This is not your father’s “Daily Show” host, kids. Then again, Jon Stewart got off to a slow start when he took the reins of the Comedy Central late night show in 1999, so maybe Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old South African comedian who took Stewart’s place Monday, has more in common with his predecessor than is readily obvious.
The difference, this time, is that critics are paying attention. While Stewart took over an obscure show that few people cared about (with all due respect to Craig Kilborn), he turned “The Daily Show” franchise into an indomitable force in late night. When Stewart retired earlier this year, he left behind a now-ubiquitous fake-newscast genre that has essentially become real news for a generation of young cynical viewers, people who are suspicious about American politics and the established media but still hungry for information.
Those are admittedly some big shoes to fill, and if critics of Noah’s inaugural night in the “Daily Show” chair are to believed, the young host will need time to grow into them.
“[T]he segments in which Noah broached current news events, always where Stewart shone brightest, too often failed to hit their mark,” the Guardian’s Brian Moylan wrote. “Yes, Noah mined some clever material from the Pope’s US visit and Speaker of the House John Boehner’s resignation, but there were more than a few clunkers. Especially bad was a joke about the pope ‘undercompensating’ by driving a small car.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg agreed, calling Noah’s sense of American political theater “superficial” in comparison to that of his predecessor. “It's here that Noah was always going to have the hardest time assimilating, which has nothing to do with his foreign upbringing, since British-born ‘Daily Show’ veteran John Oliver is nothing if not a natural-born process wonk,” Feinberg wrote. “For his debut, Noah was giving the ‘Daily Show’ audience his version of what they expected, with the unspoken certainty that he will eventually steer this ship toward whatever he's genuinely passionate about, while promising to maintain the ‘war on bulls--t.’”
The Telegraph’s Jonathan Bernstein wrote Noah has “nothing on his predecessor,” while Time’s Daniel D’Addario said the new host has “much room” to grow. But that’s understandable, he wrote, since many viewers still have only a cursory awareness of who Noah is and the kind of host he’ll be.
“This is Noah’s introduction to America and, if he’s going to eventually going to do something subversive or adventurous or fun, it will have to be introduced slowly to an audience accustomed to Stewart’s fairly straightforward bag of tricks,” D’Addario wrote.
What he lacked in polish and political savvy, Noah made up for in likability, leaving many critics convinced he will take a now-familiar franchise into bold new territory as long as Comedy Central and its parent company, Viacom Inc., give him the time he needs to experiment.
“Noah’s debut found him looking more at ease and in command than he ever did as a correspondent, exhibiting a self-effacing streak about replacing Jon Stewart and a facility for selling jokes at the desk,” Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote. “While Stewart left big shoes to fill, Noah’s first at bat suggests the format remains durable enough to let him find his footing.”