Trevor Noah is up against it. And he knows it. The South African comic, at 31, has been handed one of the holiest of holy grails in U.S. entertainment. He becomes the host of The Daily Show on Sept. 28.
There's something about him – something mercurial, something that suggests he was chosen because he has this rare, hard-to-define quality. It's kind of mysterious.
When Noah's appointment was announced, the phrase "Who's he?" quickly changed to skepticism, thanks to his juvenile tweets from years ago, then became a hesitant "Good luck, Trevor!"
Now it looks like he's been given a poisoned chalice. Jon Stewart ends his tenure on The Daily Show next Thursday, Aug. 6, and in his leaving Stewart has been so lauded and praised and brought so many genuflections that he might as well be Saint Jon Stewart.
Stewart's like will not be seen again. He changed TV, tutoring a generation in mistrust of mainstream media and politics. The revelation this past week that President Barack Obama twice summoned Stewart to the White House for consultation only added to Stewart's stature. His job on The Daily Show is up there with cabinet-level responsibility and power.
So Trevor Noah has to fill those shoes. Is he nervous? "Immense pressure, yes," Noah said this week to TV critics, but not actually sounding like he's feeling it. "The biggest pressure for me is living up to the expectations that Jon has of me. Jon believes in me."
Noah is an odd one, and it's hard to put your finger on his core being. He's so utterly unflappable that he's unreachable, in a way. You can tell he knows nobody can become the new Jon Stewart. He has to be Trevor Noah, the one and only. And he's perfectly okay with that.
On Tuesday evening us critics on the TV press tour were bussed to Santa Monica, where, at a local college, Noah did his stand-up routine for us. You can find a lot of Noah's routines online. He's been on the international circuit for years. This one was shaped, refined and sharpened for us. We're the filters. We'll write a lot about his Daily Show. We'll judge him.
It was a routine heavy on race. He glided from mockery of everyday racism to a far stronger, stinging take on police brutality in America. As much as he found absurdity in situations where he'd been stopped by police, there was a flinty edge when he cited the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott. He sneered at one of the "lessons" learned from their deaths: "Don't wear a hoodie." He said, "Every time I turn on the news, another black person's been killed, for seemingly fewer and fewer reasonable reasons."
He made sure that people understand he's from South Africa and that makes him "a connoisseur of racism." He joked, "I don't mean to brag, but South African racism is 'export quality.'"
After, he waded into the gang of critics to chat. In the circumstance, other comics would have been armed with the ammunition of scorching one-liners to leave us laughing. Noah instead seemed thoughtful, looked everyone in the eye and started informing us of his rather benign world view. "At the end of the day, without laughter, what do we have?" he said rather solemnly. "You look at how people got over 9/11. You look at how in South Africa Nelson Mandela was notorious for telling jokes. Even after 27 years in jail, the man would tell a joke."
The next morning, Noah presented himself to the critics again. This time he sat alone on stage for 35 minutes. He didn't crack a single joke. He took questions, answered them in a serious manner. He spoke in complete sentences and used such words as "ergo" and "cognizant." He wasn't selling himself to us, charming or cajoling us. He was just himself.
Then it occurred to me. There's something of Obama's persona about Trevor Noah. Not just the superficial connection in African background and having a black mother and white father while Obama had a white mother and black father. It's the calm confidence. Relaxed, comfortable in his own skin. The deep intelligence, not flaunted but subtly made clear. A preference for wry humour over belly laughs. As Obama brought change to America, Noah will bring change to the American institution that is The Daily Show. And he'll do it with a similar assuredness. Some may not like it, but it has to be done.
While Noah made it clear the entire Daily Show staff will continue on with him, he signalled change. "The way you look at comedy depends on your points of view. So Jon is a white, 52-year-old Jewish guy that grew up in Jersey. I am a 31-year-old half-black, half-white South African who has lived in America for a few years on and off. The way we would look at the same story would be completely different. The way we would tackle an issue would be completely different because we'd have different access to certain jokes, to certain sides of a story."
Asked about Stewart's stature, Noah said Jon Stewart's role "became bigger and bigger in the media landscape because of what he was saying. I hope in time to have that same impact. I don't think I've earned that yet. I have to work very hard to achieve that. My job at first is to be extremely funny."
He also pointed out that when Stewart started on The Daily Show years ago, the natural material was mocking the 24-hour news cycle begat by cable news channels. Noah said he would not be targeting Fox News, as Stewart has done relentlessly.
When it was put to him that Stewart had shifted The Daily Show into the news cycle and news business, Noah demurred on an invitation to say he would keep doing that.
"No, I'm not in the news business. I'm still in the comedy business. And that's the most important thing Jon Stewart left with me – is that we are in the comedy business. It's Comedy Central, and that's exactly what we're trying to do. It's our comedic view on the news as opposed to news with a comedic view. That's the very distinction that we have to be careful about."
He is up against it, this guy. A less newsy, more comedy-oriented Daily Show won't please those who worship Jon Stewart.
But, like the guy he resembles in persona, he's going to bring change. With Obama-like assuredness. Poisoned chalice or not, the change will happen. He will make it so.