On Monday night, the 31-year-old comic Trevor Noah hosted his first episode of The Daily Show, taking over for the recently retired Jon Stewart. Early promises that the show would become, under Noah, something different were only partially fulfilled. It was as though Noah knew that there'd be a wave of first-night reviews that would compare him negatively to Stewart, and sought to forestall the issue by referencing Stewart as frequently as possible.
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Noah opened the show with something of an acceptance speech, thanking Stewart for his trust in the newbie and saying that the show was something he never might have dreamed of in his childhood "in the dusty streets of South Africa." There were jokes, occasionally, but the whole thing was suffused with the sort of reverence that's antithetical to comedy. (And his decision to make a joke out of the outcry over the all-male slate of late-night hosts, a tradition Noah's hiring continued, required a real rethink, or a substantially better joke.) A segment where Noah discussed the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner with correspondent Jordan Klepper relied on a John/Jon double entendre (everyone is so sad, in Congress and in the TV audience, that Jo[h]n has left). Because none of the House Republicans seem particularly sad that Boehner is stepping down, the bit managed to avoid saying anything substantial about politics while endlessly referencing better days.
Granted, the show was only the first iteration of a series that, hopefully, will substantially grow beyond Stewart's influence. But the moments that didn't talk about Stewart were stripped of any real point-of-view. Noah was erratically scathing at times (making random jokes about AIDS victims and the death of Whitney Houston) and utterly toothless at others. The host cheered himself when he announced his first segment would be about the Pope rather than Syria, and then presented a segment that touched on the Pope's visit in order to acknowledge that some people had produced novelty Pope-themed emojis and that the Pope drove around in a small car. The Pontiff is a particularly difficult figure of fun. Why the stale news of his visit, news that Noah was unwilling to meaningfully examine, was made into our first look at Noah is confounding from the viewer's perspective.
But it's easy to see why Noah went so easy, just as it is why he booked a congenial, fun first guest (the comic Kevin Hart) and why he asked Hart questions amounting, over and over, to "Why are you so successful?" 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.
This episode of television showed little particular evidence that the subversive Noah is in there: The host certainly seemed satisfied to smirk at his own puns and AIDS jokes. But his clear passion for the franchise, and his sheer earnestness, hints there may be something more in there. But in order to get there, Whitney Houston references aren't going to cut it: He's going to have to bring the international perspective (the one we keep hearing about) to bear on Syria. Or, at least, to choose harder targets than the Pope, Kevin Hart, and his own inadequacy compared to Jon Stewart.