For the first time since 1999, someone other than Jon Stewart was manning the desk of The Daily Show last week. Trevor Noah, the 31 year old South African comic who was plucked from relative obscurity by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s hierarchy, finally made his Daily Show debut after almost two months of anticipation.
And he did… actually pretty well! John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, two of the funniest people currently on television, and who just so happen to be former correspondents of The Daily Show, thought Noah “crushed it.” But Oliver also brought up the point that Noah has an almost Sisyphean task of trying to replace Stewart. How do you replace the irreplaceable?
If the first week is any indication, it would be by making slow, gradual changes to the established format. Noah has not rushed into any dramatic changes, the most noteworthy only being a lighter hue of blue used on the set and a different introductory voice. The writing staff has remained mostly unchanged.
That, of course, is the safe, smart way to go. The Daily Show is basically a very specific, finely-tuned, high-performance car. Jon Stewart was an expert at driving it, but in the hands of anyone else, it might end up wrapped around a tree.
Noah, to his credit, didn’t crash it. And aside from a few misplaced jokes (the congressional aids/AIDS joke in the first episode was cringe-worthy), he was able to emulate Stewart reasonably well. The most promising moment did not even have to do with a joke; the fact that he looked so confident, that he looked like he belonged in that chair, might have been his biggest victory.
His interview with Kevin Hart may have been pretty dull and uneventful, but that is bound to improve; according to the great Andy Greenwald, Stewart took a full decade to master his interviewing skills. Add the fact that Trevor Noah actually seems to care about his interviews, and there is nowhere to go but up.
The future direction of The Daily Show is hard to determine after only a few days of evaluating Noah. After all, The Daily Show did not really become the The Daily Show until after the events of 9/11, which unfolded two years into Stewart's reign. And Comedy Central is playing the long game.
All of what happens to The Daily Show in the immediate future is secondary. In the eyes of Comedy Central, Trevor Noah's goal is not necessarily to replace Jon Stewart, just as Jon Stewart's goal in 1999 was not to simply replace Craig Kilborn. Noah has been given the time to incrementally make The Daily Show his own-- we all just need to hope the wait is worth it.