Trevor Noah’s version of The Daily Show, on the surface at least, should be reassuringly familiar to Jon Stewart fans.
There’s still the familiar fanfare and theme music (albeit with a slightly higher-pitched announcer), riffs on the latest news in the first two segments featuring contributions from correspondents posed in front of green screens, a celebrity interview (first guest: Kevin Hart), a Moment of Zen, and at least one dick joke—this one involving Pope Francis.
On the other hand, the skinny san serif fonts of the new chyrons and the rather colorless, indeed faded-looking, spinning Planet Earth against a washed-out background make one wonder if the show’s graphic designers are trying to induce in home viewers a certain regretful ennui.
Meanwhile, the first sighting of Noah—wearing a sleek gray suit, white shirt and muted tie—made him look slightly overwhelmed, unsettled and small at the center of a humongous new set, an anchor desk the size of an M1 tank.
And while Noah was the very model of what even Donald Trump might call “high-energy” and delivered his lines adroitly, and even trotted out a couple of funny voices, it will take more than Monday night’s debut before the South African comedian proves himself a plausible successor to the formidable Stewart as host of Comedy Central’s political satire franchise.
“Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa, I never dreamed I would have an indoor toilet and a job as host of The Daily Show,” Noah said in opening remarks. “And now I have both—and I’m quite comfortable with one of them.”
He talked about all the people, men and women, who apparently were offered the gig and turned it down. “Once more,” the Johannesburg-born Noah quipped, “a job Americans rejected is now being done by an immigrant.”
The 31-year-old Noah made several grateful references to his predecessor, who played a key role in his selection, and expressed the hope that the 52-year-old Stewart wouldn’t ultimately be remembered as “a crazy old dude who left his inheritance to some random kid from Africa.”
Noah began with a workmanlike segment on the pope’s visit, and—true to Daily Show tradition—suggested that the pontiff’s use of a modest Fiat, a tiny vehicle in comparison to the hulking gas-guzzlers provided by the Secret Service, was a form of “under-compensation.”
“I’m saying the pope has a large [bleep]—that’s the joke,” Noah declared. “And what a waste.”
He lamented the sudden resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner just as he’s taking over the anchor desk, saying, “I’ve got a fancy new suit and I learned how to pronounce your name.”
But whereas Stewart often mined humor out of some off-kilter aspect of the fake news of the day, Noah trafficked in obvious and overworked jokes about Boehner’s tears and tan—which is probably unfair to lay entirely at his doorstep as opposed to the feet of the veteran Daily Show writers (who should know better). Noah’s back and forth with regular correspondent Jordan Klepper—in which somehow Boehner’s departure became a disturbing metaphor for Stewart’s leave-taking, with a panicked Klepper hyperventilating into a paper bag and crying out desperately “I just bought a condo!”, while Noah mused that the next Speaker of the House could “fall flat on their face in front of the entire nation”—was more successful.
Anyway, it made this particular viewer laugh.
A second segment, premised on the recent discovery of water on Mars, featured new contributor Roy Wood Jr. as the “senior Mars correspondent” and initially seemed promising, but quickly devolved into a wearisome riff on whether African Americans will travel to the Red Planet.
“Brother can’t catch a cab. You think we can catch a spaceship?” Wood demanded. “Black people ain’t goin’ to Mars.”
Given the biracial Noah’s personal history with apartheid and its aftermath, satire about race could be his sweet spot—much as Stewart (nee Leibowitz) frequently unleashed Jewish shtick.
The Mars routine, however, didn’t seem to be it.
Noah’s interview segment with actor-comedian Hart—who, plugging his new comedy tour, presented the freshly minted host with a decidedly serious gift of ties—was competent but conventional.
The end-of-show Moment of Zen was a definite improvement, featuring House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi babbling senselessly as she bobbled CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s question about what she’ll miss about her exiting Republican adversary, Boehner.
Noah is extremely likable and, needless to say, deserves from Daily Show devotees and Comedy Central execs a modicum of open-mindedness and a decent interval—precisely how decent is a judgment call above my paygrade—in order to hit his stride and find his voice.
While Noah’s opening-night performance skills were capable enough, his material was hit-and-miss—even the raucously cheerleading studio audience groaned at times—and he seemed, at least in his initial outing, to lack his predecessor’s valuable gift for exhuming laughs from the death of a punch line.
“Too soon?” Noah asked at one point, resorting to a comedy cliché in an effort to save a lame joke about Whitney Houston’s drug overdose that provoked more gasps than giggles.
At least as groan-worthy was a riff on the House of Representatives as “Club Congress,” a stodgily male-oriented nightclub where “everyone... has aids.”
By the way, it would have been nice to have a woman or two on Noah’s inaugural show.
Noah vowed, meanwhile, that he will continue to prosecute what Stewart in his farewell valedictory called a “war on bullshit.” Still, Monday night’s editorial decision to air repeated unbleeped utterances of the words “bullshit,” and “shit”—not only by Noah but by Klepper and Wood—felt more like forced edginess and derring-do than something organic and genuinely amusing.
Can “motherfucker” be far behind?
Let’s hope so.