Trevor Noah's debut as the host of "The Daily Show" was a mostly smooth one--funny enough and assured enough to fend off any charges that he was violating Jon Stewart's sacred space.
What it really was, though, was strange, in the way that any big change is strange. You realized just how deeply ingrained Stewart's mannerisms and outlook were, how your brain had almost formed particular grooves for them to slide into over so many years. Seeing that disrupted—having to suddenly reorient yourself so much—was almost unsettling.
But being unsettled is not always a bad thing. Stewart departed for a very good reason. He had nothing left to prove, and nothing, really, left to say. He'd grown too comfortable in the chair, and the audience had grown too comfortable with him. The transition from him to Noah—a young, black South African—is as refreshingly bracing as anything could be. (Well, maybe with the exception of hiring a—gasp!—woman to a late night hosting gig.)
We, the audience, also need to interrogate just what's happening in terms of our reaction to Noah. This isn't actually the first time Stewart has ceded "The Daily Show" to someone else. When he took a summer off to make a movie, John Oliver took the reigns of the show for months. The rapturous acclaim he received led directly to "Last Week Tonight." Now, Oliver was clearly more familiar and experienced than Noah, but I also think we have to be honest with ourselves about how easily he slid into our subconscious expectation of what a talk show host should look like. Our culture has relentlessly programmed us to think "white man" when we think "late night." Oliver fit that mold. Noah doesn't. What's more, he's not even a familiar kind of foreign, like the British Oliver. He's South African. Again, though, how cool is that? There is no genre more stale than late night, as that infamous Vanity Fair picture showed. It sorely needs a jolt.
Noah has obviously had no time at all to put his own stamp on "The Daily Show," so it's hardly worth analyzing his first episode as though he's been doing the job for years. (My biggest fear about him, incidentally, is that he seems like, well, kind of a bro. Shudder.) But the value of having him in the chair was proved relatively quickly, during a segment about the recent discovery of water on Mars. Noah went back and forth with new correspondent Roy Wood, Jr., and the sight of these two riffing about how, as black men, they'd be last in line on any trip to Mars was not only very funny, it was also very pointedly the kind of thing we would never have been able to see Jon Stewart do.
Noah's task will now be to do more things like that: to shape "The Daily Show" in a way that fits with his own personality and identity, and, if need be, to drag his audience along with him. There's no knowing whether or not he'll succeed, but I'd rather watch him try than listen to Jon Stewart bash Fox News for the billionth time. Wouldn't you?