We’ve had some time at this point to get used to the absence of David Letterman, but to be fair, the handing over of The Late Show was as much about Stephen Colbert’s new gig as it was about Letterman’s chair. The matter of Trevor Noah, the insightful South-African comedian, taking a seat in the chair once occupied by Jon Stewart, the legendary, long-standing host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, is more about the show itself and Stewart’s place in pop culture. After all, this was the show that shepherded Ed Helms, Steve Carell, John Oliver, and, of course, Colbert, among a slew of other major comedic talents, and Noah, a relative newcomer, felt like an odd, if not unworthy choice at first for taking over an institution as popular and, yes, important as The Daily Show.
On his first night, however, Noah seemed to assuage most fears about him fumbling with Comedy Central’s flagship program, opening the show with a sincere acknowledgement of the chance he’s been given, and of Stewart’s legacy on the program. Noah described himself as the nation’s new political stepdad, and the first episode rightly spent a good amount of time confronting the awkwardness of the transition, including a clever bit with Jordan Keppler comparing Stewart’s departure to House Speaker John Boehner’s recent resignation (watch the full monologue below). Noah attacked the material, which also included the Pope’s visit to America, with enthusiasm and robust energy, and as an interviewer, with Kevin Hart, he proved to be both engaging and easily adaptable.
What’s missing, of course, is something that simply would never be there, even if Amy Schumer or Louis C.K. was the new host, and that’s experience and comfort with the room. Stewart’s exhaustion and anger were critical to what The Daily Show has become and that came from doing the show for so long, honing the entire production into a fine point and working the jokes over and over and over until they hit with concise force and gleamed with wisdom. Noah will have to find his own groove with the show, his own rhythms with the studio audience, and a distinct way of making the show as much about how they report the news as the news itself, which Stewart, not unlike Letterman, was a master at.
Not surprisingly, Noah felt most comfortable sparring with promising new correspondent Roy Wood Jr., whose take on the discovery of water on Mars was simply uproarious. Wood Jr.’s segment in particular offered a respite from the episode’s unavoidable newness and lack of familiarity, beyond Keppler’s appearance. It’s the kind of segment that Stewart loved to do, focusing on the correspondent’s unique delivery and desperate exhaustion over yet another space discovery that will likely fade in the mind’s of everyone but hardcore enthusiasts in less than a week. Noah has a reputation for going for the controversial joke over the big laugh, but working with Wood and going over the stories of the week, the comedian seemed ready for anything, which is exactly what the job requires.