Trevor Noah emerging from Stewart's shadow

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Maybe it's time to forgive Trevor Noah for not being Jon Stewart.

The new "Daily Show" host is finding his footing after a rough start replacing the man who made the broadcast essential. His comedy has grown sharper, he's becoming more comfortable with his adopted country and he's finding an audience of his own, even if smaller than his predecessor's.

"Some people are still going, 'you're not Jon Stewart,'" Noah said. "Some people are still grading me accordingly ... They're doing the wrong thing. They're grading me on something I'm not trying to do. Many of them have caught on, some faster than others. All I can do is make the show for the people who wish to watch it."

In recent weeks, Noah mixed comedy and forceful opinion by advocating for restrictions on gun access following the Orlando massacre, and said it's possible to both support police and activists fighting against institutional racism. Praising House Democrats who used C-SPAN and the Internet to spread news about their sit-in to support gun legislation, he said, "I haven't seen the young and old work that well together since the first 'Karate Kid.'"

Following a story about criticism directed at Justin Timberlake for appropriating black culture, correspondent Roy Wood Jr. tried to "outblack" Noah by noting he'd been born in Alabama, attended a black university and worked in urban radio.

"I'm from South Africa," Noah replied, ending the argument.

A "black Trump" rap video used the candidate's own words for comedy. That and last fall's comparison of Donald Trump to African dictators, probably his first breakthrough segment, are examples of "Daily Show" humor you couldn't imagine in Stewart's hands.

Comedy Central had installed Noah last September only five weeks after Stewart left, giving him a show with Stewart's writers, staff and format.

"You almost got the sense he was mouthing Jon Stewart's words," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "And, actually, he was."

That invited comparisons and, inevitably, Noah was found wanting. In Slate, critic Willa Paskin wrote of a "Daily Show"-shaped hole in culture, despite a lesser version airing each weeknight. She wrote that Noah was too cautious, backing away from tough issues. "You may still laugh, but an inessential 'Daily Show' is a real loss," Paskin wrote.

Noah couldn't ignore the criticism, or the tweets urging him to shut up about Africa and wondering about his funny accent.

Sometimes he'd disarm the haters by tweeting back but, yes, there were adjustment issues.

"I was deferring to the old style of show, because you're so afraid to tarnish an institution," he said. "You're afraid to be the person who destroyed the 'Daily Show.' Once you get that monkey off your back — you realize the "Daily Show' with Jon Stewart is over. As Jon said to me, the show died when he left. The slot exists, the name exists, but the show has to start anew."

Besides incorporating new forms of comedy into the mix, Noah said he's making the show less about media coverage of events than the events themselves. He can't match Stewart's passion for politics, so he's tried to broaden the subject matter. The political conventions — Noah will be in both Cleveland and Philadelphia this month — will give viewers a new chance to see how he's adapted.

Comedy Central had no choice but to give Noah the existing show since there wasn't enough time to create something new from scratch, said Kent Alterman, network president.

"We didn't hire him for his experience," Alterman said. "We hired him for his talent. We always knew it would be a long game, and it would take him awhile to find his way, find his voice, find his rhythm. If we take a step back and look at how he's growing, we're very happy."

Alterman points out that it took time for Stewart to mold the show in his image after replacing Craig Kilborn, and said it's unfair to compare Noah to Stewart in his 16th year.

The Emmy Awards nominations last week spoke to the show's diminished presence. The "Daily Show" wasn't nominated for best variety show, a category that Stewart had dominated. The show was nominated every year between 2002 and 2015, winning 11 times. The recently announced departure of Jessica Williams, who predated Noah and was the show's best-known correspondent, leaves a significant hole.

Stewart took a good chunk of the audience with him; "Daily Show" nightly viewership is down 35 percent since Noah took over, according to the Nielsen company.

Comedy Central says measuring Noah's show strictly on how many people watch each night is outdated, and claims that Noah has increased the show's visibility online, among coveted younger male viewers and internationally. The network said the show reaches 7.9 million people each week through multiple platforms, although it didn't have a similar figure for Stewart's last year.

"It's hard," Alterman said, "to change a rocket ship while you're flying it."

Paskin said she hasn't seen enough of the show lately to update her assessment on Slate. Syracuse's Thompson said the passage of time has helped Noah. Memories of Stewart's "Daily Show" are fading, the comparison less relevant.

"In the past couple of weeks, he seems to really have begun to do what I hoped and expected he would — and that is to find his own voice while still relying on the behemoth that is the 'Daily Show's' system," Thompson said.


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