With many recent new late-night hosts — Seth Meyers, James Corden, Stephen Colbert — observers judged the programs almost solely based on how much the fresh faces managed to energize a familiar, often moribund talk-show format. But on last night’s debut of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, the man taking over for Jon Stewart didn’t seem worried about reinvigorating the formula. If anything, the smiling, confident, disarmingly soft-spoken newcomer was here to demonstrate that there’s still plenty of life left in the art of reporting the fake-news, even if its standard-bearer had moved on.
Starting with the recognizable voiceover spiel announcing the episode date and the show’s “world news headquarters” in New York, this Daily Show 3.0 was quick to establish that the South African comedian, who’d only done three segments on Stewart’s TDS before landing the hosting gig, wasn’t going to make any radical changes. The desk might have looked a little different. The backdrop was just slightly tweaked. But everything from the punny headlines — a segment on the Pope was titled “A Prayer Home Companion” — to the goofy-correspondent cutaways, Noah’s first episode could have easily felt like a one-off, fill-in gig — not unlike when John Oliver took over during the summer of 2013 when Stewart went off to direct his feature film debut Rosewater.
But if the new host seemed determined to assure the faithful that he wasn’t demolishing their cherished fake-news report/late-night ritual, he nonetheless wanted to bring a new tone. The 31-year-old stand-up made no mention of the Twitter controversy that threatened to derail his hosting gig before it had even started, but he happily commented on the other things audiences know about him — namely, that he’s replacing a comedy icon and he’s not white. “Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa,” Noah said in his droll opening monologue, “I never dreamed that I would one day have — well, two things, really — an indoor toilet and a job as host of The Daily Show.” After appreciative laughter and cheers, he added, “Now I have both — and I’m quite comfortable with one of them.”
If he was overly nervous, it didn’t show. Noah warmly praising Stewart for being our “political dad,” although he quickly threw in, “It’s weird, because Dad has left. And now, it feels like the family has a new stepdad — and he’s black.” None of these barbs were delivered with bile, and Noah’s self-effacing grin suggesting a winning humility that could serve him well as Stewart’s legions decide whether to stay on board for the new guy.
In the build-up to his first show, Noah insisted in interviews that he considers this opening week as a four-part miniseries, with the initial episode being “a reintroduction of the show.” To use a baseball analogy — of which Stewart (whose beloved New York Mets clinched the division title this weekend for the first time in nine years) would no doubt approve — Noah wasn’t swinging for the fences. Instead, it was a night of singles and doubles, the host and his writers going for a steady stream of solid laughs from easy targets: John Boehner, Marco Rubio, Pope emojis, Noah himself. (Talking about Boehner’s potential replacements as Speaker of the House, returning correspondent Jordan Klepper noted how challenging it’s going to be for some unknown to take over for “John” — an obvious but clever elephant-in-the-room comment on Noah’s situation.) If none of the bits felt particularly “war on bullshit” edgy, the host could be forgiven for wanting to establish a rapport first before getting provocative.
(That said, an allusion to the late singer Whitney Houston’s crack problem and 2012 death elicited mild shock from an otherwise wildly supportive studio audience. Unfazed, Noah responded cheekily, “Too soon?”)
While Klepper provided his reliably amusing straight-laced-establishment-white-guy shtick, The Daily Show introduced a new supporting player in Roy Wood, Jr., one of three new performers who will be unveiled on the program. They riffed on yesterday’s announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, leading to a predictable but consistently funny bit between the two black comics about the fact that Caucasians will be the ones colonizing the Red Planet. For those who expected Noah to lay down racial broadsides from the get-go simply because of his skin color and background — in other words, to bring a “global perspective,” as he and Klepper jokingly referred to it — he instead did something arguably more radical: treating racism as such an ingrained, obvious evil in American culture that it only merited a wry, withering aside.
Further preserving continuity between the old and new Daily Shows, Noah ended by bringing out Kevin Hart for a pretty dull chat in which the rising superstar dutifully promoted his brand and believe-in-yourself mantras. Perhaps wisely, the producers invited a cream-puff guest for opening night; the host will have a sterner test when GOP presidential candidate (and longtime Stewart whipping boy) Chris Christie drops by the show on Wednesday. But for Night No. 1, Noah succeeded in seeming totally at ease, putting some distance between himself and the controversies from earlier this year while getting his first show under his belt. When he concluded with another sturdy chestnut — yes, there it was, “Your Moment of Zen” — the man behind the desk appeared pretty serene himself.