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Trevor Noah's Arc
March 28, 2016  | By Candace Kelley  | 7 comments

“Look, if it’s funny, laugh.”  This is the final instruction given to the audience by the warm-up comedian at a taping I attended of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Hopefully, the laughs will be uncontrollable outbursts is what he’s really saying. I’ve got the message, but the woman sitting next to me, who tagged along to the taping with her daughter, isn’t so sure. “I hope he’s not like Chris Rock. I can’t stand him. What’s this guy’s name again?” 

People are still trying Noah out. From the launch of the show (Sept 28, 2015) to the end of 2015, the show averaged 818,000 viewers per night, according to Nielsen. But in February 2016, he showed numbers that were slightly more impressive. On one night attracting 882,000 and on another, about one million viewers tuned in. During Jon Stewart’s last quarter, he peaked at 1.2 million. But let’s be real, everyone deserves time to transition into the job. If we look back, during Stewart’s first full season as host, from 1999-2000, he averaged 645,000 viewers per night.

Noah is assuring as he steps on his slick set, heaping charm on the audience in his trademark, ultra slim-fitting suit. He answers questions adeptly from people from France, Canada and South Africa. My Chris Rock friend is sold. “Wow! He is really smart and funny.” 

Trevor Noah is indeed funny. When I first heard him on XM performing his stand-up routine African American in early 2015, his comedic prowess and outsider’s view of America didn’t miss a beat. But when I watch him on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, his self-proclaimed position of being a South African outsider doesn’t always make for great syncopation.  Suddenly, his being an outsider could only be talked about in the pejorative. You can’t learn to dance by being on the outside looking at the steps. You ultimately have to get up and dance. There’s a rhythm. There’s a look and an authenticity to the way that the body moves.  

Noah still seems like that dancer trying to learn the steps, and I just want him to get up and do his own dance. I know he can. At times, he just doesn’t yet seem genuinely invested or passionate about taking on whatever system of the day has fallen short. Meanwhile, at times his natty disposition can give his commentary and jokes about pop culture and politics, a slap on the wrist, when a jab to the jugular is needed. In short, he is often too polite and boxed in.

Still, though, Noah’s ark is not sinking - he just needs more time. When he took on a disagreement that aired on CNN between commentators Van Jones and Jeffrey Lord about the KKK (below right), he stripped the argument with such precision. It struck a chord because he was in it not outside of it.  I think that the longer that Noah lives in America devouring its politics and culture up close and personally, the better he will become at yanking its loose threads.

And there’s the other thing. He’s Black. Oh sure, he’s South African, but people who have limited world views see him as a Black man, and this means they have to adjust their projected narratives about him. The woman who I sat next to at the show taping had to do so. No, he’s not Chris Rock and doesn’t share the cadence of many Black comedians who take the stage and share that form of social interaction that’s almost ritualistic. Noah doesn’t have that uncomfortable arsenal of verbal weapons to explain how a Black man navigates through America. I’m not saying this is necessary for his survival; people simply have to adjust to the differences and that’s no easy feat.

In the end, Noah has time and a significant opportunity to collect viewers who sit in front of their TVs with a profound disdain for what's going on in the world, especially in politics. The show did, after all, more than survive with former host Craig Kilborn for almost two years. When Stewart took the helm, there was a major shift. The show went from simply poking fun at the news to keenly focusing on politics.

If done properly, the show will and should morph yet again. Noah has a real opportunity to carve out the funny in national and international politics. If he can hone in on happenings abroad and make it his own - boom. Think about it: during Noah’s first show, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, took time out of her United Nations General Assembly schedule to visit Noah on set. That about sums it up. He is in the perfect position to remind us that in this world of nations, America is a nation of nations - and that actually makes him an insider.

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Such a cool point about America being more like Africa than it ever would think - a nation of nations. If Noah can get that across to the audience it'd be a mini-shift. I wish he'd get better at doing interviews, which was way more in Stewart's wheelhouse. It's not even fair to expect Noah to be up to Stewart's skill set, and minus the passion, it makes Noah more of a wet noodle in a tight suit. I will always love him for playing Ben Carson's brother and going wonderfully long, almost to the point when it seemed like Carson woke up a little bit and Noah was at his most relaxed. The doctor is a good sport. Here's a link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUtVNXmE-LA
Aug 16, 2016   |  Reply
Michael F
With all the absurdities and craziness surrounding the Presidential race I find myself really missing the nightly commentaries of Mr. Stewart. There was a gravitas there that, for whatever reason, has just not yet accrued to Mr. Noah. This slate of presidential candidates is a gift from the Gods for a political satirist and, frankly, I think we're getting more incisive, biting and heartfelt angry commentary from John Oliver and Samantha Bee right now.
Mar 29, 2016   |  Reply
I've been occasionally impressed but usually disappointed by Noah. I still don't understand why, with a show so steeped in American politics, they did not choose an American. His sensibilities are off and his dimples aren't funny.
Mar 29, 2016   |  Reply
Cathy Backus
I haven't been able to make it through an entire show yet. Can't stand the guy. Such a let down after Jon Stewart.
Mar 28, 2016   |  Reply
I am completely enjoying Trevor's shows. He had absolutely impossible shoes to fill.. and he's well on his way to doing just that. Of course, he will have his own style, and it can be tricky, a "guest"in a country is dancing a fine line criticizing it....Too far in one direction, it's pompous, or cruel, in another direction, insulting -- and he has repeatedly said he is enamored with the US. His recent show with Lindsay Graham was remarkable. Indignation may not be right note, fond perplexity may be the start of his own voice.
Mar 28, 2016   |  Reply
The real, true difference between Stewart and Noah is the difference between ironic detachment and true passion. Trevor can be very funny, but his persona (and maybe his inner personality) is that of the outsider raising an eyebrow at the strange customs of the inmates. Jon was always one of the inmates, and his irony wasn't detached in the least. You got the feeling he was repeatedly wounded by the bad behavior in politics, the culture, and especially the media, and the best of his humor came from a need to cauterize those wounds. No matter how well Trevor develops into his role on TDS, I don't know if he can ever summon up that level of indignation that came from a place deep within Jon Stewart's soul.
Mar 28, 2016   |  Reply
Exactly. Well said. The show is just a waste of time now.
Mar 31, 2016
Trevor needs to either learn how to interview his guests or stop doing interviews. At this, he stinks.
Mar 28, 2016   |  Reply
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