Trevor Noah’s Confidence Smooths Out an Uneven ‘Daily Show’ Debut

Reviewing the first episode of a late-night show’s new host can, admittedly, be a pointless exercise. It’s so hard to judge what will often amount to years and years of a program based on one 22- or 44-minute episode, especially when it’s clear the host is still feeling out their new home, playing around to see what works, and trying to hide those first-night jitters. Trevor Noah, however, was all confidence from the first moment.

As with all early episodes of a new late-night program, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah had its rocky moments, tonal problems, and misguided jokes. Yet Noah remained totally comfortable and at ease the entire time, expertly playing to the audience and camera — and rocking those dimples that temporarily took over Twitter — in a performance that demonstrated why Comedy Central picked him to be Jon Stewart’s successor.

Stewart is obviously a tough act to follow, and taking over such a widely beloved and important institution is tricky: You want to make it your own, but you don’t want to totally deviate from the show’s norm; you want to bring in a new audience, but you don’t want to alienate the existing audience. That’s perhaps why Noah and co. went the safe route of not changing much. The set is newer and sleeker, with an overall more modern feel; Noah is more the charming and wide-eyed new kid (with a killer wink) than the jaded but bitingly hilarious host Stewart was; there are some new correspondents (but also returning ones and the same writing staff); and Noah’s jokes skew just a little bit younger (did we get a sexting joke related to the Pope? Yep!). But almost everything else is the same, especially the basic format: some jokes, a throw to a correspondent or two, an interview, and a “Moment of Zen” (which Noah delivered standing instead of sitting).

Noah started off a little shaky, with a sincere and grateful opening where he poked fun at himself (his outsider/South African heritage was a running theme throughout the night, with some jokes working better than others). Once he got into the actual joke portion of the night, his confidence was palpable, as he delivered the punchlines with energy and excitement — and noticeably more glee than Stewart. Noah seemed to be having a hell of a time, and though he surely had to be nervous, it didn’t show at all.

The correspondent bits worked too, such as a extended metaphor from Jordan Klepper about his new boss and — an easy highlight — new correspondent Roy Wood Jr. reporting the Mars news with a hilarious racial bent: “Brothers can’t catch a cab. You think we can catch a spaceship?” (Side note: How amazing is it that we have, as Larry Wilmore calls it, a black-to-black block of late-night shows on Comedy Central?) In one of the best jokes of the night, Wood shot down Noah with, “You’ve only had The Daily Show for one commercial break; these white people ain’t decided if they like you yet.” It’s the kind of humor that I want to see more of with Trevor Noah: humor that revolves around him and his strengths; humor that Jon Stewart couldn’t get away with.

Still, there were some kinks: the writers are still very tailored to Jon Stewart’s humor, rhythm, and punchlines, which don’t always work for Noah. At times, it was too clear that he was reading a scripted, rehearsed joke that didn’t necessarily work with his personality — a few tweaks, and that could be fixed. There were some definite clunkers in the mix, such as a poorly written and unnecessary AIDS/aides joke that landed terribly or a strange and out-of-nowhere barb at Whitney Houston, both of which seemed to suck a little energy out of the room.

The interview segment, with all-around great guy Kevin Hart, was predictably iffy. Interviews are always the toughest for new hosts to get the feel of; it can take weeks, months, or even years to finally get into the groove and learn what works and what doesn’t, which all varies from host to host. That’s why it was a smart choice to have Hart as the first guest: he can recover from any stumbles, play off anyone’s energy (or nervousness), and make basically any sentence sound like comedic genius (“Have you seen my pants?!”). It’s going to take Noah a little while to figure out which interview tactics work for him. Hart’s a fluff guest, and I’m way more interested to see how Noah handles the political hard-hitters.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah was never going to go off without a hitch, but it was far better than expected, mostly due to Noah’s confidence and charm, which remained steady through the episode and kept the show coasting during rough moments. The real test is how the show will evolve in the first month, as both the writers’ room and Noah himself get acclimated to Noah’s strengths and weaknesses as a host, and learn how to play off both.