Last night marked the culmination of Trevor Noah’s first week on the job, and fittingly, it felt most like a departure from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” For example: There was no Moment Of Zen, which is a crucial artifact of the show under Stewart; there was also a musical guest who actually just played music, a la any number of variety shows, including “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” But there was an incredible opening segment—one that felt like “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” to my surprise.
Oliver’s snagged an audience on HBO not just by being wickedly funny, but by breaking down bigger issues into bite-size jokes; he’s a profane in-class video, tackling any number of snoozeworthy topics like “food waste” and “prescription drug regulation” and making them into shareable hits for the next morning. Jon Stewart, as host, definitely did a bit of that, but his tactic was more to expose hypocrisy and spin (and he did that with aplomb). He usually sent off his correspondents to do the investigative work—which often led them to adopt assumed personas of great ignorance, as they improv-ed the most absurd responses possible to the experts, politicians, and/or idiots they were interviewing.
Noah spent the first few episodes essentially following in Stewart’s model, with the commentary on the news coverage of the UN General Assembly coming mostly from him, while the correspondents went for absurd poses of racial disparity, hotel-room debauchery, or as was the case last night, pumpkin-spice mania. The opening segment, though, on Donald Trump’s rather terrifying similarities to African dictator-presidents, was a kind of mini-lecture—a funny thinkpiece with visual components, perhaps. It’s not just observation; it’s not even just a string of observations. It’s a string of observations with the intention of revealing something new to the audience; it’s analysis, proof, and an argument.
And with Trump, it was marvelous. “Light xenophobia, with just a dash of diplomacy” is what Noah termed Trump’s approach—before joking that the phrase was also the title of Paula Deen’s upcoming cookbook. And then he took the audience on a brief tour of African dictators, while the chyron read, all in caps: “TRUMP AND AFRICAN LEADERS: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.” There was something brilliantly and subversively eye-opening about the similarities between Trump’s grandstanding rhetoric and that of Robert Mugabe, or Muammar Gaddafi, or Jacob Zuma—the politics of the robber baron, after all, is not just an American phenomenon. Maybe this is a segment that a “Daily Show” writer has been working on for weeks, and it would have existed for anyone who sat in the host’s chair. But given that the segment kicked off with Zuma—the president of Noah’s home country of South Africa—it’s safe to say that Noah’s perspective on African politics at least influenced the opener.
The rest, I don’t know. Correspondents Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood, Jr. have become indispensible just in the last few days, playing off of each other and Noah with a lot of skill. (Wood’s “sweet potato latte” line delivery was to die for.) Ryan Adams playing Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” was fine, but not terribly interesting—though it meant I did finally listen to a bit of the cover album that everyone seemed to be talking about. And Noah is still adjusting, as is obvious whenever he has to go off-script.
Over the past week, as I’ve written about Noah, two things have become clear: He’s green, and he’s not trying to be just another Jon Stewart. Both of those characteristics require some getting used to for the regular “Daily Show” viewer—and as we’ve seen, it requires some adjustment for Noah, as well. But he certainly brings a zest to the proceedings that weren’t there before—a tension in whether or not he’ll succeed or fail; an uncertainty about just how well his jokes will appeal to his specific and entrenched audience. In a world of slick Jimmy Fallons and Jimmy Kimmels, it’s its own kind of fascinating to watch someone grow into a role—and hopefully, eventually, make it their own.