In interviews leading up to his premiere, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah said that the first week of shows was being planned as a miniseries of sorts that would offer viewers an overview of what kind of show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah would be. Indeed, Noah entered a nearly impossible situation by filling the shoes of Jon Stewart, and his first week was understandably a bit of a mixed bag. Chris offered his thoughts on Noah’s first show earlier this week, but with the first four shows now complete, he and I decided to offer our thoughts on the initial run in a back-and-forth conversation.
Below, read on as we discuss the highs and lows of Noah’s first four Daily Show episodes, how he fits into the current Late Night TV landscape, and what his show might look like in the future.
ADAM: I know you, like me, were a loyal viewer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and you liked Trevor Noah’s first episode quite a bit. I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about the guy’s first night—he seemed too uncomfortable, not very self-assured, and I didn’t really feel like any of the jokes landed. Of course that’s totally understandable given the massive shoes he had to fill, and I was encouraged by his subsequent episodes this week that showed off his range a little bit more. Already by episode two I could feel his confidence level boosting, and he’s starting to ever-so-slightly find his footing in making the show his own. What were your overall thoughts on the week? Did you like the rest of the episodes as much as Noah’s debut?
CHRIS: I did! I agree that Noah got better throughout the week, started finding his own rhythms while also honing his own brand of humor, which is a far different beast than Stewart’s. Even if the debut wasn’t as insightful and riotously funny as many of Stewart’s final episodes were, Noah was clearly trying to reset the dial to his own persona, to make the show his own, which is what I wanted to see. Stewart would have had to act embarrassed for making a reference to Fetty Wap or the Drake/Meek Mill feud, but Noah didn’t, and that, for me, spoke to his gearing the show towards a younger audience without straining too hard. The rest of the week definitely showed him getting more comfortable with the material, and making the pacing of the show far more tighter, though I see him struggling a bit in the interviews still. Even more then Noah, however, the new correspondents made breakout performances this week. Roy Wood Jr. is irrepressibly hilarious, and Desi Lydic’s QVC bit with Hasan Minhaj made me laugh quite hard. And both Al Madrigal and Jordan Keppler came back strong. What did you think about the correspondents? How do you think he’s been doing in the interviews?
ADAM: I wholeheartedly agree about the correspondents, and I’d go so far as to say new correspondent Roy Wood Jr nearly upstaged Noah this week. He’s absolutely hysterical, and I felt his piece with Jordan Klepper on inherent bias training was the highlight of the week. That actually felt like a very different kind of correspondent piece than what Stewart was doing, one that veers closer towards advocacy or “real journalism”—not unlike John Oliver‘s Last Week Tonight. I’m curious to see if, in addition to bringing his own flavor to the desk, Noah is also mixing up the taped pieces as well. Though I will say one glaring omission from the week is Jessica Williams, who I believe is still on staff but for some reason didn’t appear at all. I’d argue she’s far and away the best correspondent they have, so I’m hoping she’ll be back sooner rather than later. For now, it appears the Daily Show team has been using Klepper as a sort of bridge between the Jon Stewart Daily Show and Noah’s.
Regarding the interviews, though, I think that’s where Noah needs the most improvement. He didn’t seem considerably more comfortable during this part of the show as the week went on, and the awkwardness kind of overwhelmed much of the discussions; the staged feel of the Kevin Hart interview was downright excruciating for me to watch. I’d say his Chris Christie interview came close to being OK as Noah tried to ask a few tough questions, but that skill just isn’t there yet. Oddly enough, Stephen Colbert is also suffering from a similar problem in that he’s having trouble finding his groove with celebrity guests, though his interviews with politicians are excellent. How did you feel about Noah’s interviews?
CHRIS: The interviews have almost classically been the weak spot of any show like this – I wasn’t even a fan of Stewart’s interview style until the late aughts and the first Obama campaign started up. So, I was similarly irked by the interviews, with the notable exception of Governor Christie, which did show quite a lot of promise but still felt a bit awkward overall. What I did like was his choice of interview subjects, including Christie and Tinder/Bumble co-founder Whitney Wolfe. Asking Wolfe onto the show, specifically, again gained my admiration for Noah trying to touch on more than politics and entertainment, which were famously Stewart’s wheelhouses; he’s trying to connect with a more internet-dependent culture in a way that Stewart often used just to reiterate how old he was. Kevin Hart was a softball pitch for the first show, and it felt like a rehearsal interview, which did admittedly make me squirm, but I can’t say I fault Noah for wanting something easy to end what must have been one of the most stressful nights of his life.
The thing that Colbert and Noah need is time, and it’s something that is very hard to ask for in this particular arena, even though they’re heading up two shows with incalculable name recognition. I didn’t start habitually watching Stewart until the mid-aughts, and his first season, for me, was quite awkward; his 9/11 reaction was when I started paying attention. They have to learn how to be themselves on TV, which is a whole other thing than being yourself in day-to-day-life, and it was something that Stewart and David Letterman were masters of, though not at first, mind you.
It’s also funny that you bring up Oliver, as he was on Colbert this week and commented that he thought Noah did a great job in an impossible situation. That’s about where I am with Noah as well, and his piece on Trump last night was the best I’ve seen from him thus far, so I have good will going into week two. How do you think he did in his solo pieces?
ADAM: Yeah I think Oliver’s assessment rings true. I’m honestly having trouble remembering Noah’s solo pieces, which is probably not a good sign. But as you mention, what these guys need is time, and they’ll get it. No one comes into Late Night TV fully formed, especially when taking over such an established brand as The Daily Show. I look at something like Late Night with Seth Meyers, which began somewhat forgettably, but has since become what I’d consider the best Late Night program on television. He’s nailing his interviews with insight and genuinely fascinating/funny conversation (he doesn’t use notecards), and in late August he began doing the monologue from the desk with more politically focused pieces utilizing an onscreen graphic—remind you of anything?
Much has already been written about the changing Late Night landscape, and now with Stewart and Letterman gone, it’s basically an entirely new guard. What I’ve noticed recently, though, is as Stewart left, shows like Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert have begun ape-ing Stewart’s style a bit with those sit-down segments. I knew Stewart’s legacy would stand the test of time, but I guess I didn’t expect his impact to be so far-reaching on Late Night TV. And that makes Noah’s job both tougher and easier. It’s tougher because The Daily Show is no longer the only program utilizing this particular style, but it’s easier because since others are riffing on this kind of thing, it almost gives him more freedom to make The Daily Show his own. Ultimately, that’s what I want to see—The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. I don’t think we’re there just yet, but I’m curious to see how he evolves over the next few months. I think the true test will be checking in a year from now to see what this show looks like compared to what it is now. What are your thoughts on the Late Night landscape as a whole and how Noah fits in?
CHRIS: I’ve been sleeping on Seth Myers until recently, and I agree that he’s really showing some serious chops in the realm of political comedy, although the Trump campaign has really just brought the best out of all of our big comedians. It’s been easy enough to ape Stewart’s perspective on the increasing absurdity of all-day news and politics in general, but it was his delivery and timing that made him so unique. Like Letterman, his sense of humor touched on the lunacy of television stardom and his job itself. I remember a piece in the New Yorker saying that Letterman almost acted embarrassed to be on television, and Stewart had that similar tone of a smart comedy nerd being unsure of his place in the surrealism of the TV landscape, yet still being enthusiastic about the work at hand.
That’s not quite what’s been seen with Colbert, Noah, Myers, or, for that matter, James Corden, who had similarly big shoes to fill taking over for Craig Ferguson, an underrated, ingenious late-night host. Oliver is the only one who seemingly has been able to pick up that exact mantle, and Last Week Tonight has, for me, been the great revelation of television news and comedy over the last 12-18 months. Where Stewart emphatically said that Americans don’t care about news outside of their exact experience, Oliver is insisting that they should and that it’s important to keep reminding people of that. He’s also got a firm grasp on social media and how to make ambitious jokes fly. His call for internet trolls to attack the FCC during Net Neutrality hearings was a humongous success, and even smaller bits (#NotMyChristian) have garnered widespread attention.
I think what’s been most interesting in the TV landscape is the embracing of political subjectivity, the fact that these men aren’t hiding their politics and aren’t trying to play towards the middle. Noah’s Trump bit, which compared the (several expletives deleted) billionaire to a variety of foreign dictators and warlords, showed more of Noah’s distinct political mindset, his knowledge of a great big political world outside of the U.S., which even Stewart struggled with. Noah has a hugely international perspective, which is something he shares with Oliver. Colbert and Myers are more focused on U.S. policies and politics, which is for the better – they’re the local news to Oliver and Noah’s global fascinations. I’d like to see more international focus from Noah in the coming months, but I’m not sure if the election will allow for such focus. Do you think that’s where The Daily Show might go or do you think he has to keep tethered to American politics to keep the audience interested?
ADAM: I do think, in order to keep The Daily Show as The Daily Show, Noah has to keep one foot firmly planted in American politics, but I agree that his focus should expand beyond Stewart’s purview. That’s clearly where he excels, and Noah has admitted that he’s not as knowledgable or attached to these American politicians as Stewart was—of course Stewart’s attachment came from covering the same people for over a decade. I think the Trump bit showed the promise of what kind of comedy Noah can bring, along with his penchant for more “controversial” jokes over Stewart’s sometimes broad sense of humor.
All in all, while Noah’s first week wasn’t spectacular, I think he did about as well as anyone could have in this particular situation. The interviews are certainly the area that needs the most work, but there’s enough promise to be found in the show overall—especially when it comes to new correspondents. I’ll certainly continue watching. Any parting words you have as we wrap up this look at Noah’s first week?
CHRIS: I’m especially interested to see how Noah goes about balancing the weekly structure of the show, and to see if he can take time to do the out-of-left-field segments that Stewart had a knack for. He might benefit from taking up a cause in the way that Stewart did with 9/11 first responders and their medical care, showing a particular passion for the entertainer. I’m also interested to see how he does with music – Stewart was all over the map but also was very select about who performed on his shows (Wu-Tang Clan, Spoon, and, unfortunately, Mumford & Sons, to name just a few). I wonder if Noah will bring musicians on more often, and aim for more hip-hop or indie-minded songwriters. He ended this week with Ryan Adams promoting his new 1989 album, which is an entire cover record of Taylor Swift’s record of the same name. It almost felt like a wink – the songs of a pop icon being covered by an indie rock/folk icon, on a hugely popular show transitioning from a legend to a talented comedian taking on impossible expectations and carrying one of the biggest brands on late-night television. Regardless of my issues with the interviews, I will be back watching Monday night and can’t wait to see where things go from here.