WhenThe Late Show with Stephen Colbert debuted, I struggled to review it. I struggled to even describe it. Because how can you? The first night on stage for any new talk show host is a crap shoot, a mixture of unsteadiness, nerves, and adaptation that isn’t even close to being indicative of future performances. I was stuck between a need to review the shaky Late Show premiere, and a desire to only discuss Stephen Colbert’s potential, which doesn’t help anyone.
So what is there to say, really, about last night’s Daily Show, where fresh-faced Trevor Noah took over the desk from Jon Stewart? Should I say Noah handled himself comfortably? Because he did. Was it funny? Yes, at times hilarious. Was it unsure of what it wanted to be? For sure. Felt different? Of course it felt different. That’s the thing. Reviewing a talk-show hosts first night inevitably turns into a comparison of his predecessor. The problem being, we only remember their predecessor at their peak. Comparing Noah’s Daily Show debut to the Stewart that is still fresh in my memories is like comparing a promising high school point guard to Michael Jordan just because they wear the same number.
A much more productive exercise is comparing last night’s Daily Show to Jon Stewart’s first ever turn behind the desk, from January 11, 1999. Lucky for us, Comedy Central still has those clips. And yes, the Jon Stewart that just won an Emmy to a rousing ovation is just as awkward as you could imagine.
Behind The Desk Segments
JON STEWART: Stewart had the distinct advantage from the get-go. While The Daily Show was mildly popular in 1999, it was nowhere near the cultural talking point it is now, and Craig Kilborn had only hosted for three years. Stewart opened his first Daily Show with “Craig Kilborn is on assignment in Kuala Lumpur. I’m Jon Stewart, before launching into coverage of President Clinton’s impeachment trial (a layup) and the marriage between Popeye the Sailor Man and Olive Oil.
And for everyone who was up in arms over Noah’s cheap, unfunny and tasteless Twitter jokes from years ago, here’s Stewart’s big Popeye/Olive Oil punchline: “Olive has only one rule for the wedding night…no fisting.”
But here, without having to take part in interview or bit segments, Stewart is completely comfortable. He’s not nearly as in-control of the entire show as he was in his Daily Show heyday, and he doesn’t quite have a handle on the suit-and-tie newsman look after so much time on MTV, but he’s obviously a natural from the start.
TREVOR NOAH It’s worth noting that both Stewart AND Noah told a joke comparing themselves to a stepfather taking over for a dad. While Stewart’s was actually kind of heartfelt (“I’m a new member of this family, your family. And I’ll be here for you every night”), Noah’s take was “The family has a new stepdad, and he’s black.”
The problem with Noah isn’t that he’s unfunny (like some feared), it’s that he occasionally tries too hard to keep this the same old Daily Show. His wide-eyed. spit-take reaction to the Mars water news followed with “You mean this? But up there?” was such classic Jon Stewart, but far less committed.
WINNER: Jon Stewart
JON STEWART: Strip away everything we know about Stephen Colbert, and every success he has had, and we have a segment here that…I don’t want to say bombed but it just wasn’t very funny? Colbert’s long-standing Chief Political Correspondent reported on the merchandise being marketed around the impeachment trial. Not only does it have immediately dated references to Puff Daddy, Mase, and Lil Kim, but it also includes a startling lack of chemistry between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
TREVOR NOAH: Last night featured two correspondent segments, but really the big news is that Roy Wood, Jr. nearly stole the entire show. At the very least, he genuinely got the biggest laughs of the night out of the audience, and me. Not only is “they want us to be excited about motherfucking water?” a fantastic statement but the way Roy Wood Jr, delivers it is spot-on.
WINNER: Trevor Noah
JON STEWART: Michael J, Fox came on to talk a little about Spin City (remember Spin City?), but mostly to make fun of how uncomfortable Jon Stewart looks in a suit. “Ill fitting comes to mind,” he said. But the important thing here was that Stewart rolled with every punch, showed an ability to adapt and improv, and still got an interesting interview. Trevor though…
TREVOR NOAH: The ties, man. Those damn ties. I don’t know if Noah was so genuinely shocked that Kevin Hart would present him with some ties, but that blank look and nervous, quiet smile is not a great TV reaction. It’s either an obvious, but fixable sign of first-night nerves, or a worrying lack of interview skills. Hard to tell, but it is worth noting that Stewart came from hosting and Noah was simply a standup. Time will tell.
WINNER: Jon Stewart
OVERALL WINNER: There isn’t an overall winner. Come on. Have you not been listening? The Jon Stewart I just watched in that debut episode is not the same Jon Stewart I watched every night a year ago. All you could see was an unfamiliar face, and a ton of promise. That’s all you can see in Noah, too, but no one can tell the future. Will he last? Are we going to get the Woods, Jr Report? Is Trevor Noah going to win an Emmy the month after he gets slammed to a wrestling ring canvas? No one knows. No one is going to know, just like no one knew what they had in 1999.
Trevor Noah came into the Daily Show under extreme amounts of expectation and pressure, with one or two controversies already under his belt, and a whole lot of people rooting against him for one reason or another. For anyone calling this the end of the Daily Show, or even worried that might happen, just remember that great things can come from the rubble of a new face, , and terrible fisting jokes.