When Jon Stewart selected Trevor Noah to replace him on the Daily Show you'd think Lucious Lyon had just handed the reins of Empire over to Andre by the way some reacted. Who is this Trevor Noah? There's no way he could replace Stewart!
(Of course, for someone like myself who has been a fan of Noah's work for years, has a Trevor Noah comedy station on Pandora, and shows the documentary about his life "You Laugh But It's True" to my South African Politics class, these concerns were unfounded.)
Finally, the wait is over and Trevor Noah hosted the most racially and politically radical debut in Late Night TV History.
I've provided a live blog of the show. Whether you loved it or hated it, just remember that Jon Stewart didn't become JON STEWART overnight.
10:55 EST - A preview commercial for the new Daily Show starring Trevor Noah features Noah walking to the new set with Kanye's "POWER" playing in the background.
It's a fiercely telling song selection. The chorus of "POWER" is "No one man should have all that power," which directly speaks to questions about Trevor Noah being placed, in such a position of influence at such a point and how to fend off the 'haters', but it's deeper than that.
"No one man should have all that POWER" is a reference to a white police officer marveling and frightened by Malcolm X managing a spontaneous protest on behalf of Johnson Hinton, an unarmed black man beaten by New York City cops in 1957 (The scene was shown in Spike Lee's X docu-drama as well).
It reflected the fear of a powerful black man in the face of institutional violence and racism. Nothing happens on television by accident. The promo theme is a serious fist pump and nod to that reference.
11:00 EST - Noah's first monologue is personal, humorous and explains his origin without going into lengthy exposition.
He matter of factly jokes about growing up without indoor plumbing in the townships of South Africa, jokes that he is like the "Black Step-Dad" taking over now that Jon Stewart has left and that after several other potential hosts were courted, the job nobody wanted ended up in the hands of an African immigrant.
It was a brilliant bit of storytelling addressing gender and race norms, while explaining Noah's own background and giving a glimpse into his own perspective.
11:03 - First Segment: Noah goes millennial
Despite his popularity it's important to note that Jon Stewart was almost 50 years old when he left The Daily Show. He was on the older end of Generation X speaking to an audience of young millennials. This isn't inherently a problem, (obviously his audience loved him) but Noah's first segment shows he's squaring speaking to his own late 20's early 30's crowd.
He joked about Pope emoji's, made references to Bernie Sanders and even slipped in a joke about sexting. Not to say that Jon Stewart couldn't make those jokes, but this was a clear generational jumping off point for the show.
Crusty Boomers and old headed Generation X beware, Noah is not going to hold your hand as he brings along his new audience.
11:05 - Second Segment: Noah Goes political
Trevor Noah runs through a series of jokes about John Boehner leaving office. Still playing the outsider, he laments the Speaker leaving "just as I learned how to properly pronounce your name!"
This segment stands out for two reasons. First it establishes that Trevor Noah is coming at American politics more like early John Oliver than John Stewart. Oliver started off as the bemused outsider, wondering how such a powerful nation could have such a bumbling system of government. He was less angry at American corruption than confused by it.
Noah seems to have the same take--how could the 8th most conservative man in Congress not be conservative enough? But the joke is at his confusion not his disgust (as would be the case with say Stewart or even the world weary Oliver).
This makes sense, how shocked could Trevor Noah be at the outlandish statements of a conservative cable news host when he grew up in Apartheid South Africa?
Second, this segment shows that Trevor Noah retains the cheeky envelope pushing humor of the South African/New Zealand/Australian comedy acts that we aren't used to in America. He will no doubt be pilloried by some for making a joke about "Everyone at [Club Congress] having AIDS" and a joke about crack killing Whitney Houston.
11:10 - The John Boehner and Jon Stewart meta joke
Noah does a great segment that begins with reporter Jordan Klepper discussing John Boehner's departure which cleverly morphs into a parallel discussion of Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show. Soon you can't tell which John they're talking about, and whether he'll be missed or not. Probably the best segment of the show.
11:15 - "Black People Ain't Going to Mars"
Roy Wood Jr. (an African American man) and a new correspondent on the Daily Show banters with Noah about the discovery of running water on Mars and Noah offers that this opens the red planet up to colonization.
Wood insists "Black People Ain't Going to Mars." Eventually he admits that it will only be Beyonce, Oprah and Michael Strahan—because "white people like anything Kelly Ripa likes"—will get to go, but no one else.
Right after this segment (which was so-so) Comedy Central ran an ad for the upcoming movie "The Martian", a movie ostensibly about the U.S. government spending billions of dollars to save one whitesplaining Matt Damon from being stranded on Mars. I think they just proved Roy's Point.
11:23 - The Kevin Hart interview
First, Kevin Hart as the first guest on the New Daily Show is another highly layered selection similar to the "POWER" promo. Hart has been a guest on the Daily Show several times but always in promotion of a movie or some new major event. He's got nothing around the corner at this point, but Trevor Noah treats Hart like the "Star" that he really is. Just assuming that the entire audience views Hart in the same light.
Noah's first interview question is whether or not Hart "is still a Mitch?" This is a very inside joke only known to fans of Kevin Hart's television show "The Real Husbands of Hollywood." The audience seemed audibly confused, clearly not familiar with the term or the joke but Noah continued the interview unfazed. It was Hart who felt the need to explain the joke, Trevor Noah continued on and expected the audience to simply catch up.
The Daily Show's mostly white, educated and young audience know Kevin Hart from comedy specials or movies, not from a very black show, on a still very black network. Treating Hart like a mainstream star (instead of a black star constantly needing validation) was a fascinating twist, and shows that Noah will not follow the standard rules of acceptance and assimilation in Hollywood.
Further I can't help but think this quote from Chris Rock's scathing article about Hollywood racism last Winter may have been rattling around the minds of Noah and his staff when they decided to pick Kevin Hart of all people to start off a new era of the Daily Show.
No one crosses over without a base. But if we're going to just be honest and count dollars and seats and not look at skin color, Kevin Hart is the biggest comedian in the world. If Kevin Hart is playing 40,000 seats in a night and Jon Stewart is playing 3,000, the fact that Jon Stewart's 3,000 are white means Kevin has to cross over? That makes no sense. If anybody needs to cross over, it's the guy who's selling 3,000 seats.
By starting off with Kevin Hart's show on BET, as opposed to his movies or comedy specials, Trevor Noah was telling his audience "This man doesn't need to cross over, YOU do." It was a strong punctuation mark to what was an otherwise impressive debut.
Trevor Noah comes into this job with more polish than Jon Stewart had 15 years ago, but with a lot more pressure. His comedy, and perspective will evolve and grow as the show moves forward.
As a starting point I think we've seen one of the more layered comedy debuts on cable television. Trevor Noah clearly has something to say, about race, comedy, life and America. It may take time for the audience to fully understand his message but given this strong debut they'll have time to learn.