It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
Was he leaving us now? Really? Deserting us just as the gargantuan shadow of the Trump campaign, that neo-fascist bouncy castle, began to rise wobblingly over the country? Kick out the Mexicans. Ban the Muslims. Mock the disabled. Restore America. He’s saying what everybody thinks, we’re told. Indeed he is: Trump isn’t a demagogue; he’s a one-man mob. Now, right now, was when we needed Stewart, our great perforator of mental tyrannies. Who else could pick out the semitones in the hot comic drone of the Donald’s voice? Who else could puncture the ideological bloat? Who else could parse this phenomenon for us as it traveled from a joke to beyond a joke to … ?
So fine then. Go. Say goodnight, Jon Stewart, and let’s have a look at the new guy. What’s his name? Trevor Noah. Who? Okay, he’s black, a 32-year-old comedian from South Africa, a sharp cultural operator in his own country (apparently) but a sweet naïf in this one. Hell of a gamble, Comedy Central. I salute you. And at first, yes, it was pleasant to see young Trevor smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs. He was fresh and he was sleek. The show’s format—the monologue delivered to the camera, then the segments with the correspondents, then the interview—was unchanged, and the writing hadn’t suffered appreciably since the handover. The idea seemed to be that Noah, while coyly advertising his outsider status (“Black Friday—or, as we call it back in Africa, Friday”), would simply and smoothly channel the geist of The Daily Show.
And he was handling it, bless him, handling the material, distributing rays of easy charm. The Trump gags sounded good in that clipped, musical South African accent, and they even had a new global vibe: Trump as “the perfect African president.” And that little TV blandishment that Stewart could never quite get comfortable with, the “We’ll be right back” at the end of a segment? It tripped off Noah’s tongue. His body language was relaxed; where the old guy had hunched over his desk, with satirical voltage crawling hairily out of his wrist-holes, the kid sat back and rode it. Triumph. Come to my arms, my beaming boy!
Slowly, though, it began to sink in: the dimension of our loss. Jon Stewart was gone—our sanity, our balance. This had of course been the 10‑ton irony of his career: In nuking the news-givers, petarding the pundit class, he became one of them—became, in fact, the pundit/news-giver for a generation of viewers. As far back as 1969, Renata Adler described “that natural creator of discontinuous, lunatic constituencies, the media.” In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network raised this perception to the level of prophecy, with a rained-on, mad-as-hell Howard Beale heralding the age of the crank with a microphone, the Great Splintering and the end of the singular, authoritative, Cronkitic voice. In 1994, the British show The Day Today, a fake news program, parodied with surreal brutality the style of the news, the noise of the news, news itself as a production. TV news should have been impossible after The Day Today, but naturally it wasn’t.
Reverence for the news, however, news-idolatry, was eroding steadily—to the point where, by 1999 and the start of Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, the only type of news one could take seriously was the fundamentally unserious. And so satire, which appears to be hocking loogies from the margins but in fact takes its bearings from a higher authority, came blushingly to occupy the middle. There was Jon Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, smack in the moral center, sitting like a barbed lotus between the blah on the right (Tucker Carlson) and the blah on the left (Paul Begala), destroying them both with divine satirical perspective and insisting all the while that he was just a comedian.
Stewart was a virtuosic performer, super-nimble of tongue. His show had institutional memory—his characters (Jersey Guy, Jewish Granny) and his impressions: the mud-bubble vowels and turtle pronouncements of Mitch McConnell; the mean, back-of-the-classroom snickering of George W. Bush. Behind the news stuff there was a submerged 16-year-long stand-up act going on about Stewart’s life, his frailty, his aging body. And how he could pounce on a guest!
Take January 24, 2012: Elizabeth Warren, who is running against the handsome pickup driver Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, is on The Daily Show. Stewart asks a question about tax cuts and Warren (click, whirr) goes into her stump speech: “I grew up in an America”—puffs of mist from the rhetorical atomizer—“that was still investing in the middle class. That was the principal function of Washington and how it spent money … It’s how kids like me, the daughter of some, you know, guy who sold fencing, ended up—” And, as Warren is about to say “as a professor,” Stewart interrupts, full of faux concern: “You didn’t know his name?!” It’s exquisite, Warren’s suddenly revealed boiled-in-the-bag folksiness, and behind that the absurd image of her father the anonymous fencing guy, who sired her and then ran off to sell more fences. There is a laugh, and then a delayed, deeper laugh as Warren slows down and finally stops. Pop goes the platitude; political speech has collapsed, and now the conversation can begin.
Trevor Noah is good; he’s very good. He’s never in a flap or a dither, and when he wanders (as he occasionally does) into a comedic dead spot, there’s no fear in his eyes. I’m still enjoying the way his taut, spherical head and sunny personality occupy the space left by the raddled Stewart. His impression of sleepy Ben Carson—eyes shut, head back, murmuring in a kind of intellectual narcolepsy—is tremendous. When he and correspondent Hasan Minhaj do a bit on conservative Islamophobia—“White isis,” as they call its adherents, or “wisis”—the fact that both men have brown skin gives the gag, and the anger behind the gag, a planetary resonance.
It took time, don’t forget, lots of time, for Jon Stewart to build his persona and his audience on The Daily Show—night after night and week after week of showing up and applying himself to events, pulling his faces, delivering his lines. He wasn’t always a heavyweight. Trevor Noah, currently a very able lightweight, needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.