It’s been a little over a year since Trevor Noah began the daunting task replacing Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. Noah had the unenviable job of succeeding one of the most beloved and important political satirists of all time. Sure enough, he got off to a rocky start, looking uncomfortable and unsure behind the desk. It didn’t take long for publications like Salon to write him off as a pretender to the throne, even though he had just started and it took a solid three years before Jon Stewart evolved into the essential voice we know him as today. So, how does Noah look with a full year under his belt? Well, he still has a long way to go to measure up to the champ, but his show has been gradually improving, and he’s been able to shake off most, if not all of his early jitters.
One of the more common critiques of Noah is that he’s too bland, and this is something of a half-truth. His personality can be perfectly charming, and it’s not like his jokes never land, but at times, it feels like anyone can be telling them, and he’s just the guy who happens to be behind the desk delivering the latest round of anti-Trump zingers. It can often feel like Noah is just there to tell jokes, and we don’t really learn anything about him. The only time he’s able to break out of this is when he discusses his South African upbringing. When Noah talks about his own experiences and relates them to American politics (like in a clever segment where compared Trump to an African strongman), he endears himself to the audience, as we finally get a piece of who he is. Too often, however, he tends to feel like the anonymous man in the chair, just here to a job. This is a problem because even when the material is strong, it can be hard to find the motivation to keep tuning in to watch someone you lack a personal connection to.
This problem is likely exacerbated by the institution that is The Daily Show. When Noah was brought in, many of the features from Stewart’s show were either kept the same, or only slightly modified. This was likely done to make Noah’s transition more comfortable, but in some ways, it’s had the opposite effect, as it sometimes doesn’t quite feel likes it’s his show, but rather, he’s just the guy who was plugged to fill the slot in an already existing institution. Admittedly, this issue has gotten better over the course of Noah’s first year; in the beginning, Noah just looked like he was trying not break anything. Now, we see him often begin his show with a standing monologue, which separates him from Stewart, who always started the show at his desk. Additionally, he’s become a more confident interviewer, as recent segments like his discussion with T.I. about the role hip-hop plays addressing black issues have shown. Basically, Noah’s growth has been incremental, but not undetectable. He’s still struggling to make The Daily Show his own, but he’s no longer the deer in the headlights that he was during his first few months on the air.
At times, Noah can seem like the direct opposite of his predecessor. While Jon Stewart frequently wore his heart on his sleeve and had no problem getting emotional and angry from time to time, Noah often seems detached, like an outsider amused by the perpetual mess that is American politics. He tends to get a lot of flak for this, but sometimes it can be pretty funny. Consider a recent segment about his “crush” on conservative commentator Tomi Lahren. Now, to get the obvious part out of the way, the whole “this right-wing commentator is wrong about everything, but she’s also kinda hot” schtick isn’t exactly new, but in this case, it worked perfectly. Why? Because getting particularly angry about Lahren’s latest breathless Colin Kaepernick hot take would have played directly into her hands. Instead, he’s able to write off her message as the ridiculous drivel that it is without breaking a sweat. Righteous anger can work well in the right circumstances, but sometimes, aloof bemusement ends up actually having a greater effect.
This isn’t to say that Noah can’t display emotion or anger, just that it’s not his first instinct. There have been times when Noah has no choice but to take a serious look at a story, and he often handles it better than one might expect. Consider his reaction the shooting at a gay Orlando night club in which 49 people were killed. Obviously, Noah was well aware that his usual “distant smartass” routine wouldn’t cut it for a story like this, so he had no choice but to approach it from an emotional perspective. He’s a bit new to this, and appears to be at a loss for words. The thing is, that’s exactly the kind of reaction a tragic situation like that demands. Noah was just as confused, frustrated, and angry as the rest of us. It might not have been on the level of, say, Jon Stewart’s post-9/11 speech, but it was a powerful moment where Noah removed his snarky veneer and reminded us of his humanity.
At times, it can feel like Noah knows his take on American politics is a bit lacking in passion, and he tries to atone for it. This doesn’t always work. A recent episode featured a “viral moment” where Noah went on a tirade about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, while also asserting the tagline that “America is already great.” Whether you agree with that idea or not, this segment felt a bit awkward. It’s quite possible that everything Noah said here represented his genuine beliefs. And yet, when watching the segment, it felt a bit like one of the network heads had said to him “Hey, can you be a bit more like Samantha Bee?” It just felt off, like he was trying too hard to show everyone who had derided him for his detachment that he Cared A Lot. Essentially, it can be good when Noah reveals his genuine emotion, but when it feels too forced, it leads to some of the show’s most awkward moments.
Overall, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is progressing reasonably well. As one would expect, Noah has gotten far more comfortable on camera, and he’s had a handful of strong segments that show that he is gradually growing into his role as a prominent political satirist. The show is far from perfect, and Noah still needs to adapt a bit more gravitas if he wants to get people to watch him four nights a week, but the show is hardly the disaster that some feared it would be after Noah’s rocky start. Whether or not Noah will go onto to have same cultural impact as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert remains to be seen, but for now, he’s certainly headed in the right direction.