Trevor Noah tends to be at his best—as a comedian, and as a political observer—when he can apply his perspective as a non-American to the assorted antics of the American political system. Noah’s extended riff on candidate Donald Trump’s resemblance to an African dictator might have been the most culturally enduring observation he made during his first year at the helm of The Daily Show; his other, smaller observations, though—his unique ability to question not just the whats, but also the whys and the wtfs of American politics—have also helped him to stand in contrast to his fellow late-night comedians.
So far, however, that perspective hasn’t helped Noah to gain viewers. He hasn’t been righteously angry, in the manner of Samantha Bee, or indignantly wonky, in the manner of John Oliver, or impishly cheeky, in the manner of Stephen Colbert and Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel. He has been, instead, for the most part, measured, affecting a kind of wondering awe at the idiosyncrasies of American politics. He has come off, at times, as a little bit cold, even about the most searing of hot-button issues, with a take on the world that has often prioritized the anthropological over the purely comical. Noah is arch rather than angry; this is his biggest gift, but also his biggest challenge.
Thursday’s Daily Show, however—the one that aired on the day that found many Americans becoming slightly more used to the term “President-Elect Trump”—hinted at the ways Noah’s particular perspective might, during a Trump administration, prove particularly valuable. Noah, in a segment about the day’s incredibly awkward meeting between the current president and the future one, first went for the low-hanging comedic fruit: I mean, the awkwardness of the whole thing! No but, really: THE AWKWARDNESS. Noah aired the news conference that followed the closed-door meeting between rivals-turned-reluctant frenemies Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And then: “That is one hell of a performance,” he said of the men’s insistence that their meeting was mutually respectful and cordial—“especially by president Obama. Which means at least one black person should get nominated for an Oscar this year.”
It was funny, but it was also much more. Because the meat of the segment found Noah pointing out not the social awkwardness so much as ... the meeting’s more systemic awkwardness. The timing of the whole thing. The whiplash of it. The general fact that the current U.S. election schedule mandates a nearly two-year-long presidential campaign that will manage to be simultaneously leisurely and frenetic … and then follows the whole thing up, just hours after the election itself, with an immediate and urgent need for governmental transition. It all happens so quickly! Noah noted. Literally overnight, for the good of the country, President Obama and President-Elect Trump went from sworn enemies to hand-shaking pals. “It’s like if your dad dies,” Noah said, “and your mom starts dating at the funeral.”
And then Noah went even more macro. “I feel like this whole process is backward, people,” he said. “The American election takes two years—two years!—when really it should only be like 12 weeks. But then the transition, taking over the entire American government—which should take two years—takes like 10 weeks. Meet the guy, sign the thing, ‘Nukes are over there,’ ‘Alright, don’t fuck it up. Thank you. Good luck. Good luck.’”
It was an extremely valid point: The timeline is skewed. The process is jarring. Elections, definitely, take too long; the transitions, probably, take not long enough. Noah’s comment, here, was designed not necessarily to provoke guffaws or even outrage, but rather to provoke … thought. Critical assessment. It was wonkery in the guise of comedy. It was good.
The critical narrative that has risen up around Noah—the one that attempts to explain his fallen ratings, compared to the high-flying tenure of Stewart—has two prongs. On the one hand, the explanation goes, The Daily Show’s progressive audience has had (comparatively) less to rage against during Obama’s presidency than it had during the Bush years. And on the other, there’s the fact that Noah seems to be, much like Obama himself, constitutionally calm: His perspective is more observational—and more antiseptic—than that of his perma-angered predecessor. And late-night audiences, the argument further goes, haven’t been looking to comedians to explain the world so much as they’ve been looking to them to channel its many outrages. They’ve been seeking catharsis, not analysis.
The Trump presidency, however, may well change both of those dynamics. On the one hand, it may give Noah himself more fodder for righteous anger. But on the other, it could well make audiences more appreciative of Noah’s unique capacity to put the American system in its global context. Trump’s victory has been called, by Trump himself, “Brexit plus plus plus.” And it has, as any presidential victory will, widespread implications for the stability of the world. It has also occasioned, however—for all Americans, but particularly for the young progressives who have traditionally formed the core of The Daily Show’s audience—some deep soul-searching. The Trump transition is, and will continue to be, into January and likely beyond, a moment of shake-up and disruption and strategic thinking about what the United States has been and should be. Assumptions will be questioned; conventions will be abandoned; convictions will be doubted; very few things, it seems, will be held entirely sacred.
As all that happens, Trevor Noah—the man who locates himself both outside the American system and within it—may be poised, as is traditional, to help his viewers rage at the world, and to help them laugh at it. Just importantly, though, he may also be poised to help them re-imagine it.