There should really be a word for the particular audience-produced sound that isn’t technically a boo—what audience actually, literally “boo”s anymore?—but that conveys the idea of boo-ness. That low, buzzing hum of disapproval—the collective gasp, the collective did they really just say that, the collective horror emoji, manifested as sound—that expresses, wordlessly, “too far” and “too soon” and all the now-classic responses to tasteless comments. For lack of a better word, maybe we can call it, provisionally, a “noo”?
If so, Trevor Noah was nooed twice during his debut as the host of The Daily Show last night.
The first came when Noah was explaining the significance of John Boehner’s retirement. “You cannot make a law without the Speaker’s approval,” Noah noted. “John Boehner has final say about which laws come in and which laws don’t. He’s basically the bouncer at Club Congress.”
As a classically Daily Showesque visual of Boehner’s-face-on-a-bouncer’s-body popped up next to him, Noah continued, “Which is probably the worst club ever. I mean, first of all, there’s hardly any women in the club. There’s always a bunch of old guys talking about laying pipe” (at which, cue a visual of the Keystone Pipeline).
He paused for a second. “Oh, and everyone at the club has AIDS.”
The crowd gasped. Then promptly nooed.
“Aides!” Noah interjected, with a what’s-wrong-with-everyone tone. “The people that help you! You are just—ugh.”
The crowd, to that clarification—it was just the old pun, get it?—sort-of applauded. A few whooped.
“Too late!” Noah said, mock-offended.
The second moment of Noah-offense-intended last night came when Noah was talking about hard-line conservatives’ reaction to the news of Boehner’s retirement. [This reaction: unmitigated glee.] “Even John Boehner, the man once ranked the eighth most conservative man in Congress, wasn’t right-wing enough,” Noah said, wonderingly. “It’s like crack telling meth that it’s not addictive enough.‘Yo, man, you gotta step yo game up, crystal! You make teeth fall out, big deal. I took down Whitney Houston!’”
Cue the noos.
“Too soon?” Noah asked, impishly.
If you have to ask, of course, the answer is probably “yes.” But Noah, who has a long history as a boundary-pushing comic, knows that better than anyone. The (slight) surprise was that he took that schtick to The Daily Show, as the show’s host. He was antagonizing his audience, gently. He was charming one moment—he devoted several lines of the show to the debt he owes to Jon Stewart—and noo-inducing the next. He was negging his viewers. While John Boehner and Ted Cruz and Mars were the butt of Noah’s jokes, in classic Daily Show style, so were the members of his audience—in the studio and elsewhere. And so, by extension, were the audience’s quaint ideas of what might, and what might not, be said in polite company.
Sometimes, definitely, the just-on-the-edge stuff worked for Noah. Lots of his jokes landed. When he was riffing on headlines about Pope Francis’s visit to the States (chyron: A PRAYER HOME COMPANION), he cut to a news clip that showed adoring fans greeting the Pontiff when he landed at Andrews Air Force Base. Noah made a comment about the Fiat Francis travels in. He adopted a knowing tone. “Oh, that’s a tiny car,” he said. “Somebody’s under-compensating!”
He paused. “I’m saying the Pope has a huge [bleep]—that was the joke.”
He paused again.
“And what a waste.”
He collapsed into a series of “did I just say that?” giggles.
The crowd guffawed.
So, caveat: It’s the first episode of the new Daily Show. You can’t judge a show or a host or anything, really, by the first episode. And, as my colleague David said, it’s remarkable and rare how much confidence Noah showed in his debut. That could bode well for his ability to move The Daily Show, new and maybe improved, out from under from Jon Stewart’s long shadow.
One way to do that: to gently offend. To push boundaries in ways that are uncomfortable but possibly productive. To get some noos. Stewart, after all, had cultivated, in his version of the Daily Show studio, a particular place for progressives of a particular bent to come together. By the end, especially, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart had the whiff of religious revival, where the converted come to pray and no one comes to be converted. Echo chambers, filter bubbles, Overton windows—ideas about the fragmentation of mass culture that can cause such angst in social scientists—were on display. Stewart was preaching to the choir.
Noah’s impish antagonism of his audience last night suggests that, under his guidance, that might change. It suggested that he might try, actively and maybe even productively, to make his audiences—in the studio, and across America—uncomfortable. One of Noah’s, uh, aides last night was the “Mars Correspondent” Roy Wood Jr. The two talked about the recent discovery of water on Mars, about how that discovery might make the planet more colonizable for humans. Wood made jokes about how he and Noah, both men of color, would not be included among the colonizers. (“Black people ain’t going to Mars!” Woods told Noah. “And that includes you!”) The segment was excellent. It was slightly uncomfortable. It was productively edgy. It was not at all noo-inducing.