opposite thereof. Noah looked confident, all the more so considering that the material felt a bit thin: I’m not against Whitney Houston jokes, but I am firmly against making a Whitney Houston joke just so you can pause for a groan and say “Too soon?”
But Noah’s second segment was a winner. New Daily Show face Roy Wood Jr. appeared as the “Senior Mars Correspondent,” talking about NASA’s recent discovery of water on Mars. The segment got off to a big start, when Noah did a spit take after hearing the news. The spit take felt like a Jon Stewart homage, but Noah’s delivery was goofily full-throttle. Wood and Noah wound up riffing on the idea of going to Mars. Specifically, Wood claimed: “Black people ain’t goin’ to Mars! And that includes you, Trevor!”
Noah and Wood are both black — and after that segment, Comedy Central played a promo for The Nightly Show. (Monday’s Nightly started with host Larry Wilmore explaining: “I’m a different light-skinned brother Late Night host.”) Comedy Central’s Late Night hour has never been less Caucasian: Cause for celebration, if only because one major network’s administration is willing to throw out whatever lame old playbook tends to push white dudes into every available desk job (onscreen and off).
And I laughed out loud maybe six times during Trevor Noah’s first Daily Show, which isn’t a lot and isn’t nothing. The chat with Kevin Hart was boring, but Late Night interviewing is a skill you can only learn on the job. As always, The Daily Show ended with a Moment of Zen. There was Nancy Pelosi, being incoherent on camera. (Stewart may be gone, Boehner may be gone, but the absurdity of the American experiment remains.) Noah’s new Daily Show wasn’t trying to be viral, global, or young. It was just trying to be The Daily Show.