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Pop CultureNovember 3, 2015

Television: The Daily Show – Should We Climb Aboard Trevor Noah’s Late Night Ark?

Finlay Macdonald assesses Trevor Noah’s first month at The Daily Show desk, and asks if Jon Stewart’s replacement has earned his hosting stripes.

Timing is everything in comedy, and real life could certainly have picked a better time to interrupt Trevor Noah’s flow. Between only his first and second appearances as Jon Stewart’s replacement, a lunatic named Chris Mercer shot up an Oregon college, killing nine and injuring more. Not for the first time, The Daily Show was faced with the problem of making jokes when most people weren’t seeing the funny side of life.

Stewart had become a master of this – which tells you as much about gun culture in the States as it does about his particular talents – and as recently as June had delivered an astonishing monologue about the Charleston church shooting, in which he explained why there would not be any jokes in the first segment of the show.

In the hands of anyone less authentic it could have been awful, hammy, phony – the worst kind of celebrity emoting. Stewart carried it off by appearing to be largely ad-libbing, or at least only using his autocue to find where he was up to. He seemed to be grappling with the genuine paradox of needing to laugh at a world that was already such a sick joke that no punchline could do it justice.

Noah hasn’t earned those stripes yet, and wisely kept his own homily short, moving on swiftly to what he’s paid to do – try to be funny. The moment was allowed to stand for what it was – an acknowledgement that continuing “the war on bullshit” (as he proclaimed in his first show) comes with its share of risk and responsibility.

In a fairer world, just filling Stewart’s clown shoes would have been risk enough. Very few people are irreplaceable – I mean, Queen even toured with an American Idol runner-up after Freddy Mercury died – and Noah deserves his shot. It’s always a mistake to imagine a host is bigger than the format. Paul Holmes played that card when he took his show from TVNZ to Prime, and it was not an ace. The distinctly American tradition of tonight shows, late shows and late late shows has survived many regime changes, most recently with Letterman’s handover to Stephen Colbert.

But Stewart is beginning to look like an exception. This is not particularly a criticism of Noah, who has continued to make self-deprecatingly humble references to his illustrious forbear in a deliberate effort to both lower expectations and allow himself room to breathe. He is a new voice – younger, blacker (not hard) and South African, therefore allowing him a kind of alien’s perspective of crazy American culture.

But it also feels like the television equivalent of a covers band – you know these songs, they’re pretty well delivered, but it’s not the same thing. In a strangely emblematic moment during Noah’s first week in the chair, the guest was Ryan Adams, performing two songs from his cover/tribute album of Taylor Swift’s 1989. I couldn’t help making the connection – very clever, very interesting, but still someone else’s material.

Partly I think this is a product of the show’s core strength – the writing. If you caught Stewart’s last episode, and that wonderful single tracking shot through all the departments of the production office, you will have seen the creative iceberg beneath the visible tip. While it’s logical that the post-Stewart era builds on those rock solid foundations (pimped up set and graphics notwithstanding), it also risks even starker comparison with the old occupant.

But these are early days, and I’ve refrained as long as possible from judgment. There were the inevitable deadline-driven post-mortems of Noah’s very first night, which wasn’t helped by its first celebrity guest being comic actor Kevin Hart, who seemed bent on stealing a show that was barely there to steal. But The Daily Show is a cultural artifact and it will survive the default critiques of the new host’s (admittedly awful) old tweets or lamer gags.

There has also been gradual change since that first outing, with the new “correspondents” finding their rhythm, and longer segments devoted to a single topic (prison reform, planned parenthood). If this feels a little like the same ground John Oliver is mining so brilliantly on Last Week Tonight that is probably a good thing. Gently shifting The Daily Show’s current affairs axis may be a smart move, given how many people have turned to it as an antidote to the mind-fuckery of CNN and Fox.

At least one of the new faces is a star, too. Roy Wood Junior almost single-handedly rescued the first show with a brilliant riff about the discovery of water on Mars and why no black people give a shit. “Black man ain’t gonna to Mars,” he told Noah. “Brother can’t catch a cab, you think he gonna catch a space ship?” He followed that up with a fantastic vox pop report from the “million man march” on Washington DC, which explored both white complacency and black pseudo-militancy with subtle but diamond-hard sarcasm.

And it’s not as if an American satirist lacks for material. Noah’s good fortune has been to take over the controls during the early stages of the presidential election cycle, inheriting from Stewart a lineup of genuine political gargoyles to poke sticks at. Republican candidates Donald Trump, the appalling Carly Fiorina, mad doctor Ben Carson and a host of lesser loonies have all but written their own gags for the show. The news networks themselves, by now driven insane by the demands of their own 24-hour news cycles, are brimming as ever with comedy gold.

Noah is more puerile than Stewart, but has also shown a willingness to push the taste boundary further. Take this one from night one:

It’s like crack telling meth that it’s not addictive enough. ‘Yo, man, you got to step your game up, crystal, you make teeth fall out, big deal. I put down Whitney Houston.‘”

That was played for pure stand-up shock value, and probably relied on a degree of affection for the host he hadn’t yet earned.

In the end, though, it is all in the delivery. One of the vital but generally unremarked aspects of formats such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight is their reliance on the autocue. The writing is so tight, the jokes so carefully choreographed with the graphics, the pace so hectic, that an ability to read seamlessly and naturally is perhaps a host’s greatest skill.

People tend to disparage the likes of newsreaders and TV presenters as mere “autocue readers”, but just try it if you think it’s easy. Most people can’t read a paragraph from a book without tripping over their own tongue. Now try adding visual cues, pauses for effect, word play and the all-important element of tone in telling jokes, and you have a rarified skill that not every comic possesses. John Oliver has one of the biggest solo reads I’ve ever seen in a single show, but his shtick is commentary as well as comedy, so the odd stumble almost fits the format.

Noah does well enough, but compared to Stewart he remains very much the understudy. As I noted in a farewell piece about the former host, Stewart is such a physical comedian – he will happily lapse into non-verbal outbursts or song if the mood takes him – that his relationship with the autocue was verging on telepathic. He felt closer to the material as a result, able to pause, slide around on his chair, backtrack or improvise. In short, he achieved the thing every autocue reader dreams of – appearing to speak directly and personally to the viewer.

Without those superpowers, Noah is still a comedian reading jokes to camera, and The Daily Show will feel like a tribute show until he develops that intangible rapport. But even a tribute show is better than no Daily Show.

The Daily Show airs on Sky’s Comedy Central, weeknights at 12am

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