Jon Stewart was always going to be a tough act to follow. When Stewart was hired to host The Daily Show, 16 years ago, the host of The Daily Show could be, simply, a comedian. By the time he left, being “just” a comedian felt insufficient. Over his tenure, Stewart transformed his pulpit into a cultural institution and himself from a trenchant observer of our absurd politics into one of our politics’ moral authorities—or, as Trevor Noah put it in his debut as the host of The Daily Show, into America’s “political dad.”
Neither of Stewart’s most obvious heirs were mere jokesters: Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report was a satirist, using a buffoonish persona to hilariously expose hypocrisy and idiocy. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver has become a kind of activist entertainer, using humor to explain and draw attention to important, misunderstood, under-discussed issues. Unfortunately for Comedy Central, when Stewart announced his retirement, Colbert and Oliver were both unavailable, as were the heavy hitters (Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer) the network asked to replace him.
Enter Noah, a South African comedian all but unknown in America, but one whose biographical information alone suggested he might, like Stewart, be a natural at the more-than-just-a-comedian thing. Trevor is the son of a white, Swiss father and a black, South African mother, and he spent his childhood in an apartheid society where his mother had to drop his hand in front of the police. His stand-up is about race and identity—and how weirdly and stupidly his race and identity often make other people behave. It is a particularly fertile moment to have a black man who is an expert on race, racial anxiety, and code-switching host a late night show, even if he isn’t an American.
But as can only happen in our 24/7 opinion culture, Noah’s unexpected hiring went from a surprising decision-with-potential to seriously questionable in the amount of time it took to read through Noah’s dumb, unfunny tweets. Days after being anointed, Noah lost not just the gentle indifference of the liberal audience that adores Stewart, but also their goodwill. Taking over an institution like The Daily Show was always going to be difficult, but Noah was suddenly starting from a deficit. A hard gig just got way, way harder.
Whatever else Noah’s first episode as host of The Daily Show did, it demonstrated why Comedy Central hired him: the guy could not be more comfortable on television. His first night in a very high-pressure situation, Noah seemed entirely at ease, starting with a little earnestness, segueing into material that he capably handled even though it still felt built to Stewart specs, and finishing with an entirely toothless interview with Kevin Hart. This had to be one of the most stressful nights of his life and but it looked like his heart rate was steady as a metronome.
Noah and the writers of The Daily Show, most of whom worked for Stewart, do need to figure out what Trevor Noah-specific material looks like. One episode in, the writing understandably felt tailored too much to Stewart, and not just because of the laughline about the Mets. Noah, pulling voices, seemed like he was almost doing a Stewart impersonation, with more smiling at the jokes. That smiling intimated a kind of distance between Noah and his material: it wasn’t entirely his yet. He could really laugh at it, without feeling like the guy chortling at his own wisecracks. The writers and Noah need to work on material that lets Noah himself seem like an authority—as Stewart so often did—and not just a parrot of his American writers. Giving Noah a gag about how he had to learn to pronounce “Boehner” right before going into detail about Boehner’s retirement is not the way to do it.
Some jokes fell flat. I’m thinking of the opening crack about indoor toilets in South Africa, a cheap shot; the joke about Whitney Houston’s overdose; and everyone at Club Congress having “aides.” It’s hard to know what happened with these: if Stewart would have taken these as first drafts and demanded some better rewrites or if the writers wouldn’t have even offered them up.
But there were a few glimpses of what the show might be like once the writers are writing to Noah’s strength, and, unsurprisingly, they came in areas where Noah is obviously different from Stewart. There was an early joke about being an immigrant: no American had wanted The Daily Show gig and so, Noah said, “once again, a job Americans rejected is now being done by an immigrant.” Noah’s exchange with Chief Mars Correspondent Roy Wood Jr. drew on what animates so much of Noah’s stand-up, the bizarreness of racial difference. “Brothers can’t catch a cab, you think we can catch a spaceship?” Wood asked Noah, before pooh-poohing Noah’s chances of space travel. “These white folks ain’t decided if they like you yet,” Wood said, in the edgiest line of the night, directed right at The Daily Show’s white liberal audience.
Unfortunately, the show ended on its weakest segment, Noah’s interview with Kevin Hart. Stewart was not always a great, hard-hitting interviewer himself, but he did typically avoid chatting with celebrities about exercise. Presumably, Noah will now know to avoid this too. As with everything about the night, Noah could have stood to exert a little more control, put a little more of his stamp on it, asking more pointed and directed questions, instead of just lobbing compliments Hart’s way. But one night in, Noah seemed like nothing so much as a show-biz natural: he probably won’t make the same mistake twice. Whether he really has something to say, for that, we’ll have to wait and see.