Noah’s opening, in which he paid tribute to Stewart and pledged to continue his “war on bullshit,” was the clunkiest moment precisely because it felt out of sync with the show’s usual rhythms. Once he got to the headlines—the Pope’s visit, John Boehner’s resignation, water on Mars—Noah seemed in his element, even as some one-liners (particularly a gag about Whitney Houston’s death) landed with a thud. It will certainly take weeks, if not longer, to see if Noah wants to make any serious changes to the Daily Show format. In moving into The Late Show, Colbert had the advantage of years honing his own talk-show formula, much of which he carried over; Noah is working with most of Stewart’s old writers and correspondents, and at 31, has plenty of time to find his sea legs.
But in his delivery of the headline jokes, it was easy to see what must have appealed about Noah to Comedy Central and Stewart from the beginning. Some of the biggest late-night comedians in the game, like Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon, didn’t have that kind of chemistry with the audience from the get-go, and it felt particularly refreshing after the last few years of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which had seen its host become increasingly bitter and frustrated (while still undoubtedly hilarious) about the news he was covering night after night. Stewart was the angry town crier of cable-news idiocy and he served that office faithfully, but there was a drier, more playful tone to his comedy that had been sanded away by years of worthy outrage; Noah more than anything seems genuinely delighted to have the job and to run with it.
Demanding Noah live up to Stewart’s legacy would be an impossible ask, especially given that the latter’s impact is so diffuse at this point. Colbert is doing fine political satire over at supposedly stodgy CBS, John Oliver has taken The Daily Show’s investigations of political hypocrisy into a long-form format with Last Week Tonight, and Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show (which follows Noah) has quickly become one of the most consistently funny, sharp-edged critiques of current events on television.
With all the focus on Noah, it’s easy to forget that he isn’t the only presence on set. During the later segments, a bit with the Stewart holdover/political correspondent Jordan Klepper felt formulaic, while the following conversation with new hire Roy Wood Jr. about life on Mars was one of the funniest bits of the night. Noah seemed slightly lost during his interview of Kevin Hart (who had fun mocking his nonplussed reaction to a gift of several nice-looking ties), but Hart is such an overwhelming personality that it’s more than forgivable. Assessing Noah’s ability to pick up Stewart’s mantle is obviously going to take more than one night, but Noah’s enthusiasm shows he’s at least game to offer his best try.