Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cautious Trevor Noah brings The Daily Show back with nary a scratch or dent

Illustration for article titled Cautious Trevor Noah brings The Daily Show back with nary a scratch or dent

One of the first jokes of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show tenure was a holdover from the new host’s not-for-broadcast test shows. Describing his predecessor, Jon Stewart, as “our political dad,” Noah pointed out the obvious. “It’s weird because Dad has left. Now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he’s black.”

Indicative though the joke may be of Noah’s rascally comedic sensibility—also indicative: the dimple formed by his shit-eating grin, a deep well of “Ain’t I a stinker?” charm—its analogy isn’t entirely accurate. Trevor’s not the stepdad in this scenario. He’s the kid who’s been left with dad’s cool, valuable car, and any modifications to the vehicle are so far superficial. In his inaugural turn at the wheel of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, he didn’t take the car out on the highway and open ’er up. He took a gentle ride around the block, picking up friends old and new along the way, eventually finding a parking spot where he could take out his phone and share this Kevin Hart clip he just found on YouTube.

It was a cautious first show, beginning with a brief spoken tribute to Stewart and containing several acknowledgements of the large shoes Noah now stands in. There was a shout-out to old man Stewart’s beloved (and playoff-bound) New York Mets, followed by the new host feigning confusion at what a New York Met even is, adding “Jon told me it would work.” It was a show heavy with self-deprecation, paying respects one last time at the end of the first act, when correspondent Jordan Klepper spun discussion of the John Boehner resignation into a faux-panic about replacing a Jon without the “h.” Klepper’s fretting about the changeover sounded like The Daily Show transition to the audience and the House of Representatives changeover to Noah. Once more playing the son who can’t believe he’s in the driver’s seat, Noah beamed through the whole bit.

First-show Trevor Noah was a celebratory figure. Make that “celebrational”—his excitable cuddliness and prankster spirit made him the most Muppet-like figure to grace The Daily Show stage since Michael Steele. That energy got the best of him a few times, his eagerness to get to a punchline outpacing his typically dexterous tongue. A stand-up who threads laughs throughout winding, anecdotal routines, he’s still adjusting to The Daily Show’s rhythms. Staying on course, his interactions with Klepper and new correspondent Roy Wood Jr. were mannered, the words dictating Noah’s reactions more than any emotional responses they conveyed. Of course, both correspondent pieces required Noah to play anchor as voice of reason and source of calm, particularly Wood’s segment about the signs of liquid water on Mars. As the panicky skeptic side-eyeing the idea that a Mars colonization would involve people who look like him or Noah, Wood became the second correspondent to prod at the new host’s enthusiasm. “These white people ain’t decided that they like you yet,” he cautioned the second of the two black men currently headlining on the ever-widening late-night circuit.

The episode was hit-and-miss with its sharper edges, with at least two jokes prompting audible groans from the audience (and quick defensive moves from Noah): an “AIDS”/“aides” gag, and an imagined conversation in which meth and crack debate their most dangerous qualities—before crack pulls out its Whitney Houston trump card. The groans were justified, but so was the defense. If the first episode of the new Daily Show signaled any significant shifts, it was the coupling of Noah’s appeals for the audience’s favor and his willingness to press its buttons. Were the two provocations above hacky? Without a doubt. But they provided an intriguing glimpse at Trevor Noah’s approach to fronting The Daily Show: While making his guests and audience feel comfortable, he’s also challenging the bounds of their comfort areas.


Whether he went looking for them or not, Noah wound up getting some pointers from guest Kevin Hart on playing to a larger slice of the public. Hart’s audience has exploded in recent years. As he discussed with Noah, his most recent hometown show filled the 53,000-capacity stadium of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Comedian to comedian, Hart stressed the importance of making “the environment as intimate as possible,” putting his money where his mouth is by scanning the studio audience for a reaction to his opening gambit: the gift of several new neckties for Noah. Like much of the episode, Hart’s appearance was about easing Noah into his new role, making sure the host feels like he’s in the right place before anyone else decides that for him.

Hart also spoke about finding platforms where he “can motivate and inspire,” a sincerity and hope shared by the premiere of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. The episode showed reverence to its predecessor in its timely jabs at John Boehner and Volkswagen, but it also demonstrated a glee that enabled a run of pope-related puns—although only after interrupting a dour lead-off report on Syria with the host bellowing, “Just kidding: IT’S THE POPE!” And that’s the right spot for the newcomer to occupy on his first night, a place of optimism for what this Daily Show could become in time. Given the host’s winsome presence and the air it gave to this episode, that optimism wouldn’t be a bad thing to preserve. After nine months on the air, The Nightly Show has already secured its inheritance of the old Daily Show’s righteous indignation and furious anger. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah will undoubtedly tap into that reserve in time, but for now, there’s nothing wrong with letting Noah lead with how much he enjoys being behind the wheel.


Stray observations

  • Standard “review of a late-night premiere” disclaimer: Like every late-night show at this stage in its life, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah is still a work in progress, and there’s no sense in assigning a letter-based assessment to a project that’s still coming together. It’s all just first impressions here; for more conclusive opinions, check back for a look at the first week of episodes next Tuesday.
  • Noah greeted viewers watching the first episode at home and on their phones, backing up pre-show murmurings about the rebooted show’s social-media push.
  • A dejected Trevor Noah to a departing John Boehner: “Why leave now? I just got here.”
  • The buzzwords swarming around The Daily Show With Trevor Noah’s launch are driving its employees nuts: “I keep hearing ‘global’—I don’t know what that means.”
  • What can you tell us about NASA’s Mars news, Roy Wood Jr. ? “I can tell you that I don’t give a shit.”