How Trevor Noah's First Night in Jon Stewart's Shoes Went
On one hand, deciding whether or not one likes Trevor Noah as the new host of the Daily Show on his first night is sort of like deciding whether or not you want to buy a painting based on how the artist mounts his easel. How can you possibly tell how someone is going to host a show every night by his first nervous 21 minutes? On the other hand, of course, the job of a late-night talk show host is not really to make you want to watch them every night anymore, and it hasn’t been for half a decade now. The goal is to get them to watch you in five-minute increments, often on their phone, the next morning, perhaps while they are using the bathroom. You are less a host than a joke chauffeur. You just want to make sure to provide an attractive ride.
So, as a joke delivery device, on his first night, Trevor Noah did fine. He talked too fast—way too fast, as if he wasn’t used to producers talking in his ear. He stumbled over a couple of punchlines. He apologized too quickly for jokes that didn’t land. But this is largely the same writing staff that Jon Stewart had, and those people are funny. What Noah needs to prove, before he can prove anything else, is that he can tell a damn joke. After Noah pointed out how many American comics had turned down the hosting gig he was now starting out, he pointed out that, “once more, a job Americans rejected is being done by an immigrant.” It’s a great line, and he delivered it well. It’s a start.
As you might expect, people’s reactions to Noah’s first night depended on how you already felt about him, which is doubly unfair considering how little of him any of us have seen. If you’re just sitting there waiting for him to piss you off, you might not have liked his joke about a theoretical “Club Congress” being a terrible club to go to because “everyone there has aides.” If you were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, you might still not have liked the joke, but you at least appreciated the fact that he was willing to give it a shot on his first night, a night where he was being broadcast on every Viacom affiliate, no less. Either way, you didn’t learn too much about him, other than that he looks good in a suit, laughs at his own jokes a little too quick and seemed a little nervous. Who wouldn’t be?
The interviewing clearly needs some work. Noah’s first guest was Kevin Hart, a much more honed performer who, like the rest of us, couldn’t quite figure out what Noah’s vibe was. Noah kept looking off camera during the interview, like he was being fed information about his guest (who happens to be the most successful comic on the planet right now), and he even asked the same question twice. Suffice it to say, when political bigwigs come on, Noah’s gonna need something a little better than, “Look at you, touring the world, making movies, with a rock star body … wow.” (This line of questioning will only work with Bernie Sanders.) But it’s still worth pointing out that Hart, even without much help from Noah, was more introspective than he usually is in these segments, less eager to dance for the camera, more willing to give a little bit of himself. It felt like he was trying to help the kid out. It felt like he liked him.
Noah wasn’t able to show off many of his talents—particularly his vocal talents, and his ability to inhabit different sorts of people and accents at the drop of a hat—and he looked more relieved to have his first show over than anything. He will either grow into this job, like Conan O’Brien did in his, or he will flame out, never able to up his game despite his natural abilities. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and neither does he. But on the first night, one thing was clear: This is something different. This is an African man, talking about growing up wanting only an indoor toilet, commenting about John Boehner from one of the most powerful chairs in political media. Maybe he’ll pull this off, and maybe he won’t. But the skills are there, and so’s the potential to do something fascinating, and, above all, new. Right now it’s Trevor Noah doing Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, only not as well. But I bet it won’t be like that for long.