Trevor Noah taking over “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart went better than anyone might have hoped, both in keeping the series alive and in boosting Noah’s own profile: As Noah prepares to leave, with his final broadcast slated for Dec. 8, he looks like a person with unlimited potential and “The Daily Show” looks like a show that survived a now-complete reinvention. It also helped, a bit, in covering for the increasing weakness of Comedy Central, a once-sterling TV brand that, in its post-Noah era, will likely be searching for an identity with less inventory than ever.
Names floated to replace Stewart, when he announced his departure, included Amy Poehler and Chris Rock; it’s unsurprising that they turned it down, but perhaps a little unexpected that the show was as successful as it was at creating a star. Noah’s coolly conveyed outsider’s perspective as a South African-born political observer seemed surprising and refreshing after Stewart’s incredulity had curdled a bit; his winning and engaging personal story of growing up mixed-race in South Africa made memoir “Born a Crime,” published a year into his job, a major bestseller. His two appearances as Grammys host — both on CBS — seemed something more than synergy within Viacom properties: Noah appeared, as much as anyone emceeing a talk show whose format was swiftly becoming old-school could, hip.
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Perhaps Noah was helped along, at first, by being part of a network that seemed for all the world like a hive of creative energy. When he became host of the franchise in 2015, he shared space on Comedy Central with “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Broad City,” “Review,” and “Nathan for You”; “Key & Peele” and “Kroll Show” had both recently concluded. There’s far less to say about what Comedy Central launched in the years since Noah became the face of their flagship — a story of diminishing returns from a channel within a company that seems increasingly averse to investing in its own success.
But what a face! Noah’s arrival on the scene felt seamless, thanks in part to his special and unique gift of self-assurance. He’d been a correspondent for “The Daily Show” for a short time prior to being announced as the host, but was hardly a familiar name. By contrast, Stephen Colbert had a long runway at “The Daily Show” before getting his “Colbert Report” spinoff, and then much time there before being bumped up to CBS; Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon both were introduced to American viewers on “Saturday Night Live.” Noah had no such introduction, and indeed entered the series with no small amount of negative attention to past tweets of his. And yet he had no noticeable nerves, conveyed no sense that he was anything other than the man for the job.
And perhaps his relative lack of identity helped him slide into the role. Stewart had become so utterly identified with the show’s comic voice and sensibility — needled by the absurdities of American politics, and Howard Beale-ishly vocal about injustices — that to slot in a name with a known-quantity perspective might well have been impossible. Running at a far cooler temperature than Stewart, Noah may not frequently have come up with the one joke that perfectly synthesized the political situation. But he also existed in a more crowded landscape than did Stewart for much of the latter man’s run: “Last Week Tonight,” which launched on 2014 on HBO and was hosted by Stewart’s seeming “Daily Show” heir apparent John Oliver, had a similar format to “The Daily Show” but used its once-a-week cadence to dive far deeper. Another “Daily Show” veteran, Samantha Bee, launched “Full Frontal” on TBS in 2016. Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segments, on NBC’s “Late Night,” was not dissimilar to the fake-news format of “The Daily Show,” albeit substantially more joke-dense; Colbert’s arrival on CBS, after a rocky start, meant that late night had a very high-profile news-conscious option.
That Noah survived all of this as “Daily Show” host — and leaves on his own terms — is a credit to his charisma as well as his sensibility. He stands out. And that he quit suddenly must surely be a frustration to Viacom brass, who have managed just about every non-”Daily Show” element of Comedy Central poorly in the years since Noah’s arrival. As with the “Ridiculousness” rerun machine still known as MTV, there simply isn’t much of a network there anymore. And it’s not incredibly apparent that the network has the brand loyalty to relaunch “The Daily Show” as successfully as it did in the era when Amy Schumer and Ilana Glazer were Noah’s colleagues.
Noah leaves “The Daily Show” having used it as successfully as he might have to launch a career as a cross-media star. And his ambitions seem huge: Unlike Stewart, whose post-”Daily Show” vision for himself has seemed alternatingly bitter and sour, Noah is congenitally ebullient, so much so that we’ll likely soon forget that his job used to be talking about politics on TV. The fear for Comedy Central, or what’s left of it, must be the idea that we’ll forget “The Daily Show,” too. That series made major names first of Stewart and then of Noah, at a time where competition was thinner on the ground and the network was in a healthier place. Time will tell, though, if, as Noah leaves, he’s become a bigger star than the show he departs.
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