Unlike Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah doesn’t ground his comedy in a political ideology. This is of course politically disappointing to people who saw Jon Stewart as someone who not only raised awareness but influenced politics and sometimes even policy. But what’s less obvious is that the lack of political perspective makes the show less funny.
Like millions of viewers in the United States and across the globe, I depended upon Jon Stewart, night after night, to excoriate people in high places who had messed with ordinary people during the day. When Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah would replace Stewart, I knew that the odds of someone doing as good a job were slim. But I defended Noah when he came under attack for a handful of tweets that ranged from offensive to not at all offensive (just critical of Israeli policy), and from unfunny to really, really unfunny. It seemed an unfair point of focus. I was hopeful that his background, so different from Stewart’s, would bring a fresh perspective. And I thought it went without saying that Noah would continue the show’s political focus and insight.
But then a week before the new Daily Show launched, Trevor Noah told a group of reporters whom Comedy Central had invited to the Daily Show studio that he was “not a political progressive,” but “a progressive person.” Noah said,
What makes me a progressive, in my opinion, is the fact that I try to improve myself and by and large improve the world that I’m in—in the smallest way possible. I know that I cannot change the entire world, but I’ve always believed I can at least affect change in my world. So I try and do that. Progression, in my opinion, is often identifying shortcomings—whether it’s views or the things you’re doing in your life, your relationships—and trying to find the places where you improve on those.
The personal is, of course, political, but Noah wasn’t referring to identity politics or advocating an intersectional analysis. He seemed to equate progress with self-improvement. And he sounded like a self-help guru, or a student-government candidate just starting out.
The first weeks of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show have revealed a host whose perspective is unclear. This isn’t just a political problem but a comedic one. Despite being consistently affable and charming, Noah rarely puts forward a personal perspective about politics, or anything. And this lack of perspective makes the humor of his monologues and interviews feel haphazard. The sooner he figures out who he is, what he’s going for as a person and a host, the sooner he will be able to find a voice for conveying his vast comedic gifts.