There is no question that the daily late-night talk show is an overwhelmingly American experience. It began in 1962 with Johnny Carson's ubiquitous Tonight Show and has slowly twisted into the only slightly disparate landscape of the present, led by the relatively new triumvirate of Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel. The institution is so ingrained in the daily motion of our lives that any changes to the status quo create a cultural vacuum that must be immediately filled by someone hopefully as good and preferably only just vaguely different from their predecessor. This generally happens, if not by kismet, then by brute force, as it makes economic sense for a network to err on the side of consistency, backing their initial investment, while chalking any early turbulence up to a sunk cost.
Which is good news for Trevor Noah, who starts the second week of his Daily Show tenure tonight. His first four takes behind the desk went, I don't know, fine—it's hard to imagine a scenario where he could have fucked up so completely or spectacularly sparkled that would have elicited any consensus reaction other than let's wait and see. The initial critical impulse was to carefully consider the merit of each individual segment, plotting his effectiveness against a rubric that was equal parts Stewart, political incisiveness, and general comedic sensibilities, meaning: Is he funny? Is he intellectually formidable? Is he Jon Stewart?
Noah has already proven that he is an agile performer, displaying the genial glibness that earned him the gig in the first place.
The enormous scrutiny facing Noah is, of course, a result of Stewart's massive success of over the last 16 years. He was the most trusted newsman in America, transcending late-night comedy by being rabidly earnest in a business that, even at it's best, is by a wide margin playfully saccharine. Noah's main challenge is to continue to cultivate that relationship by providing an existing audience with more of the same Hall of Fame-level combination of personality and integrity.
Noah has already proven that he is an agile performer, displaying the genial glibness that earned him the gig in the first place. He nailed a segment called "Panderdemic 2016," skewering the trend of 2016 presidential candidates trying to appear hip to appeal to younger voters. "Oh really, you don't think Biggie and Tupac should have killed each other, really?" he asked after playing a clip of Marco Rubio discussing his preference for Tupac over Biggie on Fox News. "I'm glad you clarified that for us because I was really fooled by your thug-life exterior, Rubio."
The most troubling, but by no means damning, early indicator for concern is Noah's reluctance to engage on a personal or emotional level with his audience. His early ratings appear healthy. There's certainly many different routes to analyze, but his live numbers on Comedy Central have been virtually equal to a typical Stewart showing leading up to his finale on 8/6. Noah has already posted substantial increases in younger markets, showing rating gains of plus 21 percent with adults 18–49, plus 71 percent with adults 18–34, and plus 92 percent with men 18–34. This is a sure sign of encouragement, but it is probably based on expectations and not performance.
It's no secret that he has a distinct voice. He's a biracial South African who, at 31, is younger than all of his direct competitors by at least a decade (James Corden, new host of The Late, Late Show in the 12:35 AM timeslot is the next youngest late-night host at 37; Jimmy Fallon is 41). Yet, the overall bite of the show has been largely universal: Trump (he's like an African dictator), the Pope (he's "undercompensating" by driving a tiny Fiat), Pumpkin Spice Latte (correspondent Jordan Klepper: "It's like you're tonguing Thanksgiving while high-fiving Halloween). This doesn't have to be a bad thing, but it needs to come from a place of conviction to resonate in a crowded landscape all working with the same material.
Noah's guest for his third show, on Wednesday night, was New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie. At that point, the interview represented somewhat of a sea change from the first two guests, actor Kevin Hart and online dating app founder Whitney Wolfe.
Christie, an exceptionally affable politician, gave an exceptionally affable performance. As an immigrant himself, Noah is in a unique position to interrogate the GOP on the topic, and he brushed up against Christie early on the proposed biometrics for documentation, remarking, "It felt like you were talking to me personally." The two shared some laughs, but Noah continued to push. "It's going to cost so much money. Seven billion dollars are [estimated]—that's just to overhaul it in the airports. Would you not say that it's a little bit of an overshoot to try and get this going?" "It's a lot less expensive than a 2,000-mile wall across the entire southern border, how about that?" Christie quipped. The studio audience liked that, and Noah clapped along, leaning back before slapping his hand on the desk. "Touché, my friend, touché," he said, before pivoting to the Republican primary debates: "Why were they so long?" The interview, a marked improvement on the first two iterations, still felt slim to me on discourse and long on glad-handling. Immigration has been one of the major issues in the run-up to 2016, and while Christie's policy isn't the most divisive, it could have benefited Noah both in the short- and long-term to get on the record a more concrete and developed position.
On Thursday morning at 10:38 PDT, a 26-year-old student shot and killed nine people at a small community college in southern Oregon. The Daily Show tapes at 6 PM in New York City. Discussing a tragedy of any nature is a delicate and onerous task, and the rhetoric surrounding guns and gun control is often such bullshit that it makes it even harder to parse a rational response. There is grief, and anger, and bewilderment. It's been constantly said over the last few days, but it's worth repeating now: This is fucking ridiculous. Trevor Noah could have said that, but didn't, and I think it was a missed opportunity to establish a genuine rapport that this show has cultivated and thrived on.
"By now, as you may have heard, a few hours ago, there was a tragic event that took place in Oregon, and normally in one of these situations I would just speak from the heart, but honestly this isn't a normal situation for me," Noah said at the open. "I haven't had the time to feel, let alone think about everything that is happening. And I'm sure it's true for many people out there, so right now we can only express our grief for the people who were lost, and I guess I can do what I do best and that is try and make people laugh. So let's do our show."
No one wants Trevor Noah to fail, and while the gap he's being asked to fill is enormous, there is no reason to think that he is not already capable of occupying it. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a rash of think pieces in 2031 wondering how some new guy is going to compare to the esteemed and accomplished Trevor Noah, nor would it be a complete shock if there was someone new in the chair in a few years. Who knows? It's unfair to measure him by roughly 90 minutes of content, when he's got thousands and thousands more to go, just as it's unfair to expect him to be able to craft a nuanced and outraged reaction to Oregon in the four or so hours he had to work with. But this is an unfair business, and while it is certainly feels shortsighted to weigh his response against the ghost of Jon Stewart, at some point it might not be enough to just make people laugh.
Cody Wiewandt is a writer living in New York.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah airs weeknights at 11 PM on Comedy Central.