Critic's Notebook: President Obama Does 'The Daily Show' and Trevor Noah Gets Serious

Interviews haven't been Noah's strength, but he handled Obama's last 'Daily Show' visit well.
President Obama and Trevor Noah

Since The Daily Show With Trevor Noah premiered last September, I've been a strong defender of what Noah has been doing against a weight of pressure that I can't imagine.

The most trusted man in comedy news left and an inexperienced kid was in his place and the response wasn't always kind.

Noah took over a show that was a nearly unbeatable Emmy juggernaut and Emmy voters immediately turned their back.

There have been articles that literally posited that if Jon Stewart and not Trevor Noah were hosting The Daily Show, the November election would have had a different result.

The expectations were daunting and Stewart's shadow has proved inescapable for Noah. 

And through it all, I think that Noah has been putting on a reliably solid show, with exceptional moments. The writers have gradually tapped more into Noah's personal experience and voice, saddling him less frequently with punchlines that were either host-nonspecific or probably tailored for an entirely different man at the desk. Noah has picked his fights well and even if he hasn't had the outrage and anger that his audience has often craved, his incredulity has usually found its mark and in the aftermath of the election, The Daily Show was as good at trying to grasp the incomprehensible as several late-night programs that received a lot more critical love. In Roy Wood Jr. and Jordan Klepper, Noah has two versatile correspondents and although I think they're both inconsistent, Ronny Chieng and Hasan Minhaj have been coming on strong of late, with Chieng going viral on a piece taking down a lame O'Reilly Factor segment and Minhaj effectively playing off his post-election racial and religious insecurities. I keep saying over and over again that Michelle Wolf may be the show's secret weapon, but I hope that she won't be secret for long. More Michelle Wolf, guys!

Two-thirds of The Daily Show is funny and smart most nights, albeit with bursts of immaturity that maybe weren't Stewart's style, but Stewart left us of his own volition and it's not especially fair to pretend like anybody else was going to be Stewart, even people like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, who have thrived while doing this once a week. Nobody forced Stewart to leave before an election that everybody knew would be important and I'm not holding Stewart's choice against Noah.

But man, those interviews. We gloss over what a disinterested and bad interviewer Stewart was when he started and when the show booked talent he didn't care about. Noah is, unfortunately, comparable. Unlike Stewart, he doesn't act superior to the occasional crappy guest. He just asks bad, facile questions or wastes time kissing up to high-profile entertainment personalities when they happen to appear. 

When you put Noah with somebody he's interested in, though, he really is improving. I was less impressed with the Tomi Lahren sit-down than a lot of people were. He gave her room to be stupid and she gladly accepted that room and looked foolish, but that was as much on her as anything else. She seemed to be treating the appearance like Noah was going to crack jokes with her and she wasn't prepared to give real answers. She's not quick enough or intelligent enough to do that, but if she'd been better prepared, I don't know if Noah was going to be clever enough to return fire. 

Paired with people he's curious about, but isn't in awe of, Noah has been doing well. His recent interviews with Evan McMullin, Van Jones and many of the media personalities he engaged with during the election were worthwhile, and they improved based on how serious Noah chose to be.

Noah was at his most serious Monday night with President Barack Obama, a semi-regular visitor to The Daily Show during Stewart's reign.

Dedicating all three show segments to the White House parlay, The Daily Show gave President Obama one of his best forums since the election and Noah wisely sensed that he was only occasionally needed to progress the conversation and let "the soon to be former tenant of the White House" steer things.

Noah and Obama opened by talking about recent accusations of Russian interference in the election, which the President accurately observed had been a part of the national debate for at least a month before the final votes were cast, but we kept focusing on the form that interference was taking at that moment and not the implications.

"These emails got a lot more attention than any policy," Obama said of the Podesta emails hacked and released on WikiLeaks, calling the information contained therein "routine."

Noah attempted to interject a joke about how the emails about Podesta's risotto tips were interesting, but Obama had exactly zero interest in making funnies about rice and Noah, thankfully, didn't push the punchline.

"Going forward, I worry that we won't spend enough time on self-reflection on how our democracy's working," Obama said.

Noah pushed Obama on President-elect Trump's contention that he doesn't require intelligence briefings, which also got a measured answer.

"I think the president-elect may say one thing and do another once he's here," Obama said, noting that "It doesn't matter how smart you are," without intelligence briefings "you are flying blind."

The second segment was one of legacy, or the unmaking of legacy, with President Obama talking up the merits of ObamaCare and urging people to still register to have coverage for another year. 

"The federal government is an aircraft carrier. It's not a speedboat," Obama said of the chances that a Trump Administration would be able to quickly undo everything he's done over the past eight years and tried to emphasize that he always felt ObamaCare was something that would get tweaks and modifications as time passed.

Regarding future plans, Obama promised, "I think it is important for me to recharge. I think it's important for me to reflect. It's important for me to get back in my wife's good graces."

He said, "I don't anticipate that I suddenly just vanish, but I think it's important to give the incoming administration some space," but he added that in the case of certain violations — he mentioned a Muslim Registry in particular — he wouldn't remain silent.

None of this was revelatory, but Noah got to ask a handful of the questions of the day.

The third segment was the one that proved the most unique as Noah and Obama shared experiences, as men of mixed racial backgrounds, dealing with and discussing race, comparing the role a president plays to the role that a stand-up comic might play in confronting racism and racial assumptions.

"If Chris Rock's doing stand-up then there's a benefit to him doing something that is different from the President of the United States doing something. For one thing, he doesn't have to edit his language," Obama joked. "I try to comport myself in a way that my mother would approve of."

It was in this third segment that President Obama looked most relaxed, sounded the least on-message and that Noah appeared most ready to interact and not just give the Leader of the Free World a platform.

Knowing how to be the interviewer that a circumstance or an individual guest requires is a hard task. Late night comedy hosts only sometimes come from even a rudimentary journalistic background and so it's a lot to expect to believe them capable of conducting a productive chat immediately. Nobody in our current crop of late night hosts comes at it entirely naturally. Stephen Colbert can't interview actors at all. James Corden is beholden to the energy of his nightly panel. Jimmy Fallon desires nothing more than being a goof. Seth Meyers and Conan O'Brien are, for me, the hosts most likely to get interviews that aren't only hollow promotion, but probably every viewer expects something different from an interview and an interviewer. 

Noah came into this job incredibly green and maybe after 15 months, he's finding his footing or his producers are figuring out how to book toward his strengths. Getting President Obama wasn't booking toward Noah's strengths. If you get an Obama interview, you take an Obama interview. That's pretty basic. Once you have the President of the United States next to you, though, getting a watchable episode of material isn't inherently intuitive and in what was the biggest interview of his tenure, Noah stayed out of his own way and it was a fine half-hour of The Daily Show.