No, what Trevor Noah is up against is Jon Stewart’s outsized reputation, among media critics at least, as a combination of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevaried and Edward R. Murrow. You don’t have to look hard (take this example, or this one, or this one, etc.) to find hosannas about how he changed television news, “taught Millennials to think,” or otherwise contributed mightily to the national political discourse.
So it’s a tough assignment for Noah, similar to the situation facing another previously unknown comedy writer, Conan O’Brien, when he replaced David Letterman on “Late Night” in 1993. Expectations will be sky-high among Stewart fans and critics, and in an age of instant gratification, people may not be as patient with Noah as they were with O’Brien.
Still, I’m optimistic about Noah’s selection, which shows imagination and creativity. He’s a hard-working mixed-race comedian from South Africa, which is not the background you’d expect from the host of an American comedic news show, especially on the eve of a presidential election. But during his short time as a "Daily Show" contributor, he exhibited a sharp sense of humor -- and in interviews like this one on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee,” he’s come across as thoughtful and insightful.
As someone who’s had a mixed relationship with “The Daily Show” in recent years, I welcome Noah to the anchor seat, but would like to offer some advice:
1. Don’t become a cheerleader for one side. Look, Jon Stewart is a funny guy, but he obviously sacrificed the humor part of the show to become an advocate for liberal causes. If you watched the show night after night, you might have thought only conservatives said or did ridiculous things. This is not to say Stewart was exactly in the pocket of the Democrat party apparatus, given his occasional parody of liberal leaders, but his overwhelming targets were from the right. When you’re only picking on one side you’re giving up half the comedy landscape.
Stewart objected to being characterized as a cheerleader for the Democrats, citing some criticisms of the Obama administration, such as the time he raked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the coals for the poor roll-out of the Obamacare website. Yet this very example proves the point: he was unhappy with Sebelius because the botched website undercut support for Obamacare, which Stewart supported.
Noah has described himself as a “progressive,” which, although honest, is a little worrisome. Whether this translates into support for one American political party remains to be seen, but as a South African, Noah doesn’t bring the baggage of having grown up in the United States or having spent a lifetime supporting or criticizing the people he’ll be covering. Presumably his fresh perspective will bring fresh insights.
2. Don’t get so emotionally involved with the job. It’s no surprise when someone gets tired of his job after 16 years, but I wonder what Stewart thought his “job” was. If his job was putting on a comedy show, that’s one thing. But if the job is changing the world, that’s another. In his last few months, Stewart seemed beaten down by the futility of it all. In his final show he actually ran a segment that showed how little public clout the show actually had. In other words, although he denied being a crusader, he sure measured himself by that standard.
Someone who’s not emotionally involved in causes won’t burn out as fast or get discouraged. Noah grew up under an apartheid system where his father couldn’t even acknowledge his mother as his wife or admit to being Noah’s father. Having been raised in such a brutal regime, it’s hard to believe he will get as worked up as Stewart did by some of the absurdities of the U.S. political system.
3. Don’t specialize in media criticism. There were nights and even weeks when the whole point of “The Daily Show” seemed to be a takedown of Fox News. I always thought the goal of the show was to spoof politicians, not other networks. No wonder Stewart burned out – he spent 16 years trying to discredit Fox News, only to discover that the network is even more popular than ever. Noah can do everyone a favor by laying off Fox and return to skewering the political world.
4. Provide a more global perspective. I don’t know whether the “Daily Show” producers made a calculation that American viewers are only interested in American subjects, but by focusing so much on American idiocies, the show seemed to mock average Americans. Noah should emulate John Oliver and find hilarious political stories from all over the world – not just in North Carolina, Kansas and other flyover states.
Good luck, Trevor Noah! Politics has never been crazier than it is right now. We need a first-rate satirist to help us make sense of it all.