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Monday, March 21, 2016

How Goes It, Trevor Noah?

            Alright!  I think it’s about time we checked in on The Daily Show.    

            Hard to believe it was only last August when Jon hung up the suit for good, and barely 6 months ago when the show started up again with Trevor Noah at the helm.  And almost right away, he made his presence felt, at least on a surface level.  Gone are the chains binding the host to the studio desk- now Trevor does most of his opening monologues standing in front of a full-screen backdrop.  We have a new opening sequence with a hip-hop riff on the old music, and a slew of new correspondents as well.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t get whiplash the first time I saw most of this, but showbiz, as with life, means change, so I’ve gotten used to them. 

            One of the big billings of Trevor as the new host was that his South African-immigrant background would give him leeway to make the show and the humor more international, and so far he has certainly delivered in that regard- an early bit comparing Donald Trump to several notable African “Presidents for Life,” the sort of thing most introverted Americans would never think of, was particularly inspired.  Plus, I think this current crop of correspondents is the most ethnically mixed group we’ve ever had.  Roy Wood Jr. and Jordan Klepper have great chemistry in all of their sketches, Jessica Williams is as amazing as always, and I’ve also developed a strong fondness for Ronny Chieng and his weird-ass daddy issues. 

            So lots of new faces, many of them non-white, and more of an outsider’s perspective brought to bear on our daily news.  All things late-night TV certainly needed.  But has it all been positive? 

            Sadly, not always.  As much as we have had to get used to someone other than Trevor Noah at the helm (and I haven’t been easy on him just because we share a name), he’s clearly had just as tricky a time of it getting used to the role himself.  While he has started to find a better groove as time has gone on, there were plenty of rocky moments those first few months, with some jokes falling flat, or his slower, more measured delivery just not fitting with the kind of humor he was going for.  A lot of people noted this, but I think some have been too quick to complain that the show was already going under.  Every new host of a show needs to find their feet, and that takes time.  He’s certainly gotten more confident as time has gone on, especially since the ongoing insanity of the Presidential race allowed him to perfect a Ben Carson impersonation on par with any of Jon Stewart’s best voices. 

            What I do miss terribly is War for the Ages that took place between Jon and Fox News, perhaps the greatest Moby Dick-esque media tale of our time.  As much as those confrontations took a toll on Jon over the years, his spats with one of the titan conservative institutions currently existing is easily one of the most entertaining, fascinating and, arguably, necessary pop culture events of our still-young 21st-century.  While The Daily Show rightfully targeted all major news networks for the various flavors of bullshit they regularly dredge up in the name of keeping themselves afloat, the degree of hostile partisanship mixed with an almost pathological spreading of misinformation about any topic you care to name has always stood out on Fox, which meant it rightly deserved the many, many bright lights Jon tried his best to shine on it over the past decade-and-a-half he did the show. 

            Obviously, Fox News hasn’t disappeared from The Daily Show- the network is way too big for a show focusing on contemporary news to avoid- but it certainly hasn’t gotten its own focused segments the way it used to.  Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, and co. aren’t as explicitly called out as much as they used to be.  Given how often and how harshly Fox would respond in turn whenever Stewart targeted them- and his responses in kind were often some of the best parts of any episode- it made their back-and-forth something wholly unique and special, and I think it was clear that it could never be duplicated once Stewart left.  It’s quite possible that Trevor and the writers consciously chose to not try to recreate that aspect of Jon’s style, and the decision was probably a wise one, instead focusing on what Trevor could do to make the show his own. 

            That doesn’t make it any less of a shame though, because the spread of destructive, paranoid, right-wing bullshit on Fox continues unabated and is a key aspect of why the Trump phenomenon has played out the way it has and continues to push forward unchecked through the primary season.  Because of this, the announcement of Jon’s departure was no doubt met by the staff at Fox with unbridled glee.  I get Trevor wanting to make the show his own, and I very much believe he will succeed in doing just that, but this is one part of the Stewart years I wish could keep on going. 

            This ties in to the big question everyone has been asking each other for over a year now- can Jon Stewart every truly be replaced?  While only time will tell what sort of reach and influence Trevor will have, I think that, sadly, the answer is already a very clear no.  Not because of any lack of talent on Trevor’s part, of course- he is his own comedian, and a fine one at that.  The simple fact of the matter is that, because Jon Stewart was such a unique comedic and TV talent, and because the length of his run allowed so many of us to literally grow into adulthood with his voice in our heads and his guidance helping us learn how to think and question and call out bullshit, there was never anything that could come remotely close to replacing that once it was gone.  And it was always bound to end, like all things. 

            This doesn’t make the new Daily Show any less good.  I still tune in every week, and for the most part I have been extremely happy with how things have gone since the change.  But Stewart’s absence will continue to be felt for a long time, by myself and many others.  Just remember to not take that personally, Trevor.  As long as you stand on our side in the War against Bullshit, we’re with you. 

-Noah Franc 

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