Something vaguely shocking: Trevor Noah taking over “The Daily Show” almost feels like a non-event. Maybe it’s because we’re slightly hungover, hot-take-wise, from Stephen Colbert taking over “The Late Show.” Maybe it’s because, beyond his initial opening monologue, it’s relatively business as usual for the series. “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” might have a new name, but much of the core creative team from Jon Stewart’s era is still working behind the scenes, including executive producers Steve Bodow, Jen Flanz, Tim Greenberg, Jill Katz and Adam Lowitt. There’s a new man behind the desk, but in many respects it’s still recognizably the same show.
And Noah will have plenty of time to settle into his new role. As President of Content Development and Original Programming Kent Alterman told Indiewire in a recent interview, “Every show takes a while to evolve and find itself, and I think any good show, especially, takes time.” So judging his performance over just four episodes is a bit tough, but in those two hours some of his strengths and weaknesses are beginning to stand out.
Noah’s not a yeller, is the first major discovery to come this week. The combination of his accent plus a somewhat subdued delivery style very much in line with his stand-up patter means he seems at his most comfortable when almost whispering. It’s building a casual, conversational tone for the show that could be an interesting counterpoint to Stewart’s occasional fiery rage. Noah seems to have a calmer approach to the material presented to him by the world, so much so one wonders what might actually make him truly angry. That’s going to be essential information for viewers, if we’re to embrace him as a host.
That’s why it was disappointing on Thursday night to see Noah basically dodge one of his first major curveballs. Noah’s reaction to the shooting of 20 people in Oregon that day felt genuine, but using the excuse that he hadn’t had enough time to process the event came across like a cop-out. And it stands in sharp contract to Stewart’s monologue reacting to the June shootings at a South Carolina church. Stewart also declined to make with the funny, but he instead delivered a quasi-tirade that pulled no punches on the underlying issues. Stewart had something to say. Noah said nothing. That’s not a sustainable position, long-term.
By far Noah’s most awkward moments featured him trying to engage in comedy beyond the basic delivery of jokes. Pulling out his phone to pretend that he was calling into a QVC show on Tuesday night just didn’t play at all, and while the staff’s escalating fanaticism over pumpkin spice season had some great moments, Noah just wasn’t committed to the bit.
That’s something that may come with time, though what’s interesting is that “The Daily Show” now seems on the verge of becoming an ensemble. Noah may be behind the desk, but it’s correspondents Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood, Jr. who stood out most prominently this week, in both pre-taped segments and in studio. Klepper in particular, my Indiewire colleague Steve Green pointed out, is on the verge of becoming the show’s new Stephen Colbert; a critical ingredient for this particular stew.
Meanwhile, Noah’s best interview of the week was with Governor Chris Christie, mainly because Noah had some pushback in store for the Presidential candidate. Kevin Hart and dating site founder Whitney Wolfe weren’t bad, though, and indicate an ability on Noah’s part to project interest in his guests’ projects. Given that hosting “The Daily Show” means occasionally embracing the show’s function as just another stop on an actor or author’s publicity tour, that’s a needed talent.
However, the attempt to chat with Ryan Adams in between songs during Thursday night’s show was a waste of screen time; in part because Adams didn’t really have a lot to say, and Noah seemed uncomfortable with the set-up. It’s a bit ironic, given Noah’s origins as a stand-up, but he definitely seemed to be missing his desk in those minutes.
Noah’s two strongest moments of the week were his opening monologue on Monday night, acknowledging the weirdness of the moment — “Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa I never dreamed I would one day have two things: an indoor toilet and a job as host of ‘The Daily Show’. And now I have both, and I’m quite comfortable with one of them.” — and Thursday’s comparison of Donald Trump to some of the truly terrifying presidents that have been elected (or “elected”) in various African nations. Not only was it clever commentary and a fresh take on a very tired subject at this point, but it was the first clear example of a promise Noah made to journalists during the TCA Summer Press Tour a couple of months ago: that his perspective on news and politics would be different from Stewart’s because of his personal experience.
Noah’s take on “The Daily Show” will evolve. As Alterman said, “I think if any show launches in its fully matured form, that’s not necessarily a good sign because it won’t necessarily keep evolving, and I think the best shows do evolve.” But for his first week, there was a lot of potential, as well as potential problems. There’s no doubting, though, Noah’s commitment to the “war on bullshit.” And it’s that commitment which will power the weeks to come.