South African comedian Trevor Noah has been named to succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Noah is talented and funny, and as a fellow native son of South Africa, I wish him well. Unfortunately, Noah is a mismatch for the show. Stewart would be a tough act to follow in any circumstances, but Noah lacks any obvious fluency in American politics or media, and his specialty in racial and ethnic humor suggest that his repertoire will remain limited.
Noah has been a contributor to the show for less than four months. His first appearance, in December started poorly: “I just flew in, and boy, are my arms tired,” he began.
Stewart and Noah then launched into a riff on race and police in the United States and South Africa, the premise of which was that American police are worse than apartheid South Africa’s police. That also fell flat, and Stewart labored mightily to squeeze laughs out of Trevor’s remaining jokes about Africa.
It was not enough to sustain a six-minute routine, and it probably won’t last more than six months on the air.
The reason Stewart is funny–even, at times to conservatives–is that he has a deep understanding of American politics, and especially American media, even if his ideological blinders prevent him from understanding every issue. That is not something a crack team of writers can produce on demand for any host, much less one from overseas, even for a fast learner like Noah.
Noah’s first routine also revealed both the admiration and the contempt that many among South Africa’s cultural elite (old and new) have for Americans. Noah’s jokes about racism in U.S. policing bombed because they were more insulting than insightful. Noah (or his writers) forgot to mock the media and instead simply mocked the country.
Noah might yet succeed, but right now it feels as if Comedy Central, hoping to use novelty to ward off ratings collapse, is setting him up to fail.
This post has been updated to correct a misspelling of Noah’s name.