When The Daily Show with Trevor Noah debuted in September everyone knew it would never be the same. John Stewart honed his performance over 16 years, shaping The Daily Show into a national treasure of socio-political commentary inside a tasty wrapper of whip-smart satire. But Trevor Noah brings something new to the show. Noah is cute, cute, cute.
Those dimples, that smile, his café au lait skin and those long, elegantly manicured fingers - these visual attributes are impossible to overlook. John Stewart resembled a sociology professor and he was so short that when he rose from his chair to welcome guests like the six-foot tall Sigourney Weaver, viewers laughed. But despite Noah's pleasing visuals, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah just isn't working.
Ratings for the show have dropped by one-third since Noah took over, but the show's performance on social media and streaming is better than Stewart's. Last month, Comedy Central broadcast Noah's standup comedy special, Lost in Translation. This one-hour show was filmed after Noah had been selected to replace John Stewart, but before the new Daily Show aired. As a bi-racial comedian and native of South Africa, Noah demonstrated impressive comedy chops and a particularly refined ability at mimicry in his comedy special. He offered several spot-on recreations of different dialects and accents. He was charming and adorable; and the special may bring more viewers to Noah's regular late-night performances on Comedy Central. Yet that performance remains problematic.
Every night on The Daily Show, Noah fluffs lines. He is reading copy off a teleprompter - copy that he's gone over several times before the show airs - but he just can't nail it consistently. His regular verbal missteps destroy the comic timing of these set pieces and suggest - now that he is over two months into the show - that Noah might not be up to the task.
Whenever subtle invective is required, Noah is totally out of his depth. Everything with Noah is cute. And cute doesn't cut it when you're trying to skewer pomposity or deliver a scathing evisceration of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. That may explain why end-of-show interviews with former guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Noam Chomsky have recently been superseded by softball chats with entertainers promoting upcoming projects.
The writing on the show is still top notch, but the exit of Daily Show stalwarts like Samantha Bee and Jason Jones have not helped the transition. And it's too simplistic to say the problem is just the fact that Trevor Noah is not John Stewart. Trevor Noah has a host of distracting quirks that detract from his presentation. His perfectly tailored suits are layered over a body that seems unable to sit still in a chair. Gone is the pointed pencil-toss of Stewart, and that deadly stare he employed to deliver lethal blows to a target. Trevor Noah wiggles constantly and his hands animate the bottom of the screen with half-hearted gestures that only serve to demonstrate just how uncomfortable Noah is in his new job.
Time and experience could refine and perfect technical performance problems, but one critical flaw will always remain: Trevor Noah is an intellectual lightweight. With the astounding dumbing-down of our culture he may well be the perfect successor to Stewart. But it seems the network is not convinced. This week they dyed his hair. It's still shortly cropped, but Noah's midnight-black dye job recalls John Travolta in his Chia Pet phase. Nothing says "this show isn't working" more than that type of superficial make over. If it's broke, this isn't going to fix it.