When Jon Stewart announced that he was stepping down from his 16-year run as the host of The Daily Show, and seldom-known South African comic Trevor Noah would be the next host, the questions over whether or not he’d be able to pull it off were frequently met with a refrain about how Stewart wasn’t the first host the show had, either, and it survived that transition just fine. That’s true, but it also misses the point–Craig Kilborn’s three-year tenure as the first host of the show was likable enough, but it didn’t make the show a cultural force like Stewart’s time in the chair did. Stewart was in a great position to make The Daily Show his own–while Noah was in a great position to occupy a firm seat in Stewart’s shadow.
Noah had his first episode as the host of the Daily Show on Monday night, though, and his path to his own version of the show revealed itself: Not only are some of the basics (the show’s branding/set/fonts/etc.) all new and all different, but so are some of the broader approaches to the show’s comedy. The first episode featured plenty of meta and self-referential jokes–something that the Daily Show has always enjoyed–about Noah taking on the job (they got handed a pretty big gift with the news that John Boehner would be stepping down as speaker of the house, which led to a sustained bit about how people react when a new guy takes over for a long-time leader named Jo[h]n). But it also took on a bit of the outsider’s perspective that Noah possesses as someone who isn’t American and who can see all of the weirdness of American culture with fresh eyes. That’s a formula that worked well for John Oliver in his brilliant fill-in role while Stewart was on sabbatical, and it received some nods in Noah’s debut–not the “global perspective” that people predicted so much as “the Mets won! I don’t know what that is, but Jon told me it would work,” which is an effective harbinger of what Noah can do.
The show won’t be able to rely on a “Hey, this guy isn’t Jon Stewart” schtick for more than, say, another episode or two, but there’s another thing that Noah was able to do in his debut that Stewart seldom could, which is: Noah had a significant bit about race, a topic that Stewart was able to touch on–with correspondents like Larry Wilmore and Jessica Williams alongside him–but never from a first-person perspective. In a piece that was obviously assembled on Monday morning, after NASA announced free-flowing water had been found on Mars, Noah called in senior Mars correspondent Roy Wood Jr. (another newcomer to the show) to talk about the possibility of humans going to the red planet. Wood, in a bit that might have flown under Stewart, declared himself unimpressed–“Black people ain’t going to Mars,” he cried, noting that it’s hard to even get a taxi–before turning to the new host and saying, “That includes you, Trevor!” A part of Stewart’s persona was always the fact that he was a representative of the majority of people in power in this country–a straight, white American guy–and he could use that to open doors to other discussions. Noah, obviously, only checks two of those boxes, and the show seems interested from episode one in exploring what that means.
But the biggest shift between The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah is in the interview segments. Stewart’s interview persona was well-honed over 16 years, of course, but it was also a very definitive way of speaking to people: He was self-deprecating, occasionally incredulous, and frequently arch (without being sarcastic). Noah, meanwhile, appears to be none of those things. His first guest was Kevin Hart, who set him up nicely with lengthy, thoughtful answers to his questions–but even in a fluffy celebrity interview, Noah came off as both slightly more pointed and genuinely curious.
That may have been a matter of circumstance–until a few months ago, Noah was a striving standup looking to build his career, so a conversation with one of the most successful comics in the world would include trying to genuinely pick his brain about career and creative choices–but even while we learn exactly what sort of person Trevor Noah is when he’s in conversation with the sort of guests that The Daily Show tends to book, it’s clear that his manner with guests is going to be very different from Stewart’s.
It’ll be fascinating to see how that plays out when he’s talking to, say, a cabinet member of a presidential candidate–but also exciting, as The Daily Show gets a refresher that’s much more than just “here’s a new font and a new desk as we try to make you forget that this isn’t Jon Stewart.” It’s Trevor Noah’s show now–and he seems ready to take it.