In mid-January, with Bernie Sanders surging in the polls in Iowa, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah decided it was time to formally introduce Sanders to its audience. Sanders officially declared his candidacy this past May and has been squarely in the public eye for months now, his positions, politics, unkempt hair, and Brooklyn accent dissected all over cable news and razzed by every late-night show in the land (including The Daily Show). Still, Noah supposed its viewers “might be wondering [about] this rising new, yet old, force in the Democratic Party.”
Then Noah launched into “The Legend of Bernie Sanders,” a relatively straightforward, jokey synopsis of Sanders’ accomplishments, from his birth in Brooklyn to his election as senator, climaxing in his album of folk songs. “If you ask me personally,” Noah said, “Bernie Sanders’ popularity has nothing to do with policy. I think it’s because he’s opposite Trump. See, the world craves balance. He’s the yin to Trump’s racist yang.” Noah concluded by pointing out that both Trump and Sanders regularly commit New York–style assaults on the pronunciation of the word huge. The segment was a précis of Noah’s Daily Show so far: something that looks like The Daily Show, that mugs and winks like The Daily Show, but that has only a diluted point of view.
If you suspect that there is something more substantial to say about Sanders than that he talks funny, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart agrees. Stewart’s Daily Show did a segment on Sanders when he first announced his candidacy in May. It began with a clip reel of pundits disparaging Sanders as a whack job, as Stewart, talking fast, his voice pitched high, breathlessly ranted, “If Salvador Dalí and Dr. Seuss had a child and that child was raised by schizophrenic howler monkeys, it would be Bernie Sanders. Give me a taste of this crazy wacko cuckoo bird,” throwing to a clip of a Sanders sharing his policy positions, which include pay equity for women, campaign finance reform, and expanded social security. “What a … rational, slightly left-of-center mainstream politician,” Stewart said. “Bernie [isn’t] a crazy-pants cuckoo bird, it’s that we’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed focus-group–driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy.”
This segment was taped in May, when Sanders’ campaign seemed like a hippie fantasy and Trump’s candidacy the fever dream of a feral child raised on nothing but reruns of The Apprentice, Rambo, and Dave. Yet it’s astute about the connection between Sanders and Trump, while also being prescient about why both have turned out to be viable candidates: One voter’s lunatic is another’s truth teller. Trevor Noah, comparing Sanders and Trump, called out their devotion to silent h’s simply to make a joke. But Stewart, without even trying, illuminated why those h’s are more than merely funny: To many Americans, those are the silent h’s of authenticity.
Trevor Noah has been in the hosting chair for four months now, and his show has settled into a groove. If you tune into any episode, you will find something familiar enough, good for a chuckle but never a belly laugh, let alone a revelation. Noah could hardly be more charming; he is at ease in front of the camera, generous with his dimples. The writing staff, sans former head writer Elliott Kalan and Jo Miller, who left for Samantha Bee’s forthcoming new series, remained after Stewart’s departure, staving off any overt catastrophes.* Noah’s Daily Show has been attracting fewer than 1 million viewers in the all-important 18–49 demo, down more than 30 percent compared with Stewart’s last quarter. (Though not compared with his last year, in which Stewart’s demo ratings were roughly comparable. Stewart’s total viewership was significantly higher than Noah’s.) But if you watch The Daily Show night after night, you get the sense that the writers have adjusted their tactics for a very different kind of host—a Potemkin Jon Stewart, someone smooth and ingratiating who is reaching for unconverted viewers, instead of an inveterate political satirist preaching to the deeply informed.
In theory, I am the exact kind of person the new Daily Show is targeting (well, besides my gender and age, since The Daily Show is targeting 20-year-old men): a thirtysomething who cares about politics but doesn’t follow them that closely, not saturated in the details of the campaign trail but open to a sharp-tongued and eagle-eyed guide through a particularly internecine primary season. And yet I have found The Daily Show milquetoast and broad, diverting in the soothing way I associate with the Jimmys of network late night. On Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, outrages are an occasion for bemused laughter, not righteously funny indignation.
As we head into a presidential election totally different from any election we’ve seen before, one all but tailored for The Daily Show, there is a Daily Show–shaped hole in the culture, despite a lesser version of the show airing every weeknight. Between Cruz’s authoritarian smarm, Hillary’s striving for the human touch, and the racist extravaganza that is Trump, American politics have never been more in need of puncturing by The Daily Show’s exasperated logic. But Noah backs away from thorny issues like they are bombs that can be defused with a charming quip. He’s out to neutralize, not to awaken. How did the program devoted to scaling bullshit mountain in all its incarnations, the program that once had a gospel choir sing “Go fuck yourself” to a Fox News correspondent, come to feel so beside the point?
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At its best, The Daily Show is cathartic. It has served a real sociopolitical end by dragging the most offensive, inane, and ridiculous aspects of our politics under the bright lights and laughing at them with intelligence and wit and lowbrow goofiness. The Daily Show is an activist joker, deflating gasbags and ridiculing the sanctimonious status quo, so that instead of suffering through it alone, we can laugh at it together.
Stewart turned himself gray trying to rain sanity, silliness, and outrage on the hypocrisy, mendacity, and idiocy that is our political discourse. For his effort and his anger, he was rewarded with trust and love, a fake newsman who became more indispensible than a real one. Where Stewart allowed himself to be a divining rod for the news, to feel it all and lose his cool accordingly, Noah is always smooth and telegenic, easy in his manner and on the eyes, never worked up, never letting things get too dark. The daft tweets that got Noah into so much trouble before he even took over The Daily Show seemed to presage a clumsy and unsubtle host, one who would say the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Tweetgate proved to be a red herring. Noah’s problem is not that he makes bad jokes but that he doesn’t take more chances to make great ones. All bloodless finesse, he never goes for the jugular.
Consider Noah’s coverage of Obama’s recent State of the Union, in which he explained: “Typically a State of the Union is when a president lays out his agenda for the year to come,” just one of the moments when The Daily Show’s attempts to expand its demographic suggest it’s imagining an audience who might know nothing about politics at all. Noah often makes toothless jokes about physical appearances, from El Chapo’s bad shirt to a guy who looked like a “wizard” at a recent Democratic debate. The sight of one bespectacled tween in the crowd during the SOTU sent Noah on a reverie about an imaginary sitcom called “Senator Kid.” It was not a particularly funny flight of fancy, and it provided no analysis of the State of the Union. As Noah reached the end of the bit, perhaps sensing that it hadn’t gone over that well, he put his charm to work, scrunching up his nose and giggling hard. “I’m sorry, I can really see the show,” he shrugged.
In the runup to Noah’s stewardship, The Daily Show announced that it would be moving away from its staple under Stewart: media criticism and, in particular, the relentless skewering of Stewart’s bête noir and raison d’etre, Fox News. This made sense. Stewart, with an assist from Stephen Colbert, had spent more than a decade slicing and dicing the cable news industry. His eviscerations were still widely popular with The Daily Show audience and the morning-after viral-video crowd, but they were old news, thanks in large part to Stewart’s own work. Now, instead of covering the coverage of the news, Noah covers the news itself, but this straightforward approach places The Daily Show in a crowded field full of people who are more experienced and engaged than Noah, including Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and soon enough, Samantha Bee.
Compare Noah’s approach to that of Wilmore, a Daily Show expat who is now the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show and who has a more eggheady—and earnest—vibe. Last week, The Daily Show and The Nightly Show, which air back to back, both ran segments about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, The Daily Show two nights after The Nightly Show. The segments were similar and strong. Noah took an uncharacteristically heartfelt beat to observe that “this is people’s lives,” before working his way to his punch line. Observing that the crisis could have been avoided for $100 a day, he said, “I want to call out to all my friends in Africa, because my friends, for only $100 a day, we can save a village in America,” using Noah’s own biography to skewer America’s ludicrous exceptionalism.
But next to Wilmore’s take on Flint, Noah’s was distant. Even when talking about something as outrageous as what happened in Flint, Noah tends to seem remote and jokey, rather than genuinely curious. Wilmore’s discussion of Flint was longer, more detailed, and more didactic, making Noah’s segment look funnier and fleet-footed by comparison—until the climax. That’s when Wilmore dove furiously in. “When you have politicians fall all over each other to see who can make the most draconian budget cuts,” Wilmore said, “you get decisions like this: citizens poisoned in a mania to save 100 fucking dollars a day. Officials in Flint, Michigan, should all be rounded up and put behind bars.”
This sort of outraged advocacy was a staple of Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, and Noah does not, as of yet, seem to have it in him. How could Noah feel as passionate about the intricacies of the American political system as Jon Stewart, or any American? He just got here. Distance can be a good thing for satirists—John Oliver, for instance, has clearly figured out how to leverage his non-Americanness as a way to make his perspective on U.S. politics feel even sharper and more objective. But The Daily Show hasn’t decided whether to play up Noah’s outsider perspective or to pretend it doesn’t exist.
In one recent segment, Noah went from not knowing Dwight D. Eisenhower was dead to casually name-dropping Rudy Giuliani. He is flabbergasted by our news (understandably) rather than exercised about it. He recently played the rube across from correspondent Jessica Williams, psyched to see some ridiculous and insane campaign ads, leaving her with the meatier job of explaining how malevolent they really are. (Noah’s learning curve has given his correspondents, who include Williams and standouts Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood Jr., space to shine, often taking a more explanatory role than their host.)
Playing naïve has also undermined Noah in the role he seemed positioned to do best: bring his outsider status and own personal history to bear on American racial politics. On the subject of race, he’s proven himself to be an astute observer who can deliver hard truths in a brightly appealing way. His most successful bit to date was the inspired observation that Donald Trump is an African dictator, which contextualizes Trump, while demystifying Africa, all while being hilarious. Noah and the writers have integrated more racial humor and commentary into the show than it had before, to say nothing of dramatically diversifying the series’ guests. Race is mentioned in nearly every episode, sometimes in unexpected ways, as in a riff about an app that can ask questions of the Founding Fathers: When Thomas Jefferson gets a look at Noah, he freaks out: “Holy shit, it’s a negro!”
And yet on the subject of race, as with everything else, Noah often eases up, instead of going in. Early in his tenure, while introducing a segment called “Are All Cops Racist?” with Wood Jr. and Klepper, Noah noted that when it comes to perceptions of the police, “It really does seem like there’s no common ground. It’s as if this whole issue is just black and …” he tapered off, as his face lit up with an epiphany. But instead of saying the obvious “white,” he proclaimed, “It’s a cookie!” On screen, an image of that deli staple, the black-and-white cookie, popped up. “The problem is a cookie,” Noah said. This might be good for a dopey laugh if it were paired with some scathing analysis from Noah instead of his correspondents, but without it, it just seems embarrassingly simplistic, an empty joke.
Noah is being held to a high standard, not of Jon Stewart when he started, but Jon Stewart when he finished. You can see the burden of this expectation in the episode taped after the Paris shootings. Noah—in what is only a Daily Show hosting requirement because Stewart made it so—took a moment at the top of the episode to say a few serious words. His speech, about appreciating everyday moments, felt like a forced entreaty to empathy: stumbling and clichéd, sincere but unsoothing, something he was supposed to do. Stewart could be self-righteous and defensive and smug. But he was a masterful modulator of tone, mirroring the emotional mood of his viewers, evincing anger when appropriate but also empathy and exasperation and joy. Noah hasn’t yet learned to display this kind of range. Being required to prematurely mimic it forces him to play audience proxy, poorly.
In the geologic time with which late-night shows are judged relative to other television, the four months Noah has been in charge of The Daily Show is nothing. Making a late-night show work is widely understood to be a lengthy and arduous process. The show only recently updated its theme song, which now opens with a Timbaland-produced groove, instead of the familiar guitar-rock chug. Though the whole late-night landscape—Colbert, Oliver, Wilmore—is full of Stewart descendants who excel at exactly the kind of intensive, impassioned argumentation and analysis that Noah has been wanly simulating, Noah will have time to figure out his point of view and his writers time to figure out how to maximize his particular skills. But in the meantime, we’re left with a dulled Daily Show shedding relevancy in the midst of a wild and urgent election. Just think of the campaign insanities that have happened in the last week alone: Fiorina stealing off with a group of toddlers for a photo op, Rubio’s heterosexual panic, the National Review’s last gasp to shred Trump. Not so long ago, we would have learned of these bizarre happenings and thought, “I can’t wait to see what The Daily Show has to say about this.” Now, it’s only likely to have the eighth-best joke on the subject. You still may laugh, but an inessential Daily Show is a real loss.
*Correction, Jan. 25, 2016: This article originally misstated that Elliott Kalan was the only writer to depart after Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. Jo Miller did as well.