Trevor Noah stepped into an extremely large pair of shoes on Monday night as he took the helm of the venerable Daily Show, replacing long-time host Jon Stewart. Stewart was largely responsible for making the show what it is today, and many were extremely nervous about seeing a new face on stage. Noah was a target for suspicion almost from the start as people promptly dug up old tweets and comments to point fingers at a perceived lack of sensitivity and progressiveness, and he’s tripped up since with some public comments as well, exposing himself to the internet’s usual heightened and aggressive scrutiny. The internet, fearing change, is predisposed to loathe him, and with a deck stacked against him, he needs to hit the ground running.
It’s not entirely fair to judge Noah on the basis of a single episode (‘you’ve only had The Daily Show for one commercial break!,’ new correspondent Roy Wood Jr. comments in a segment on Mars). He’s clearly still finding his footing, and he’s nervous about suddenly being on the national stage as a pop culture icon, as he freely admitted at the start of the episode when he addressed the audience…and again repeatedly throughout the episode in sly references to the regime change in gags that started to feel a bit overdone and obvious.
Thus far, though, Noah seems to be making a fundamental mistake: He’s not breaking free of Stewart’s legacy. He’s a new person, leading a new generation of a famous programme. Both he and audiences need to get accustomed to the fact that things are changing, and that the Daily Show has a new voice, not a facsimile of the old one—Noah was chosen over numerous other potential hosts (he attempted to dismiss the controversy over his hiring decision at the start of the episode) for a reason, but he didn’t show viewers what that reason was.
The set has changed, but little else has. He felt like a softer, more poorly-formed version of Stewart’s famously sharp personality, and at least one joke was particularly off-colour, relying on base humour rather than Stewart’s arch satire—AIDS jokes are surprising to encounter in any setting outside extremely conservative talk shows. Moreover, the interview at the end of the episode was sycophantic and dull. It could have presented an opportunity to assert himself in the face of viewers as a host prepared to bring on innovative and sometimes controversial guests, as undoubtedly many high profile people would have jumped at a chance to christen a new era of the Daily Show, but instead, the creative team selected a relatively unknown celebrity in an interview largely composed of mutual gladhanding.
While Stewart hosted his share of friends and interviews that felt more like casually sitting around the living room and chatting, he also wasn’t afraid to run controversial, challenging interviews, inviting political nemeses on the show on occasion to meet them face to face and talk about sociopolitical issues. His guests were unexpected, surprising, and sometimes notable, making the interviews worth tuning in for. It was one of the things that made him stand out as a host, and Noah could have established himself from the start as someone intended to do the same, but he chose not to.
The new host might have been nervous, too frightened of a misstep in front of an extremely demanding international audience, but the overall effect was dulled. In a way, even as he hastened to assure viewers that he was ready to take on the task, he showed that he wasn’t with his pale shadow of Stewart’s style and anemic approach to news and comedy alike.
‘Thank you for joining us,’ Noah said, ‘as we continue the war on bullshit.’ It was a line and style lifted straight out of Stewart’s playbook, a disappointing move. He’s assured viewers that the first week will be a showcase of his full range and a demonstration of the spectrum of the show’s personality, but if that’s the case, this was perhaps not the best way to launch things. We don’t need a Stewart clone, or handholding to get used to the fact that daddy’s gone—we need a decisive host taking the show in a radical new direction, and unafraid to state that from the start. The Daily Show isn’t Stewart’s exclusive intellectual property, and he clearly played a role in selecting a new host.
Whatever he saw in Noah wasn’t on display on Monday, as it’s highly unlikely that Stewart was interested in a host who would spend his inaugural episode attempting to imitate his predecessor. Hopefully that’s not going to be the status quo, and Noah will gain more confidence as the show continues, going out on a limb to produce something that’s distinctly his, just as Stewart reshaped the show after taking over from Craig Kilborn.
One of the advantages of a nightly comedy show is the ability to respond quickly to viewer feedback, as the writing team breaks stories on a daily basis and is highly interactive. As audiences respond to the latest development in the Daily Show’s life, maybe the writers will bring themselves to push the show harder, and in more interesting directions. We can’t get Stewart back again, but we weren’t looking for a Stewart replacement in the first place.