Last month saw the release of a sizable oral history book about Jon Stewart’s time as host of The Daily Show, filled with comedy and political luminaries declaiming on how Stewart’s Comedy Central half-hour had been the defining political program of its era. It was an era that seemed, in the book’s telling, to have sharply ended with Stewart’s retirement, but The Daily Show rolls on. It’s not an easy task to try to fill the shoes of a figure as lauded as Stewart, and though Noah has tried his best to carve out a persona, his interview Monday with President Obama seemed notable primarily for the fact that it happened at all.
Given that this booking is something Stewart, along with late night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Samantha Bee, have all achieved, that’s a problem. The departing President has been remarkably adept at fitting his policy positions into the framework of comedy late-night programs, employing a strategy whereby he’ll gamely participate in a skit or answer some personal questions before he gets to the substantive topic he’s wanted to discuss all along. But Noah asked loose, open-ended questions that Obama felt free to respond to with stem-winders, with the only moment that felt in any way idiosyncratic to The Daily Show a very nicely done discussion, at interview’s end, about talking to white audiences about racism.
But that followed a whole episode during which a host who’s been touted lately as both a combative interviewer and deep thinker had little to say. At one point, Obama simply looked directly into camera and advised Americans to sign up for the insurance proferred under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. “Here’s a quick question I have for you off that…,” Noah began haltingly before asking an open-ended question about Obama’s post-presidency plans. While the interview didn’t need to be an interrogation to be successful, it seemed apparent that Noah had long since ceded control of the proceedings to the President, and was serving him nice juicy pitches over the plate with clear signals that it wasn’t going to get any tougher. It’s no surprise that Obama came prepared for the interview with thoughtful and interesting things to say, but he embedded them in wheel-spinning and a bit of presidential cant. It’s a missed opportunity that Noah, as the audience surrogate, seemed quite so intimidated by his job.
The episode, airing Monday night, came against the recent backdrop of Noah’s ongoing touting of an interview with Tomi Lahren, a right-wing provocateur for digital network TheBlaze. Noah’s fairly rudimentary questions got predictably off-the-wall answers rooted in mean-spirited oddity. The pair continued to simultaneously re-litigate their interview and to perform comity with stunt-y displays like a drinks date and overtures of cupcakes, of course; with one a provocateur by trade and one a host on a show in a very crowded marketplace, both participants thrive on publicity. But it was frustrating that Noah spent quite so much energy on promoting an interview in which he somehow convinced someone who compares Black Lives Matter to the KKK to embarrass herself—let alone that the repeated framing of the interview was as a conversation whereby both sides could learn and grow. This was a well-executed means of getting attention for a night. It wasn’t a conversation America needed to have in order to heal, or proof of mastery.
There’s potential for a realignment happening in late night after Trump’s election; Bee in particular, who felt so vital a voice before the election, came close to making the defeat of Donald Trump part of her show’s artistic stakes. Her first episode after Trump’s win, a result the show clearly hadn’t anticipated, featured a flaccid segment about how people could all get along in America, and the show has felt further from the center of culture ever since. John Oliver’s venture into the electoral arena with a misplayed segment assuming the eventual defeat of “Donald Drumpf” seems unlikely to be repeated. There’s room for the sort of host Noah seems to want to be—someone who brings together thinkers across the aisle and allows for meaningful, lengthy discussions. But the former goal can’t be accomplished with Lahren, no matter how many times she posts about your show on Instagram, and the latter can only happen with willingness to take risks—even if you’ve booked the President.