The reviews are in! After months of bubbling anticipation (and possible lamentation), on Monday night, Trevor Noah hosted his first The Daily Show, and he was quick to joke about filling the shoes of his predecessor, Jon Stewart. Of course Stewart announced his leave of The Daily Show earlier this year, and Noah acknowledged that it was like our political dad was leaving and being replaced with a new stepdad... "and he's black." Ah ha ha. But, now that all is said and done, and we've smoothed out our first night anxieties, how do the two really stack up? What did the critics say about Trevor Noah versus Stewart back in the day?
It's not that I'm one for comparisons; it's just... that's exactly what I'm going to do here. I took a quick look back at what critics said in Stewart's early years at The Daily Show, and, as someone who was, I don't know, a child when he joined the show in 1999, it was daunting for me to be reminded, "Oh yeah, Craig Kilborn hosted it before him." So rest assured, early critics were playing a game of comparison when Stewart joined the team. Particularly because, well, The Daily Show was in a whole different place in pop culture.
The New York Times was quick to praise Stewart for bringing a fresh feel to The Daily Show, pitting it against the then-struggling Kilborn's new gig at The Late Show. "Mr. Stewart, who is blessed with both a quick wit and an understated, self-effacing charm, has breathed new life into a show that hadn't even seemed to need it. Mr. Kilborn, in contrast, often appears to be gasping for air." It seems that Kilborn being on the decline seemed to highlight Stewart's incline. All that, and Stewart is positioned as a sort of savior for (ever-so-slightly) bumping the ratings for The Daily Show.
The first NYT reviews for Noah's first night seem a bit skeptical of his talents considering the show that The Daily Show evolved into. "Assured, handsome and crisp-spoken, Mr. Noah was a smoother presenter than Mr. Stewart, who made an art form of sputtering and exasperated face palming," the first review states, implying different is still good. Then it goes on to clarify, "But if Mr. Noah’s debut was largely successful, it was also because of the operating system — the show’s writing — running under the surface. That algorithm, capable of processing a day’s media inputs into a satirically argued package, is what makes The Daily Show The Daily Show."
In essence, the review suggests Noah's success is largely based on the fact that The Daily Show is now an institution with the kind of backing (solid fanbase, solid writers, etc) to coast by. The review also notes that Noah should keep attempting to experiment comedically, noting, "It’s by exploring his differences — and sometimes by getting in trouble or disappointing Mr. Stewart’s loyalists — that Mr. Noah will need to find his own Daily Show voice."
New York Post was complimentary to Stewart's first night hosting The Daily Show, remarking,"Jon Stewart's debut as host of The Daily Show was so seamless you’d hardly know he was new to the job." The New York Post elaborated on this fit by commenting, "His comedy style — characterized by a wry, knowing delivery — seems perfectly suited to the show, which derives its humor from the day’s headlines."
Noah's inaugural New York Post review was less enthusiastic. It stresses the differences in Noah's style versus Stewarts', and close on note of skepticism: "With his ever present smile, he projects a genial, almost mild camera presence, but lacks anything resembling the kind of edge that made Jon Stewart a name to be reckoned with. He has a hard road ahead of him."
But, hey, like I said, Stewart was no stranger to comparisons. An L.A. Times article extensively catalogued the differences between Stewart and Kilborn, launching with, "Jon Stewart is a much shorter and more nervous version of Craig Kilborn, which is to say he's hardly Craig Kilborn at all." Then it goes into detail:
"Kilborn—with his frat-boy good looks and self-parodying smirk—was an appropriately arrogant comedy pitchman for the show, in which digs at news makers can at times feel punitive. Stewart doesn't have the same mean bones in his body. He's a stand-up comedian from New Jersey whose act has always been marked by literate, self-deprecating swipes at his own Jewishness, for one. He dresses in black, and his comic hero is Woody Allen."
Duly noted. An LA Times review of Noah also regards tonal changes of the show with the induction of a new host. Regarding Noah, the review states, "He is charming and composed — almost inevitably low-key compared with the habitually antic and astonished Stewart, as Larry Wilmore is low-key compared with Stephen Colbert, whose old time slot his Nightly Show now occupies."
Overall, the problem for Noah seems to be that he needs to escape from Stewart's shadow. When the latter joined the show in 1999, he elevated it from a late night comedy show with mediocre ratings into a pop culture touchstone. The only way to go was up. So now that Noah is seated at this institution, he has a lot more to prove.
I have faith, though. And I look forward to tuning in and seeing where he goes from here. He's already off to an amazing start.
Images: Giphy (4)