A few things were certain about 31-year-old Trevor Noah's “Daily Show” debut even before he sat at the anchor desk. We knew he'd acknowledge that he's not Jon Stewart (the shame!), he'd get through a few topical jokes before making another joke about not being Jon Stewart, and he'd stick more to formula than avant-garde tactics on his first night.
Well, he pulled through.
Noah's debut was a sharply written, placating introduction. The new anchor called Jon Stewart “our political dad” and then added, “And it's weird. Because dad has left. And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he's black. Which is not ideal.”
Hilarious though the joke may be, Noah felt nothing like a patriarch in his silvery tie — and that was fine. He felt like a cocky younger brother who'd returned home from college to recite some trenchant, self-deprecating one-liners he'd been polishing at the student union. Frankly, they were great one-liners, aside from a joke that ended with a questionable “AIDS/aides” pun that shouldn't have left the frat.
It'll take more than a single episode for Noah to feel like an authoritative newsreader, but he actually has a strange edge on Jon Stewart in one category: He truly resembles a bright-eyed, cheerily watchable CNN anchor. You can picture a stock ticker trailing beneath him as he mouths off about the pope. Stewart, meanwhile, was always a grizzled, commanding Ben Bradlee type who'd just told a few stringers to tighten their headlines. Neither avatar is better, but Noah's has the potential to mock both the material and immaculate snazz of a cable news broadcast.
If Noah seemed nervous at any point, it was during his climactic interview with comic Kevin Hart, who wore fitted sweatpants and treated the proceedings like any local tour-stop talk show. Stewart had a way of endearing and beguiling his guests; Noah opted for a more traditional Fallonesque route and complimented Hart's physique, commitment to exercise, and status as a “mitch” (male bitch) on BET's “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Not particularly novel or interesting, but Stewart had his undersensational Hollywood interviews too. We'll have to wait until a Republican candidate takes a seat to see whether Noah intends to shock his guests with both charisma and unyielding authority. So far he appears to prefer jocular rapport.
Strangely, the best joke of the night was uttered by correspondent Roy Wood Jr., the night's declared Senior Mars Correspondent. After a couple of planetary jokes, Wood noted that Noah wouldn't be invited to Mars because “you've only had 'The Daily Show' for one commercial break; these white people ain't decided if they like you yet.” He added that Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Strahan would get the invite “because white people like anything Kelly Ripa likes.”
Yet Kelly Ripa probably would like Trevor Noah. He's boisterous without being strident, which has its charms. But if Noah wants the “Onion”-worshiping demographic's full attention, he'll probably need to be a bit more damning and unusual. He'll have to own that grim AIDS joke and make it more electrifying than unsettling. So far, the new “Daily Show” is an affable and funny, yet under-invigorating moment of satirical zen.