Friday, November 13, 2015

Does The Daily Show still have a mission?

I've been mulling over the post-Jon Stewart Daily Show for a while, but refrained from saying anything (except once) because I thought Trevor Noah deserved some time to make the show his own. Although I wasn't around for Stewart's debut, I understand it took him the better part of a couple of years to reshape the show to his tastes; it seems to me Noah deserves that courtesy, too.

Still, Sophia A. McClennan's piece in Salon entitled, "Trevor Noah has cratered 'The Daily Show' " echoes some of my own thinking.

She's harder on Noah than I think she should be, setting as her standard:

The question we have to ask is whether Noah can be the caliber of political satirist that Stewart was when he hosted the show. It really is the only question that matters.
Well no, that's not the only question, or even the right one. The question is, what are Trevor Noah's intentions toward the show? (Ahem. I'm sure he will be a gentleman.)

McClennan observes:

One of the key differences between the comedy of Stewart and the comedy of Noah is that, no matter how frustrated Stewart got over the inanities he was covering, he never gave up hope and he never stopped fighting for social justice. Meanwhile Noah seems to focus his show on finding examples of stupidity and laughing at them.
Note that I called this an observation, not a criticism. McClennan uses this observation, however, to inform her critique that Noah isn't a satirist, he just makes fun of people. He's like Craig Kilborn, who preceded Stewart in the host chair and who presided over a show that was pretty much a celebrity mock-fest.

She's right about Noah. He's content simply to make fun of people and to enjoy himself. He has no sense of mission.

Now, if you accept as your premise, as McClennan does, that The Daily Show is defined by the mission Jon Stewart set for it, of satirizing our news and politics, then Noah is indeed letting all of us down, as McClennan argues. However, I call that premise into question — not because I don't miss Stewart's keen eye for absurdity and often incredibly incisive way of finding connections and meaning in tangles of seemingly disparate data, but because I question whether anyone truly can fill Stewart's shoes.

The writers and backroom staff of the show inarguably are brilliantly efficient at packaging information into jokes. What's not so clear is how much, or even whether, they set the agenda and provide a unifying vision to the show. It seems to me that that crucial role had to have been played by Stewart.

You can agree with McClennan that Noah isn't fulfilling Stewart's role in the show's machinery, thus the show's aimlessness and amorphousness. Yet how many people can you think of who would be up to that challenge? Serious thinkers with a gift for comedy aren't exactly commonplace. Most of them worked for Stewart, in fact, and a few of them have or will have their own shows so they're not available.

Noah needs to find his own voice soon — much sooner than Stewart himself had to in Kilborn's wake, because the show has a much higher profile today. Right now, Noah looks and sounds like the gawky adolescent wearing his dad's suits, trying to fill his dad's role in the family, but knowing only the gestures and not the meaning of Dad's actions. If Noah is to succeed as a host, he needs to ditch the show's machinery, just like Stewart ditched much of Kilborn's, and send the show off in a different direction. He needs to find his own sense of mission.

It's also possibile Noah will be a caretaker host, somebody who keeps the seat warm and the lights on until a better-qualified person takes over. The obvious candidate would be Jessica Williams; I think Aasif Mandvi also would be great but he seems to be busy elsewhere.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is doomed to irrelevance unless it finds either a new mission, or someone who can carry out Jon Stewart's. Right now, Trevor Noah is treading water.

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