Trevor Noah can host a show. Of this, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah left no doubt. In his first night in Jon Stewart’s old chair, the 31-year-old comedian from South Africa was confident and charismatic and full of joy for the job. He went down easy, and not just because he’s one handsome, telegenic man. He mitigated the shock of the new by sticking with the format of the show – essays; correspondent bits (Roy Wood Jr.’s water-on-Mars report was a premiere highlight); guest interview; Moment of Zen – and he accepted the mantle with humility and self-deprecation. He immediately got down to business, quieting his (exuberantly!) enthusiastic crowd to convey genuine gratitude for the opportunity and – this was wise – deal directly with our skepticism. One of several funny, winning moments during this passage: Comparing Stewart to the dad who abandons his family for another, and himself to the stepdad trying to fill the void. “And he’s black. Which is not ideal,” Noah cracked. What I enjoyed best about the remainder of the show was how Noah threw himself into the performance. He was having fun. He was also fearless and unflappable, qualities he perhaps best demonstrated at his worst moments, a pair of small but terrible jokes about AIDS and Whitney Houston, respectively. He let the ‘boos’ roll off his nattily attired back and kept rolling.
So yes, Noah met the minimum thresholds for fronting a topical comedy show, and then some. And if all Noah had to be was a pleasing, irreverent, What-Me-Worry? new century Alfred E. Neuman, I’d say we were in good, very handsome hands. But this is The Daily Show, not Mad Magazine, and Jon Stewart wasn’t some mascot-mouthpiece for a pack of smart-aleck writers. He was a keen, passionate spin-buster, a comic Cronkite to his niche, mostly liberal, media-saturated audience. His partisan leanings aside, Stewart represented something quite valuable – something Noah himself recognizes, because he spelled it out in his opening comments: “And the war on bulls— continues.”
What I’ll be looking for in the days to weeks to come is if Noah is worthy of leading that mission and is capable of executing it. Should we be making a big deal about the AIDS joke? I’m sure there’s a defense for it and for the worldview from which it came, and I can’t deny Noah gains something for telling it (no sacred cows, eh? Message received!), and I never, ever want him to lose his nerve (sincerely) – but I didn’t laugh. If he cares at all about proving he’s not that young comedian who used to tell alienating, insensitive jokes on Twitter – and maybe he shouldn’t care about that; but if he is — then AIDS jokes aren’t probably the way to go about it.
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What worried me the most was the superficial perspective expressed in the premiere’s comedy segments. He led with a package on Pope Francis’ visit to America. He wanted to take a pin to the hype, but all he did was bat the balloon around. The “war-on-bullshit” approach would have satirized how the media covered the pope and how the pope used the media to advance his agenda. His jokes, while energetically performed, lacked POV and veered toward irreverence for irreverence’s sake, most notably, the crack about the size of the pope’s penis.
Trolling His Holiness wasn’t exactly a compelling expression of Noah’s much-talked-about points of difference, either. We’ve been told to expect an “international” perspective, an “outsider’s” perspective. That sounds valuable, but I didn’t see or hear much of that perspective at work in the premiere. Mocking John Boehner for his weepy tendencies? That’s his inspired take on this seismic shift in the Republican Party and American political life? Way to leap for the low hanging fruit, dude. What’s next? Going after Donald Trump’s hair? Forget about meeting Jon Stewart’s standard. Noah should focus on getting better at being high grade Trevor Noah. I look forward to getting more of his points of difference – or seeing if he’s truly all that interested in delivering them.
We could also talk about how bad that interview was with Kevin Hart, though to be honest, Stewart’s interviews with celebs were never all that polished or interesting, either. Maybe Noah can find a way to improve the practice, not uphold it. (The biggest problem with the interviews is their brevity. They’re always going to trend toward shallow and rough as long as they’re short and off the cuff.) To be honest, I’m reluctant to draw conclusions from the premiere. There was a lot of housekeeping and get-to-know-me, which was to be expected, and a lot of self-awareness and meta-management, which was inevitable. I expect this to continue for the rest of the week. Let’s assess after a week or two. You have our attention, Trevor Noah. Let’s see if you can keep it. Premiere Grade: B-