“Look, if it’s funny, laugh.” This is the final instruction given to the audience by the warm-up comedian at a taping I attended of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Hopefully, the laughs will be uncontrollable outbursts is what he’s really saying. I’ve got the message, but the woman sitting next to me, who tagged along to the taping with her daughter, isn’t so sure. “I hope he’s not like Chris Rock. I can’t stand him. What’s this guy’s name again?”
People are still trying Noah out. From the launch of the show (Sept 28, 2015) to the end of 2015, the show averaged 818,000 viewers per night, according to Nielsen. But in February 2016, he showed numbers that were slightly more impressive. On one night attracting 882,000 and on another, about one million viewers tuned in. During Jon Stewart’s last quarter, he peaked at 1.2 million. But let’s be real, everyone deserves time to transition into the job. If we look back, during Stewart’s first full season as host, from 1999-2000, he averaged 645,000 viewers per night.
Noah is assuring as he steps on his slick set, heaping charm on the audience in his trademark, ultra slim-fitting suit. He answers questions adeptly from people from France, Canada and South Africa. My Chris Rock friend is sold. “Wow! He is really smart and funny.”
Trevor Noah is indeed funny. When I first heard him on XM performing his stand-up routine African American in early 2015, his comedic prowess and outsider’s view of America didn’t miss a beat. But when I watch him on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, his self-proclaimed position of being a South African outsider doesn’t always make for great syncopation. Suddenly, his being an outsider could only be talked about in the pejorative. You can’t learn to dance by being on the outside looking at the steps. You ultimately have to get up and dance. There’s a rhythm. There’s a look and an authenticity to the way that the body moves.
Noah still seems like that dancer trying to learn the steps, and I just want him to get up and do his own dance. I know he can. At times, he just doesn’t yet seem genuinely invested or passionate about taking on whatever system of the day has fallen short. Meanwhile, at times his natty disposition can give his commentary and jokes about pop culture and politics, a slap on the wrist, when a jab to the jugular is needed. In short, he is often too polite and boxed in.
Still, though, Noah’s ark is not sinking - he just needs more time. When he took on a disagreement that aired on CNN between commentators Van Jones and Jeffrey Lord about the KKK (below right), he stripped the argument with such precision. It struck a chord because he was in it not outside of it. I think that the longer that Noah lives in America devouring its politics and culture up close and personally, the better he will become at yanking its loose threads.
And there’s the other thing. He’s Black. Oh sure, he’s South African, but people who have limited world views see him as a Black man, and this means they have to adjust their projected narratives about him. The woman who I sat next to at the show taping had to do so. No, he’s not Chris Rock and doesn’t share the cadence of many Black comedians who take the stage and share that form of social interaction that’s almost ritualistic. Noah doesn’t have that uncomfortable arsenal of verbal weapons to explain how a Black man navigates through America. I’m not saying this is necessary for his survival; people simply have to adjust to the differences and that’s no easy feat.
In the end, Noah has time and a significant opportunity to collect viewers who sit in front of their TVs with a profound disdain for what's going on in the world, especially in politics. The show did, after all, more than survive with former host Craig Kilborn for almost two years. When Stewart took the helm, there was a major shift. The show went from simply poking fun at the news to keenly focusing on politics.
If done properly, the show will and should morph yet again. Noah has a real opportunity to carve out the funny in national and international politics. If he can hone in on happenings abroad and make it his own - boom. Think about it: during Noah’s first show, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, took time out of her United Nations General Assembly schedule to visit Noah on set. That about sums it up. He is in the perfect position to remind us that in this world of nations, America is a nation of nations - and that actually makes him an insider.