Trevor Noah spent his first night as host of The Daily Show eagerly reassuring viewers that this was the same show we had watched and loved for 16 years. And in most ways, it was: Jon Stewart’s team of writers and producers stayed on, and last night’s episode maintained the same formula and structure. There was even a Moment of Zen, though Noah stood while introducing it instead of remaining seated. (That was somehow the most disconcerting moment of the night.) The result wasn’t very exciting: just a tepid—and slightly more crass—episode of The Daily Show.
Sure, there is only so much we can know about a late night talk show from just one episode. (Full disclosure: After HBO's premiere of Last Week Tonight I declared that John Oliver's new show lacked ambition. If this is the point where you close this tab, I'll understand.) More than any other genre, a talk show needs time to grow into itself. After all, even Jon Stewart wasn’t Jon Stewart 16 years ago.
Noah didn’t have any first-day jitters to work out, but what we saw wasn’t promising. While Noah riffed on Pope Francis, John Boehner, and Whitney Houston (so topical!) his main subject, and the engine of most of his comedy, was himself: his foreignness, his race, his supposed ignorance of American politics. “Thank you for believing in me,” he said to Jon Stewart in an opening monologue, promising not to make him “look like the crazy old dude who left his inheritance to some random kid from Africa.” After the studio audience cheered when he noted that the Mets made the playoffs, he added, “I don’t know what that is but Jon told me that would work.” Some of the meta humor was funny, but Noah can only go to that well for so long.
When left to make jokes without the help of his writers’ room, Noah flailed. Most late-night hosts take time to become decent celebrity interviewers, and it certainly was never Jon Stewart’s strong point. But Noah’s interview with comedian Kevin Hart was almost painful, concluding with a lengthy discussion of Hart’s striped sweatpants.
In fact, the breakout comic of the episode was a newly hired correspondent, Roy Wood, Jr. Brought on to discuss the news that water has been found on Mars, Wood insisted there was little chance a black man like him would get to go to space even once it was found inhabitable: “A brother can’t catch a cab. You think we can catch a spaceship?" When Noah began to argue, Wood Jr. responded: "You’ve only had The Daily Show for one commercial break; these white people ain't decided if they like you yet.”
So far, the show hasn’t taken the “global,” cosmopolitan turn that has been much heralded. But Noah—the first millennial late-night host—did skew younger in his cultural references, mentioning Fetty Wap and sexting. And while most of his political humor played it safe—John Boehner cries, and the Pope drives a small car—he did offer a few stale “edgy” jokes, including a spectacularly misjudged AIDS punchline. At these moments, his comedy reveals a self-satisfied quality. Sitting behind his anchor desk in a tailored suit, with that face and those dimples, Noah looked every bit the cable-news anchor that The Daily Show satirizes—smooth, confident, uninspiring.