Trevor Noah is essentially the Barack Obama of comedy. He’s stylish, charming, and statuesque, with an impossibly broad smile. He’s biracial and has strong African roots, enabling him to tackle the subject of race without being as frequently accused of racial animus. As the host-elect of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, he’s a fresh face hoping to turn his youth and inexperience into his biggest selling points. Noah also does a downright tuneful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” one of the tricks he displayed at an hour-plus stand-up set Tuesday night.
Noah appeared at the The Broad Stage, a 499-seat theater in Santa Monica, just hours ahead of his panel at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, the latest formality in his ascension to the Daily Show chair soon to be vacated by the venerable Jon Stewart. The set was enjoyable, but it wasn’t transcedent, or even capable of moving the needle on the perception of Noah’s readiness for his new gig. That isn’t to say Noah will bomb as the host of The Daily Show, but the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is still on the stove.
Noah took the stage promptly and dove straight into racial humor, mocking the mostly white crowd for its “woo-hoos,” which, according to the bit, is an almost exclusively white manner of conveying excitement. To mock the exclamation, he woo-hooed to the tune of “Amazing Grace” as he reimagined it as an expression of grief rather than joy. It was the first of many “white people be like, but black people be like” jokes in Noah’s set, which, even at their most pedestrian went down easy delivered in his buttery South African accent.
Noah’s accent became an interesting contrast to the material he performed. If the set is any indication of what to expect from his Daily Show tenure, the show is more likely to resemble The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore than Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. He appears to lack interest in approaching his riffs on American culture from an outsider’s perspective, despite doing so in his few Daily Show segments as a correspondent. It’s an especially difficult time to be black in America, and Noah spoke directly to that experience as if his international background has no bearing on it. “I don’t know how not to die,” he said in a thorough discussion of police violence against African-Americans, which lately has too often resulted in inexcusable violence regardless of how the victims comported themselves.
Had Wilmore’s show not appeared before Noah’s appointment, the jokes would have been an encouraging vision of a Daily Show in which America’s intractable racism is dissected by someone who falls victim to it. (A vision of the show all the more appealing after Wyatt Cenac recently suggested Stewart has an imperfect compass with regard to such material.) But with Wilmore doing nearly identical material on The Nightly Show, the set portended too much thematic overlap between Noah’s new show and its lead-out.
Elsewhere in the set, Noah oscillated wildly between too-safe material and the borderline offensive, which is actually heartening in light of the backlash he received after the internet’s research army unearthed his questionable tweets. Noah hasn’t lost his nerve or his button-pushing instincts—that’s a good thing—but based on the audience reaction, he still needs to hone his sensibility for more controversial material. He can sell a broad joke like nobody’s business, as when he riffed on the agony of air travel and dealing with the TSA. “It stands for Taking Smiles Away,” said Noah, in a joke that succeeded solely on the strength of his delivery. But he went off the rails in a meandering segment about Islamophobia and post-9/11 anxiety, as when he riffed on the Charlie Hebdo shootings by wondering aloud why the cartoonists would admit their identities despite knowing they would be executed as a result, or when he compared dejected American travelers to prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. The audience reaction was reminiscent of the recent Saturday Night Live episode in which Louis CK monologued about the logic of pedophilia. The audience didn’t revolt outright, but the blend of titters and murmurs suggested Noah was taking them somewhere they didn’t want to go.
Noah’s likability continues to work in his favor, and its effects are even more potent in a live setting. He brimmed with confidence despite appearing before a crowd made up equally of paying fans and knives-out TV critics. In a conversation with a few of those critics immediately following Noah’s set, the same summation came up repeatedly: “He’s cute.” “Cute” isn’t much of a compliment unless you’re 15 or most of your fanbase is, but honestly, Noah is cute. He’s a charismatic presence, a guy you’d want to play beer pong with, but there’s still no indication he’s ready to host a show that, under Stewart’s leadership, comfortably blended Donald Trump dick jokes and substantive interviews with world leaders.
In other words, he’s in much the same position President Obama was in as a candidate in 2008. He’s handsome. He’s likable. But somewhere there’s a red phone ringing, and on the other end is Bernie Sanders offering to sit down for a freewheeling interview segment. Is Noah the person who should be answering that phone? That won’t be clear for at least another year, the minimum amount of time it takes for a nightly comedy-variety show to stabilize. But Noah’s set demonstrated that Comedy Central’s confidence in the idea of Noah as the host of the Daily Show wasn’t necessarily misplaced. It’s up to Noah to prove he’s the change we can believe in.