Let’s be honest, what can you really tell from 30 minutes of a first show, especially when it seems like a quarter of it is filled with ads for movies?
You certainly can’t judge whether or not someone has what it takes to adequately fill even part of the space once occupied by an iconic performer who changed the culture of late night – and maybe the relationships between TV and politics in American life forever.
Trevor Noah brought big energy to the premiere of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” last night. But that’s not hard when there is as much anticipation and interest in a debut as there was for his.
He also brought a likeability and even charm to the seat that Jon Stewart made into one of the most important in popular culture. Likeability and charm were big deals for a late-night host in the Johnny Carson era. In fact, that’s what got Carson over with a mass audience in his early years. But in our snark-infested, social-media-saturated culture of today, I’m not sure they count for much.
I liked Noah’s opening a lot. He was graceful, gracious and funny in bowing to Stewart and those who loved the departing host. But the success of that opening seemed to mostly be a matter of superior writing – by a staff that still includes many who worked with Stewart – and Noah’s delivery of the writers’ lines.
Delivery alone is not enough in that chair. Given the connection Stewart had with his audience, you have to believe the guy in that chair cares passionately about what he is saying and that his words are coming from that passion – even if a team of writers is scripting the final form it takes on air.
That is particularly true of the political content, which was the bulk of the show with Stewart. My most serious reservation after Monday’s show is whether or not Noah has the political chops to make people believe he understands politics and that he cares the way Stewart did. It’s one thing to say he’s going to continue Stewart’s war on bull----, it’s another to make us believe it matters deeply to him.
In the long segment Noah did on John Boehner, the GOP Speaker of the House who resigned that post and his seat in Congress last week, it felt like the comedian was reading someone else’s words. It played flat and even a little tinny, like Noah didn’t really understand how profoundly Boehner’s failings in that job hurt the country.
You might not think great political credibility is crucial to late-night comedy, but it is in that chair, and I didn’t see it Monday.
Interviewing? Stewart was a pretty good interviewer. He could talk to Barack Obama and let the president have a wide open field to sell his latest policy agenda or political spin, and devoted viewers would still swear he put Obama’s feet to the fire. You have to be good at the TV interview game to pull off that trick, and Stewart did it regularly until the end of his run when some analysts started questioning his relationship to the White House.
The interview Noah did with comedian Kevin Hart was weak – very weak. This is the second thing that gives me pause about Noah: Can he interview? And if he does care about and understand politics the way Stewart did, why not have a political guest on his first show?
But again, it’s a first show wrapped around a million ads for films.
Given the white-hot and crazed political cycle the nation finds itself in, it won’t take more than a month or so to know if Noah has the political acumen and passion for this job. Even in our I-want-an-answer-now culture, I’m sure we can suspend judgment until then.