'Daily Show's' Trevor Noah Flashes Media Savvy at Critic-Packed L.A. Performance

Trevor Noah - H 2015
Byron Keulemans

Trevor Noah - H 2015

A charming Trojan horse delivering some frequently thought-provoking material, Trevor Noah appeared to win over many during a stand-up performance at Santa Monica's Broad Stage on Tuesday night.

There will be detractors, especially considering a good portion of the audience were members of the oft-skeptical Television Critics Association, but there is no arguing with the approving reception the future Daily Show host received throughout his hour-plus show. Just as many members of the press — though, to be sure, not all — as civilians stood for the comedian when he wrapped a set that tackled racism, profiling, terrorism and the media's treatment of all three. At the very least, his emphatically educated take on the latter should help assuage critics who think his résumé doesn't qualify him for his new job.

Noah, 31, has managed to keep a surprisingly low profile for the better part of the past four months. A relative unknown before Comedy Central's March announcement that he would be the de facto face of the network, people were still asking who he was when a back catalog of controversial (and admittedly unfunny) Twitter jokes was unearthed. He's only made a few appearances on The Daily Show in the time since and granted even fewer interviews.

He knows that his days flying under the radar will soon end. In anticipation of Jon Stewart's Aug. 6 Daily Show send-off and Noah's Sept. 28 debut, the network has begun trotting him out — and, perhaps to soften the line of questioning he'll face from reporters at his July 28 TCA panel, that included Tuesday's performance. He's in the midst of a changing of the guard, and most viewers still know little about him.

Comedy is personal — though if you base it on one's ability to make others laugh, Noah was quite funny. His soft, smiling manner of storytelling and social commentary didn't have people rolling in the aisles, but the laughter was steady and all but a few of his punchlines delivered. (Some cracks that mentioned Charlie Hebdo and concentration camps brought some uncomfortable groans and his lingering on fall 2014's Ebola crisis didn't play as especially fresh.)

What remains to be seen is how it will all translate to a nightly telecast. Noah's one-man-show approach works for stand-up, but few would argue that it doesn't need some tailoring to be translated to a topical television series best known for its interviews with politicos. And Noah clearly does his research, referencing specifically the events surrounding and coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and mass murders at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo and Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — to name a few — but he's had a lot of time to do his homework. The Daily Show, albeit heavily aided by writing staff, requires the kind of dutiful attention to current events that many comedians probably don't have the stomach for.

There is also the question of where race fits in. Noah, who hails from South Africa and has a black mother and white father, naturally explores his own ethnicity in his comedy. And, considering the increasingly frequent stories of unarmed black men dying in encounters with police officers, any Daily Show host might feel a responsibility to be part of that conversation. But race is also Larry Wilmore's thing. Noah's new Comedy Central neighbor, barely seven months into his tenure hosting The Nightly Show, has taken up the late-night mantle of what it means to be black in America today. There's a need for many more of those voices on TV. If two are sharing the same hour on the same network, despite their decidedly different backgrounds and approaches, it will be interesting to see how they differentiate themselves.

These are all questions best asked of Noah, and they're ones he'll likely get Wednesday when he has his first sit-down with the TV press.