Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fingers Crossed for Trevor Noah

It's probably too early to be writing this post, with only a few weeks with Trevor Noah behind the desk at "The Daily Show," but I want to put down some initial thoughts before we get too far into his tenure.  From what I've seen of him so far, I think Trevor Noah is going to be okay, and "The Daily Show" has been left in good hands.  The first few shows were tentative and lower-key, but there were also several instances of trying new things, testing new ground, and playing with the status quo.  And keep in mind that all the correspondents and writers have remained after Jon Stewart's departure, so Noah already had a good, solid base to start with.  There's definitely the potential here for "The Daily Show" to ramp back up to being can't-miss television.  Things are slow now, but they're getting back on track.

With several of the "Daily Show" alumns, Colbert, Oliver, and Wilmore staking out other territory on other late night programs, it feels a little crowded in the satirical news landscape these days.  Initially, I was worried that Trevor Noah would be completely overshadowed.  He isn't a complete novice, having hosted his own comedy program in his native South Africa at one point, but he's not at the same level as Colbert and Oliver.  The reason why the announcement of his getting the "Daily Show" gig caused such a ruckus is because he's largely an unknown quantity.  He's funny, but had only done a handful of pieces for "The Daily Show" when he got hired to succeed Jon Stewart.  The vast majority of his work was done either in South Africa or England.  Nobody knew if his humor was going to translate to the U.S., or how his POV and persona were going to play with an American audience.  

Well, it turns out he's a natural in the desk segments.  His repartee with the correspondents is great, his joke delivery is solid, and his style and charm come across very well.  There are line flubs here and there, but he recovers without skipping a beat.  He's very good at looking like he knows what he's doing, which is half the battle.  He's tailoring his humor to the material more than the material is being tailored to his sensibilities at this point, but there have been some nice exceptions.  The segment where Donald Trump was compared to various African dictators was a highlight, and a great example of Noah's international perspective bringing something different to the mix.  Also, as much as I loved Jon Stewart, it's nice to see someone with a little more energy and a little more optimism on the job.

Where Noah still needs some work, however, is as an interviewer.  He's still making a lot of rookie mistakes, and the political guests in particular are getting away with things that Stewart and Colbert would have never let fly.  The few times where he's had to address the audience for heart-to-hearts, like trying to offer his condolences after the recent shooting in Oregon, have come off as stiff and perfunctory.  We haven't really seen him get passionate about any particular issue or injustice yet in a way that conveys that he really cares deeply about what he's discussing.  I'm not sure whether it's the kind of skill you can learn, but right now that's the biggest difference I can see between him and Jon Stewart.  Stewart cared, perhaps too much so  sometimes.  I don't see that from Trevor Noah yet.

Of course, it's very early in the game.  As we all know, it took Jon Stewart until Indecision 2000, over a year into his tenure, before he really hit his stride.  Trevor Noah has delivered some very good shows already, and he's noticeably improved since the premiere.  I find him far more engaging than Larry Wilmore or Seth Meyers, and with time and the right opportunities he could be up there with the greats.  I think Colbert's the winner so far this year, bringing his own brand of comic daring mainstream in a big way, but Trevor Noah's victories deserve some praise too.  It's a big relief to know that not only will "The Daily Show" go on, but that it's going on strong.

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