Trevor Noah Had a Faulty Start

Guys, I was really rooting for Trevor Noah, the new host of The Daily Show. Talk about big shoes to fill! Not only did Jon Stewart front-man The Daily Show for 16 years, evolving it from obscure-Comedy-Central-novelty into a revolutionary news and satire format, but his last six months in the chair after announcing his departure were largely one long love letter to Stewart's prowess and perfection. (Suggested reading: James Wolcott laments the long goodbye in Vanity Fair.)

So then, after years of Stewart's stewardship and months of fanatic praise for him, in steps a largely unknown, very young comic, to sit at the legendary desk. (Wisely, like a true hero's jersey, the original desk and set themselves were retired).

How does one even began to host a show that is so defined by its former host that his name is synonymous with the title, a host heaped with credit for remaking The Daily Show into something important and silly and scary and funny at the same time? How do you avoid the hovering fear that the show will devolve into its long-ago roots, its pre-Stewart leadership under the forgotten (and, I think, underrated) Craig Kilborn? How do you host a show that all of comedy and media have lavished with constant superlatives? How do you impersonate an inimitable person? How do you host The Daily Show With Jon Stewart when you're not Jon Stewart?

First, you change the name (an odd feeling that first time the credits roll, to be sure). Then, thinks me, you ask John Oliver. When Stewart took a sabbatical for the summer months of 2013, John Oliver, a veteran correspondent, stepped into John's (literal) chair for eight weeks. Oliver had always been a sideline correspondent a niche favorite, a wacky English foil to Stewarts's straight-man. But his turn as host was resoundingly and deservedly lauded as near-perfect and became the breakout that launched Oliver into his fabulous HBO show This Week Tonight. Oliver stepped into Stewart's intimidating shoes with humility, proficiency, deep self-mockery, and above all, deft comedy. And I believe that he owed his successful run as host to a few important moments in his first episode.

Out of the gate, Oliver's first line was "Welcome to The Daily Show, I am John Oliver, and let's all just acknowledge for a moment that this is weird. This looks weird, it feels weird. It even sounds weird." (Oliver is, of course, English.) Regarding his first guest, he teases, "I look forward to explaining to [Seth Rogan] exactly who the fuck I am." Then he ad-libs over laughter, "That's about 30% a joke."

As he tried to get underway with the show, Oliver called on the other correspondents, only to have them bitterly express their anger, jealousy, and outrage over the unqualified Oliver being chosen to fill Stewart's seat. In these bits, the correspondents answered the questions that we audience members held in our heads: why John Oliver? Why not Jason Jones? Why not Samantha Bee? Why another white guy? Why not Aasif Mandvi? By calling out Oliver on his ascension to the throne, the correspondents addressed a sticky issue head-on, and by juggling their petty jealousies and accusations, John Oliver came on board with lowered standards and underdog likability. When the correspondents put him down, the audience wanted to lift him up.

In the interim between the final episode of The Daily Show in August and yesterday's premier of the new show with Trevor Noah, I thought a lot about John Oliver's stint as host. And (because I'm apparently the only person in the entire goddamn universe who doesn't care about college football, and therefore have almost no one to talk to during these dark months of Fall) I spent a lot of head space and time wondering how Trevor's first episode would tackle the same hurdles: inexperience, change, newness, not-being-Jon-ness. I assumed that they would use some version of the same formula that had been so successful propelling John Oliver to the helm; I was excited to see how they were going to pull it off this time.

And, I suppose they did that, sort of, but like everything in the first episode, the depricating jokes felt  half-assed. Where Oliver sizzled with energy, Trevor stayed calm and clammy. Where Oliver made instant, brusque jokes about his accent and his lack of fame ("telling Seth Rogan who the fuck I am,") Trevor acted like we should know him, like he had nothing to prove. He did sincerely talk about how much it meant to him to be on the show, and how surreal it was coming from his impoverished childhood in South Africa to sit at behind this iconic desk (different desk, tho, don't forget). This is genuine, no doubt, and charming in its own way, but it didn't exactly start the show off with the pop of intensity it needed after a long wind-down and a cavernous hiatus. What was supposed to come across as humble and enamored fell flat and clichéd. The parts that were unique to Trevor felt boring, and the parts that were funny seemed too familiar, like Noah was reading Stewart's teleprompter.

When correspondent Jordan Clepper (who still seems like a newbie on the show himself, no help to Noah) did a sketch about John Boehnor resigning, the writers cleverly spun "John leaving" into a play on Jon Stewart leaving. Discussing the disaster that was sure to follow "John's" departure, Clepper wheezed into a paper bag, terrified of "John's" leaving because Clepper just bought a condo. This was a funny, punny bit that hinted at the role-play from Oliver's first sketch. But this time it had a fatal flaw: it presaged Trevor failing without making it entirely clear that they were just joking.

Either the writers needed to say away from jokes that highlighted Trevor's potential to fail, or else they needed to lay them on thick, so thick that it transgressed uncomfortable and became funny again. A whole bit about "that's not the way John used to do it!" would've been great. Some jokes about Trevor's age "I wasn't even born when that happened!" Or, some hits on his obscurity, his nationality ("that's not the way America used to do it!"), or his accent (South African does sound like Australian with a speech impediment, right?) could've been strong. Either the game had to be ever-escalating jokes about Trevor "not being Jon," or they needed to avoid the topic altogether.

You see, when Oliver did it, the opening sketches seemed like they were about Oliver's inadequacy, but they were really about the other correspondents' bitterness that Oliver had been chosen to take this major role. Implicit in this, of course, is that hosting the show was always forecasted to be a front-and-center big break for whatever correspondent made the leap from the green screen to the studio. The sketches in Oliver's first episode, then, were about envy over Oliver's anticipated success, not his doomed failure.

And Oliver did succeed — wildly! a result that was predicted by the first moments of his first episode. So how dangerous is it that Trevor's first episode featured a joke about the inevitable collapse of the show when the audience is already perched uncomfortably on the edge of uncertainty about the show's future? If the rest of the episode had been similarly-themed, or blow-you-away perfect, I think it would have worked. But it wasn't. Like, if I just bought a condo, I wouldn't feel that great about it either.

This was only one show for sure, and 22 minutes is hardly the opportunity to prove yourself especially up against a 16-year ascension by a God-like pilot who jumped out of the plane at the peak of his success. I'm not saying that Trevor is not going to be great (and I'm really really hoping that he is). But I think that the writers could've done him a bigger favor by ushering him in with sketches let him make fun of himself in a way that didn't portend his failure.

No moment in the show better sums up my takeaway than when Trevor's first guest, a boisterous Kevin Hart, appeared on the stage holding a gift-wrapped box. Kevin pushes and pushes Trevor to open it, which he does gingerly despite Kevin instructing him to "rip into it like an American." The gift is a box of assorted (presumably very nice) ties, which is a surprisingly lovely gesture. Trevor barely reacts. Trevor barely reacts so much that Kevin says, with visible disappointment, "oh man I was really expecting a bigger reaction. I was expecting you to get up and dance." Trevor responds with a half-hearted dancing motion, and all I could think was "that's no Carlos Danger dance."

I, too, was just expecting something a little more from Trevor, something a little sillier, something a little more spirited and a little bolder. I was expecting the jokes to hit harder, to acknowledge "hey, this is weird, let's talk about how weird it is, let's talk about how I'm not Jon, but how this thing is going to work." I think that this whole experiment can work out, and I believe that Trevor's going to be a fresh voice and a fresh perspective to a format that we've all come to love and respect. But today I feel a lot like Kevin Hart: expecting something much bigger than I got.
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