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’s like if your dad dies, and your mom starts dating at the funeral.”
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.
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.