Amazingly, that went well.
The first Daily Show with Trevor Noah as host was surprisingly smooth, funny, assured and an awkward-free zone. In the TV racket, especially the late-night zone, transitions and new beginnings tend toward a grand guignol theatre of melodrama and mawkishness. This wasn't that. It was the same show with a different wise-ass in the host's chair.
Following Jon Stewart, who had 16 years to hone his persona and to shape the parody news show into a daily political statement, was never going to be easy. But Noah made it look like a breeze. At 31, he's young and has enormous confidence. Also, being from South Africa, he has a little distance from the contrivances of American TV bathos. And that is one of his strengths. There was no sense that his first time filling Stewart's shoes was an epic TV moment.
The show has changed little. Same theme music, same set with small adjustments. A different font in the presentation of the fake news reports from fake correspondents. If anyone was even slightly taken aback by these tiny shifts, there was the ultimate reassurance at the end, when Noah looked at the camera and said, "Here it is, your moment of Zen."' Some traditions are way too noble to be abandoned.
Noah opened with the right amount of deference to Jon Stewart and self-referential material about his new role, but he kept it funny. On replacing Stewart he wisecracked, "It feels like the family has a new stepdad, and he's black. Which is not ideal." He also joked that several Americans had turned down the opportunity to host the Daily Show – which is true – and said, "A job Americans rejected is now being done by an immigrant."
There followed jokes about the Pope's visit to the U.S. and the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. A joke about "AIDS" and "aides" seemed to shock the studio audience briefly but Noah, long skilled at stand-up, simply raised his eyebrows and kept going. In fact the pace of the show was breathtakingly speedy for a reboot. It was clear that most of Stewart's writing and technical staff had stayed on, and are keeping the smooth machine running.
A bit about NASA scientists announcing that evidence of flowing water has been discovered on Mars was admirably up to the minute and fake correspondent Roy Wood Jr. and Noah turned it into good-natured humour about race that fell short of hilarious. An interview with actor and comedian Kevin Hart fell flat without being an outright disaster.
If there's something Noah needs to work on, it's the celebrity-interview technique. As much as this staple of late-night TV can be formulaic and predictable, it takes a special skill to turn these interviews into fun for the viewer at home.
Noah takes over The Daily Show at a blustery time in the late-night arena. Stephen Colbert hasn't settled into his new role in The Late Show on CBS and has pretty much abandoned political satire. Jimmy Fallon is still doing juvenile pop-culture jokes and skits on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC seems to be biding his time with a response to the arrival of Colbert. Former Daily Show star John Oliver is thriving on HBO but his show is only once a week and can lack newsy immediacy.
An unusually bizarre presidential election campaign is under way and the American political scene is aching to be mocked with forthright derision. A feast of material is there to be consumed by Noah's Daily Show.
The Daily Show is sensibly in same-as-it-ever-was mode with Noah at the helm. Perhaps, on the evidence of the first outing, it is more broadly comedic and less emphatically a parody news show, but it has a sharp edge.
The most reassuring moment came when Noah did a shout-out not just to Jon Stewart, but to Stewart's mission. He said, "And to you, the 'Daily Show' viewers, both new and old, at home or on your phone, thank you for joining us, as we continue the war on bulls**t."
Now he just has to continue to wage the war four nights a week, every week. An amazingly smooth start will help.