Trevor Noah, in his opening segment Monday night as the new host of “The Daily Show,” made a vow to viewers and, perhaps more importantly, to his predecessor, Jon Stewart: to “continue the war on bull---.”
Noah launched right into battle, firing at right-wingers who complained that outgoing House Speaker John Boehner wasn’t conservative enough (that’s like “crack telling meth it’s not addictive enough,” he quipped). He ended the show with his own Moment of Zen, showing a clip of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi badly stumbling in a CNN interview when asked whether she would miss her Republican sparring partner.
The newly minted host of Comedy Central’s marquee late night program scored with his strong opening salvo. But he’s a long way from winning the war – not only against BS, but in the battle to carve out his own late night comedy niche.
Noah’s first outing, understandably, was overshadowed by the legacy of Stewart, who rebuilt “The Daily Show” in his own smart-and-sardonic image when he took over for Craig Kilborn in 1999. Monday night’s show marked a welcome return of the franchise for the first time since Stewart’s Aug. 6 farewell – and it was like, in ways good and otherwise, that he never left.
The theme song hasn’t changed. The set’s been jazzed up a bit, but looks largely the same, save for a prominently placed globe – apparently a nod to the international perspective Noah brings as a native of South Africa. Perhaps most significantly, the joke-filled script, with just a tweak or two, could have been delivered by Stewart.
Noah got big laughs by likening champion of the poor Pope Francis to “a young Bernie Sanders” – a line straight out of the Stewart political humor playbook. Noah used news of water found on Mars to do a Stewart-like spit-take and tease the drought-plagued Golden State: “Don’t worry, California – they’ll find water on you too someday.”
He showed an easy rapport with others, playing the straightman in an interview with the comedy powerhouse Kevin Hart. And Noah bantered ably with veteran correspondent Jordan Klepper and promising newcomer Roy Wood, Jr., who predicted that the only black people allowed on a colonized Mars would be Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Strahan (“White people love anything Kelly Ripa likes,” Wood noted).
Ripa and Strahan could tell Noah a thing or two about what it’s like to replace a popular longtime host. Noah signaled Monday night that knows he has a steep challenge ahead of him as he replaces Stewart, whom he lauded as “our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad.
“And it’s weird, because Dad has left,” Noah added. “And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad – and he’s black.”
Look for new stepdad of “The Daily Show” to step up in the weeks to come and put his own mark on the program, much in the same way past long-term guest host John Oliver eventually did on his breakout weekly news lampoon on HBO. Both comedians, as previously noted, benefitted from Stewart creating a franchise strong enough to withstand his absence.
It’s too much to expect Noah to change late night comedy in his first half hour. But his opener suggests he’s armed with the wit, poise and intelligence to slowly build “The Daily Show” into his own comedy war machine. And that’s no bull.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.