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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Trevor Noah’s first target was perhaps the easiest — himself. He kicked off his new gig as host of The Daily Show on the defensive. And how could he not?

When Jon Stewart retired from the Comedy Central institution after 16 years, the position he left open was unique and possibly unprecedented in the annals of late-night comedy. Stewart sat at the intersection of punditry and satire — a master at throwing spitballs loaded with outrage and insight, who simultaneously lampooned and illuminated what he called the “country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-panic-conflictinator.”

Enter Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old comedian from Johannesburg, South Africa, who joined the show as a junior correspondent a mere four months before he was officially heralded as its new host.

Noah made his Daily Show debut in December 2014 with a caustic bit dismantling Americans’ preconceived notions of Africa as some backwards, hopelessly forsaken continent, while simultaneously holding up the mirror to our own rotting infrastructure and institutional racism.

He came armed with an easy smile that camouflages a dangerous wit, as if to say, “Your credulity is your kryptonite, America.” But could he replace Stewart?

In his first show he took aim squarely at viewers’ skepticism at his ability to replicate his predecessor’s success, as well as the din of media chatter surrounding his appointment: Would his youth draw a new audience? Would he offer a “new global perspective”? Whither comes the “viral”?

“The truth is, now I’m in the chair, and I can only assume that this is as strange for you as it is for me,” Noah said. “Jon Stewart was more than just a late-night host — he was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad. And it’s weird, because dad has left. And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he’s black — which is not ideal.”

Trevor also addressed potential objections that a woman should be hosting — or that an American should be heading up the United States’ top political satire show. The truth is, he said, Comedy Central did offer the show to a woman, and to Americans, but they all turned it down. (Among the potential hosts who said no to the gig were Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Chris Rock.)

“So once more, a job Americans rejected is now being done by an immigrant,” he said, to a round of applause.

He took the stage with no small amount of fodder available to him: the first movement of our interminable election cycle; the threat of government shutdown thanks to some clever video editing; Donald Trump.

On the visit to the United States of another distinguished foreigner, Pope Francis, Trevor got in one of his best jokes of the night: “Hates inequality and climate change, loves immigrants — he’s like a young Bernie Sanders.” (Note: Pope Francis is in fact older than Bernie Sanders — though not by much!)

But the domestic political content didn’t truly connect, feeling more forced and less natural. When mocking the extreme-right Values Voter Summit, there must be something meatier than Marco Rubio’s nonplussed reaction to applause. Not every joke landed (a pun on “aides/AIDS” felt desperate). The Daily Show‘s uncanny knack for infusing civics lessons with comedy was not yet in evidence. And Noah himself — and any insecurity he might be facing — remained the main target of the show’s skeptical jibes.

A duet with Jordan Klepper, nominally about the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, turned into a bit drawing comparisons between Noah and the Speaker’s eventual successor: “Taking over for Jo(h)n — Boehner, is hard. But it doesn’t have to be a disaster.”

And Jordan Klepper just bought a condo — so all these big changes better work out for him.

A discussion about water on Mars drew some comparisons between the Red Planet and the state of California. It ended with new contributor Roy Wood Jr. admonishing Noah about the prospects of colonizing Mars, and whether they could even get on board: “Black people ain’t going to Mars — and that includes you, Trevor! Oh oh, you think because you on TV, they gonna take you to Mars. You’ve only had The Daily Show for one commercial break — these white folks ain’t decided if they like you yet!”

He pledged to continue Stewart’s “war on bullsh*t” in his own way — which we’re sure he will find in his own time.

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