Going into tonight’s premiere of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Comedy Central promoted the debut of its new host with the slogan: “Same chair—different ass.” The promise was simple: this is still The Daily Show you love, just with a new guy at the helm. Based on Noah’s first night in the big seat, they weren’t kidding–this was the same Daily Show we all know and love.
The format was identical to the one the show has had for years, with Noah starting at his desk with the top stories of the weekend, ending the first segment with a correspondent. The B-block had another story and another correspondent, before the final segment’s normal interview. Oh, and we still got our Moment of Zen to end the show. Even the newly refurbished set felt familiar, as though it had never changed, which was probably helped by employing the same Daily Show music and camera movements. The pacing, tone, editing, and attitude all felt like they came from Jon Stewart‘s version of the show. For the most part, the only thing different about this show was Trevor Noah himself.
And he was really good. Almost surprisingly good.
He had the enthusiasm you’d expect from a young, generally unknown guy that just got one of the most coveted jobs in entertainment, and that was different from late-era Stewart who had clearly been worn down by the never-changing problems the show addressed. However, the really impressive thing was just how smooth and calm Noah remained in spite of that palpable excitement. A couple of mix-ups and stammers were played off like an old pro, and he hit his punchlines with ease and confidence. He wasn’t perfect, but he was really good, and if we’re grading on a debut episode curve, he was great. The two opening segments showed that he has a natural likability that will play well, even when dealing with unpleasant topics, and he seemed to be given leeway from the audience to take a chance without losing them. When he made a joke about crack killing Whitney Houston that drew a “too soon” reaction from the crowd, he didn’t come across as mean-spirited; instead, Noah seemed like your buddy who knows he can test the limits of the room without getting in trouble.
If he showed any weakness it came when he stopped being himself and started dipping into voices or characters. He was much stronger as “Trevor Noah, host” than he was as “Trevor Noah, silly voice guy.” It’s probably why his interactions with his correspondents worked as well as they did (one with Stewart-era holdover Jordan Klepper, and one with new addition Roy Wood, Jr. who was also successful in his debut), because Noah was playing the part of himself.
The only real shortcoming came during the interview portion with Kevin Hart. Noah seemed thrown off from the beginning, when Hart came out with a present for him (some nice ties), and Noah didn’t seem to know how to respond, literally. Rather than act excited and thankful like a normal person being given a gift, he got quiet and weird. He recovered and was able to have a conversation, but it felt overly fawning and less sincere than his early segments. I found myself wondering how much of it had been planned, which would explain why the unexpected present threw him so much.
Jon Stewart could certainly be fawning, but he could do that while making it feel like he was having a genuine conversation. With a lesser, more affable guest than Hart, the interview could have really fallen flat, but instead it was fine — the low moment of the show, but not a debacle.
It will be interesting to see how Noah develops his own interview style, as the art of being a talk show host is the one that takes the longest in which to become skilled. On this specific show it will be very fascinating to see how he finds his groove when he’ll be interviewing fellow comedians one one night, and national political figures that are often the butt of the show’s jokes the next.
If you were worried about “your” Daily Show before this debut episode, you probably feel a lot of relief now. It was funny, it was familiar, and the host was likeable and willing to take plenty of chances without worrying about being taboo. Noah and his writers took aim without fear, and they were quite funny doing it. That’s what this show needs to be to continue to be successful.
Throughout the episode Noah and the show acknowledged all of those worries. He said Jon Stewart was like the “dad” no one wanted to replace, and he was the “step-dad.” His segment with Klepper, about replacing John Boehner, ended up being a joke about Klepper’s fears of a new guy replacing “Jon.”
“Maybe the new guy will surprise us and just crush it, you know,” pleaded a desperate Jordan Klepper to an oblivious, but reassuring Noah.
For one night, at least, Klepper’s hope looked like a possibility. I was worried about this show and its new host, but the new guy surprised me, in a good way.
Now Noah just has to do it again tomorrow night. Then the next. And then the next. One night does not a successful stint make, but it was a good start, and we can all worry a little less about the guy sitting in that important chair.
Image: Comedy Central