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As absurd as it sounds now, Jon Stewart wasn’t filling insignificant shoes when he started on The Daily Show in 1999. Craig Kilborn was the first Daily Show host, and he had crafted a solid show around his particular sensibility, complete with successful bits like “Five Questions” and “Your Moment of Zen.” And Stewart didn’t arrive and turn The Daily Show into his personal kingdom of cutting irony, political indignation and loving Borscht Belt schtick overnight. The Daily Show became The Daily Show With Jon Stewart only when Stewart was ready to make it so, and it only truly became its unique, conversation-propelling thing when daily circumstances gave it that nudge.
So it’s time to assess Monday night’s premiere of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah with the not especially shocking “condemnation” that, in his first 20-ish minutes behind the desk, the 31-year-old South African was unable to exceed the standard set by his Emmy-hoarding predecessor. No memories of Stewart and his storied reign have been usurped or replaced. Nor, however, have they been sullied. The globe has not begun to spin backward on its axis.
If you had to judge Trevor Noah‘s Daily Show debut for its most tangible shift from the tried-and-true, it probably would be to echo Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s excited tweet that the show’s new opening credits finally have the Earth rotating correctly.
The truth is that The Daily Show With Trevor Noah was, in most ways, just The Daily Show, confirming the futility of trying to review any late-night program, especially one replacing an unimpeachable juggernaut. The best and most honest thing you can say about Monday’s premiere is, “He didn’t break it.” He also didn’t try to.
Noah began with a fairly earnest reflection on his own journey, joking that when he grew up on the dusty streets of South Africa, his only two dreams were hosting The Daily Show and having indoor plumbing.
“Now I have both. And I’m quite comfortable with one of them,” he cracked. He honored Stewart, saying, “He was often our voice, our refuge and, in many ways, our political dad.” And he quickly added, “Now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he’s black — which is not ideal.”
Topically, Noah covered the same general things Stewart would have covered tonight, including the pope’s visit and John Boehner‘s resignation. One could make the argument that Noah’s approach was probably a little edgier and raunchier than what Stewart might have gone with, joking about sexting with papal emojis and the prodigiousness of the pope’s penis. Stewart could work blue as well, but never with Noah’s polished, smooth confidence and smile.
A comic prone to prowling the stage in his stand-up, Noah settled into his seat on the redesigned stage with an easy demeanor. His suit was tailored perfectly, and he did pronounce Boehner’s name correctly, even if his sense of American political theater came across as similarly glossy and superficial. It’s here that Noah always was going to have the hardest time assimilating — which has nothing to do with his foreign upbringing, since British-born Daily Show veteran John Oliver is nothing if not a natural-born process wonk. For his debut, Noah was giving the Daily Show audience his version of what they expected, with the unspoken certainty that he eventually will steer this ship toward whatever he’s genuinely passionate about, while promising to maintain the “war on bullshit.”
When Stewart replaced Kilborn, he had the tremendous advantage of an already-full cupboard of correspondents. It remains to be seen if Noah’s bench is quite as deep, but after his news segment, which included a not-especially-funny repeat of the same aides/AIDS joke South Park milked over a decade ago, the host had effective banter first with Jordan Klepper and then with “senior Mars correspondent” Roy Wood Jr. The Daily Show is a pyramid, and Noah will have to be on-point at the top, but he has an experienced base that can carry him if he needs to be carried.
The one place the Daily Show legacy is spottiest is on obligatory celebrity interviews. Kilborn coasted on “Five Questions” and his obsequious smarm. Stewart had a bumpy beginning, featuring some of the most disinterested interviews in the history of late night before he evolved into something frequently better. Noah’s chat with Kevin Hart perhaps suffered from a surplus of interest, as a very brief conversation zipped from touring to Hart’s beefcake-y Instagram feed to his burgeoning movie career to touring again and finally to jogging, for reasons having little to do with comedy.
One thing Hart said, though, hit home. Hart observed that whether playing stadiums or small venues, “It’s your job to make that environment as intimate as possible.”
Noah’s Daily Show debut was not about intimacy. It needed to be quite the opposite. It was about being as broad and welcoming as possible, reassuring a nervous fan base that even if the guy at the desk is more dimpled-and-dapper and even if the world is spinning in a different direction, it’s still The Daily Show. Check back in a few weeks or months, and maybe it will be time to review The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.
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