Trevor Noah was introduced to Stateside viewers as an outsider—a foreign observer who could see America more clearly than it could see itself. On his first appearance on “The Daily Show,” in late 2014, the program’s host at the time, Jon Stewart, emphasized the South African comedian’s background when presenting him as the series’ newest correspondent. Noah, who already enjoyed a large following outside of the U.S., wielded his origins to critique Western assumptions about his native continent (that it’s “one giant village full of AIDS, huts, and starving children”) and to deflate American exceptionalism. Later in the segment, he pictured an African mother chiding, “Be grateful for what you have, because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.”
Noah’s first two Netflix specials, released after he took over as host of “The Daily Show” the following year, fleshed out his stage persona as that of a boundlessly curious globe-trotter. Their most memorable moments add up to a travelogue: meeting Black Americans who romanticize “the motherland” of Africa, trying tacos for the first time, feeling guilty about taking part in “poverty porn” while vacationing in Bali. (Many of his cross-cultural anecdotes are self-deprecating, but, when he tells the story of an incident in Indonesia that involves a snake show gone awry, he is relatably self-righteous about not getting too close to the stage, “because, you see, as a Black person, culturally, I’m trying to not die.”) The journey continues in his most recent special, the relatively anemic “I Wish You Would,” released last month, which builds to a story about the time he “Trudeau’d”—i.e., embarrassed himself by displaying an over-eagerness to embrace the trappings of a culture not his own, à la the Canadian Prime Minister—while ordering food at an Indian restaurant in Scotland.
Noah concluded his seven-year run at “The Daily Show” this week, to the end an awkward fit for a role that, admittedly, was near-impossible to fill. Not that he didn’t succeed in remaking the Comedy Central mainstay closer to his own image: the current iteration of the series is flashier and fleeter than it was in the Stewart years, with an audience that skews younger and more diverse. But, because Noah has set such a high cerebral bar for himself through his specials—as well as with his excellent 2016 memoir, “Born a Crime” (the title refers to his mixed-race parentage, which was illegal under apartheid)—it often felt like he was coasting on “The Daily Show.” This impression was bolstered by the revelation, in a recent Hollywood Reporter profile, that the comedian spent his weekends touring and generally avoiding political commentary in his own standup. During Stewart’s heyday, it was obvious that he poured his intellect into his show. In contrast, Noah’s tenure, which encompassed the Trump Administration and the pandemic quarantine years, often gave the sense of complacency, with a host who seemed much smarter than the material he doled out.
Among Stewart’s many innovations on “The Daily Show” was his unabashed willingness to be himself, or at least a version of himself. His “fake news,” as the program once billed itself, before Trump’s appropriation of the phrase, was delivered by a fake newsman with no need for the pretense of a view-from-nowhere objectivity. On our screens, Stewart was a regular guy from New Jersey, as well as a political junkie who couldn’t believe that news professionals were taking politicians and their claims—including those that led to the Iraq War—at face value. Stewart took things personally. His late-night successors, including his former correspondents, emulated that authenticity. John Oliver has always been the first to mock his own pasty Englishness, Samantha Bee got angry on behalf of women and spoke to women’s issues, and Hasan Minhaj fearlessly tackled global topics considered niche by mainstream American audiences, such as Indian politics and Saudi Arabia’s human-rights abuses.You can easily believe that Seth Meyers, too, as a former “Saturday Night Live” head writer and a host of the topical “Weekend Update” segment, has an insatiable doomscrolling habit. Even Jimmy Kimmel, who was previously seldom counted among this more ideological cohort, has used his young son’s health crises to plead for a more sensible health-care system.
While political comedians have generally leaned into the intensity and obsessiveness that Stewart cultivated as his calling card, Noah stands apart; his charisma lies in his coolness and detachment. His view is from somewhere, but it’s also decidedly anthropological. As the Times observed, in a tribute, Noah’s worldliness expanded late night’s geographical imagination, but he rarely came off as caring on a gut level—let alone on Stewart’s ulcer level—about the blow-by-blow of American horse-race politics. Only occasionally did he fully deliver on that initial promise of using his outsider’s gaze to illuminate (or more sharply satirize) America, as when he compared Trump, in a celebrated early viral hit, to an African dictator.
Some will say Noah’s tenure simply wasn’t very funny. As a viewer who has tuned in to the vast majority of his episodes, owing to the fact that the “The Daily Show” has been a fixture pretty much all of my adult life, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. But the larger letdown may be that his “Daily Show” persona never fully solidified into one that inspired a sense of connection. His façade seemed too often like a crowd-pleasing pastiche; jokes about Things African Moms Say jostled with made-up remembrances of a generic college experience that pandered to audience members who seemed all too eager to see themselves in Noah. One of his most reliable, and most irksome, phrases was “on the other hand”: he’d assert something, then in the next breath champion the opposite stance with equal fluidity. The both-sides-ism could come across as humble and nuanced; just as often, it suggested indifference, a lack of investment in arriving at a truly considered conclusion.
Every individual contains multitudes. But because Noah’s biography has come to comprise a greater part of his public persona than those of his peers, and because we’ve encountered distillations of his comedic voice through his specials, the gap between what he offered on “The Daily Show” and what he’s capable of was ever distracting. (That might be the main reason, aside from the finitude of days in a week, that his fellow-hosts appear not to have simultaneously pursued brand-honing standup careers.) Stewart treated “The Daily Show” like a calling; Noah just seemed like he was there to do a job.
Meanwhile, “The Daily Show” ’s tropes—sitting behind a desk, flitting through the day’s headlines—provided only a fitful showcase for Noah’s most exceptional gifts as a comedian, such as his physicality and his extraordinary ear for accents and impressions. (He speaks seven languages, and in “Afraid of the Dark,” his Netflix début, he runs through at least ten accents.) Noah seemed to reserve his unguarded moments for online-only “Between the Scenes” clips, in which he spoke off the cuff about personal experiences and took questions from the studio audience on the debates of the day. After Queen Elizabeth’s death, for example, he addressed the lack of mourning among many in Britain’s former Empire: “You can’t expect people to show respect for something that never respected them.” In these snippets of candor, he was thoughtful and authoritative, projecting the intellectual credibility that often eluded his scripted jokes.
A succession of celebrity guests, along with the series’ correspondents, will host “The Daily Show” when it returns in the new year. (If any of the latter emerge as a permanent replacement, it’s likely to be Roy Wood, Jr.—a Noah hire and the correspondent with the most multifaceted talent and appeal.) Whoever ultimately gets the job won’t have as shoes as big to fill as Noah did when Stewart left, but the task is formidable nonetheless. The series’ influence has rendered it inessential; even Stewart struggles to get ratings or buzz for his new Apple TV+ series, “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” in an oversaturated field where TV hosts not only have to contend with one another but with clever takes on social media, which are posted hours before late-night comedy shows make it to air. Relatability is a high-wire act to maintain—just ask Ellen DeGeneres or James Corden—but some kind of authenticity will remain necessary for any political comedian who wants to resonate with their audience. These days, viewers always want to know where you’re coming from. ♦