Trevor Noah may or may not have known this going into his debut as the host of The Daily Show last night, but the real goal of the broadcast wasn’t to establish him as a worthy successor to Jon Stewart. It was to establish, or reestablish, the viability of The Daily Show as an institution — a show that can chug along, like Today or The Tonight Show, no matter who’s sitting in the host chair. In that regard, Noah’s debut has to be considered a success. That probably reads like faint praise, but I swear it isn’t. I didn’t get the impression that people will immediately start asking, “Did you see Trevor Noah last night?” in the way that they once said, “Did you see Jon Stewart?” But they might ask, “Did you see The Daily Show?” and I am certain Comedy Central prefers that to “Does anyone still watch The Daily Show?” or “Whatever happened to Trevor Noah?”
Noah didn’t fade into the wallpaper, though. Although the broadcast preserved much of The Daily Show set, the opening theme, most of the recurring bits, and even closed with a Moment of Zen, there were many moments where the skinny South African (who is 31 but could pass for 21) gave us hints of how his Show might differ from Stewart’s — starting with energy, which is cool and aloof in a Johnny Carson vein, bordering on unflappable. This is as marked contrast to Stewart, who was well liked in part because he was so eminently flappable, guffawing at guests’ jokes so hard that he’d spin around halfway in his chair, going hoarse during comic tirades, and welling up with tears when something moved him. (If The Daily Show is to 21st-century American TV as The Tonight Show was to that of the 20th, maybe Stewart is Jack Paar to Noah’s Carson? Students of TV history: Discuss.)
Noah split the difference between fawning over/canonizing Stewart and putting his hands in his jacket pockets and whistling through a half-hour of basic cable. He structured several bits around anxiety over Stewart’s influence, then waved off any hint of nervousness by grinning or half-smirking through material that was in the same vein as Stewart’s, content-wise. But it was more withering than earnest, and more willing to risk truly giving offense rather than congratulating itself on having done so (a tactic that Stewart’s show used too often, sometimes with a hand-over-mouth Omigod! look). Noah compared himself to a black stepdad taking over for a white father who’d deserted his family. “I’ll make you not look like the crazy old dude who ran away and left his inheritance to some kid in Africa,” he promised Stewart. But his demeanor left no doubt that in the end, the new stepdad was going to run the place as he saw fit. As well he ought.
It will be fascinating to watch Noah develop, or not develop, on this program. His progress will have serious ramifications for The Daily Show’s fortunes, and for Comedy Central’s. Those who can’t build on a legacy are condemned to destroy it, and there’s plenty to damage in this section of the TV grid. Stewart personally cleared and built the 11 p.m.-to-midnight Monday–Thursday block of Comedy Central, refashioning The Daily Show (which had been an amusing but snide, fratty, and trivial affair under Craig Kilborn) as a nightly newsmagazine with jokes, and filling the next half-hour with not one but two worthy follow-ups, The Colbert Report and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. Wilmore is so terrific so regularly that Noah’s biggest challenge might be convincing viewers that his Daily Show is meeting comic needs not already filled to everyone’s satisfaction by The Nightly Show, which started out strong but has only gotten looser and funnier and more confident over time — or, for that matter, by Daily Show alumnus John Oliver’s habitually audacious Last Week Tonight on HBO.
Then again, maybe Noah won’t need to prove anything to anyone — and his packaging alongside Wilmore will be a major reason why. For the first time in memory, two culturally significant comedy and talk shows fronted by men of color are being presented back to back on the same network, and their emphases automatically mark them as different (less white, for starters) than the show that Stewart cranked out. I suspect Stewart would agree, given that The Nightly Show exists mostly because he wanted it to exist, and considering he gave Noah his blessing.
When you have a fellow like Trevor Noah behind the desk, bits like the NASA-Mars mission report by Roy Wood Jr.’s “Senior Mars Correspondent” feel like comedy that comes at its subject from the inside out instead of the reverse, which is how it would surely have played under Stewart. “People like me and you?” Wood asked Noah. “Brother can’t catch a cab, you think we can catch a spaceship?” The choice of Kevin Hart as a first guest also sent a statement, although this might have been an incidental by-product of network scheduling (Hart’s stand-up special finished airing on Comedy Central right before Noah’s debut as host). Noah made a point of reminding viewers that Hart is very possibly the most popular comedian in the United States right now, a rock star (as per Noah’s phrase) who is as big (in drawing power if not critical cred) as Richard Pryor or George Carlin at their peaks — the kind of performer who can sell out 54,000 seat arenas in Philadelphia. (That’s the number Noah cited, and how hilariously not-really-modest of Hart to correct that figure to 53,000!)
Noah and Hart shared a reference to Hart’s hit BET series Real Husbands of Hollywood (using the word mitch, which refers to a “male bitch”) and reminded the audience that Hart was a light action hero as well as a comic and romantic lead. He is the sort of “secret” star who is only profiled by the mainstream (white) media in term of, “How come more people aren’t talking about how popular Kevin Hart is?” and whose films tend to get assigned to third- or fourth-string movie critics at major publications, then land in the No. 3 or 2 or even 1 spot the following Monday when box-office numbers are released, prompting slightly mortified think pieces along the lines of, “Gosh, this Kevin Hart fellow sure is popular, when did that happen, we wonder?”
When Noah told Hart, “I appreciate what you stand for,” one doubts he was referring only to Hart’s commitment to running. There is an entire universe of entertainment that The Daily Show barely acknowledged. If Comedy Central’s ultimate agenda is to restore The Daily Show as a vehicle that can purr comfortably along with pretty much anyone behind the wheel, Noah’s goal should be to drive that vehicle to places it has never even thought about visiting.