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Trevor Noah takes over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart tonight, and there are changes afoot.
Trevor Noah takes over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart tonight, and there are changes afoot.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Trevor Noah's Daily Show is preparing for the TV apocalypse

If it works, it'll be ClickHole to Jon Stewart's The Onion.

Trevor Noah and the producers of The Daily Show have just learned that John Boehner plans to resign from Congress.

Like, literally just learned. During this press conference, when Salon's Sonia Saraiya (a former co-worker of mine) asked them if they had any thoughts. They've been sitting here, talking to us, and we've been sitting here, on our laptops, and for once, we have more information than them.

They, of course, don't have thoughts. As Noah explains, this is the point where they'd start talking about Boehner and what he meant and what his resignation could mean. Noah, a native South African who uses his outsider status as both his greatest selling point and an occasional shield, says the writers would explain some of the ins and outs of Boehner to him, because he's always learning about this country, about the land where he's inherited what his predecessor made a talk show institution and he's just trying not to screw it up.

Mostly, though, he seems sad to have lost the jokes. He sighs unhappily. The Boehner jokes they made during their week of test shows (filmed before Noah's official debut on Monday, September 28) were great ones, he assures us. And now he'll never get to use them.

Such is the task that Noah has set before him. A natural storyteller whose standup often consists of long, rambling tales ripped straight from his own life has been placed in the comedy program that's most bound by the headlines of the day. It's an uneasy fit — but potentially an electrifying one.

Might The Daily Show be online-only someday?

2015 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2

Trevor Noah discusses the future of The Daily Show at the summer TCA press tour.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

I spent a recent September morning on the new sets of The Daily Show, first as part of the press conference mentioned above, then following up with interviews with several of the people working on the show, both on camera and behind the scenes. The overall sense I came away with was that Noah represents the show's best attempt to hedge against the future. If TV is dying and all networks are going to become brands, then all late-night shows are destined to wage the same war. And Noah is The Daily Show's strategic choice to survive that battle.

The difference between this show's approach and that of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the other major late-night launch of the fall, was best summed up in a tweet by Indiewire's Sam Adams:

Noah's Daily Show hasn't just cast one eye toward the web, as every other late-night show has, with sketches and moments that are easy to break out and put on YouTube. (Colbert's interviews with politicians are already becoming must-watch morning-after sensations.) It's hiring an entirely separate online team, headed up by writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston. And while the fruits of that team's labor might not be obvious for a while — Noah says it will ramp up somewhat slowly, while the show itself must go on — they're still a kind of future-proofing. Eventually, the online team will be producing web-only content.

We live in a weird time, where late-night ratings are far below where they were at the height of Johnny Carson and network television, but late night's influence has rarely felt more outsize. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel's various sketches and comedy segments go viral with astonishing regularity, and John Oliver's lengthy dissections of important ideas and topics are Monday morning mainstays of the internet (including this very website).

But The Daily Show's team isn't just there to break up the series into easily digestible chunks for the morning-after crowd, something that Comedy Central already does expertly. (I've watched so many Key & Peele sketches on YouTube at this point that it was jarring to happen upon a rerun of the show and realize all over again that it had standup comedy framing segments featuring the two stars.) At some point, the team will start producing its own stuff and figuring out what The Daily Show looks like when it's an internet-first show.

"One thing we won't do is do too much at one time. I think that's a recipe for disaster," Noah told me. "The first step is trying to understand what the medium is about, understand what works and what doesn't work, understand what makes The Daily Show work and what doesn't work, and then find what works from The Daily Show that would work in a different format and figure out how to package it for that."

We are, of course, years — and likely decades — away from the point when The Daily Show is available solely on the internet. But as streaming video pokes its way into more and more corners of our lives, TV is facing the same conundrum print did in the early 2000s: How do you reach an audience that's used to consuming the stuff you've been supporting with ads and giant cable bills for free?

The start of that lies with Trevor Noah.

Trevor Noah isn't Jon Stewart, in more ways than the obvious ones

'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' #JonVoyage

Trevor Noah measures the Jon Stewart Daily Show set on Stewart's final episode.

Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central

To look at Noah and listen to him speak makes it obvious that he's not Jon Stewart. He's biracial, after all, and he has a soft South African accent. He's also young, just 31, and though he wears a suit well, there's a bit of a sense of it not being the outfit he's most at ease in.

But the differences between Stewart and Noah are far more than superficial ones. Stewart's comedy, as I argued here, was rooted in anger and frustration, in a belief that division and dissension were probably going to get worse and worse. He loved choosing targets to skewer, be they individuals (Jim Cramer) or institutions (Fox News). He is, in many ways, a very traditional American standup comedian, his routine laced with acidic punchlines and hard jokes.

Noah is driven more by notions of finding common ground. While he says he intuitively understands the US as a South African — he feels the two countries have similar histories of racial tension, just on different timelines — he still doesn't grasp all of its nuances. Hence, he says, he can watch the Republican debate and find Rand Paul an exciting candidate, only to have his producers (holdovers from the Stewart era) tell him he's going to have his heart broken.

But Noah, crucially, looks forward to that heartbreaking moment. He's interested in riding that emotional rail and finding the comedy in it. When I attended a standup set he performed in Los Angeles in July, its centerpiece was a tremendous, lengthy story about traveling as a black man in the US. Laced with jokes though it was, it kept coming back to one simple but devastating idea: "I don't know how not to die."

This focus on unity, emotion, and identity sometimes makes Noah feel like a Time magazine cover on millennials that's gained sentience and been given a talk show, but it also marks him as a tremendously different figure from Stewart. The Daily Show will look much the same as it always has — with only 21 minutes of TV to fill, how could it not? — but just having Noah around is going to force it into a completely new world.

"[Jon] has a really strong moral base, and I think Trevor has that same quality. The more we meet with him and the more we write with him and work with him, you see the same kind of characteristics. He's not just like Jon, but he has a lot of the same personal qualities," producer Jennifer Flanz told me.

"He's very, very smart," added producer Tim Greenberg. "To be lightning quick is very helpful."

Shifting focus is in The Daily Show's DNA

Daily Show correspondents

Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic, and Roy Wood Jr. are the first Daily Show correspondents to work exclusively under Noah.

Comedy Central

It's easy to forget this now, but when Stewart took over The Daily Show, he shifted its focus almost completely. Original host Craig Kilborn and creators Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead had created a series that touched on matters of national importance but was more interested in parodying local newscasts. Stewart shifted the focus to national politics and events, and the show became more of a forthright cable news parody.

Really, this shouldn't have worked. For as much influence as cable news channels had over the national discourse in the 1990s and 2000s, their actual ratings were, on average, quite small. (They spiked, of course, when major news events were happening.) But Stewart's savviest choice was to come at his political targets through his media targets. Particularly in the Obama years, he rarely made fun of actual Republicans without the filter of making fun of Fox News's coverage of them.

That gave Stewart both the sense of being a left-leaning Fox News alternative and having the network as a permanent target. Politicians are voted out and replaced. But Fox News as an institution was forever.

Noah made headlines in July when he said at the summer Television Critics Association press tour that he planned to target Fox News a little less than Stewart and internet news coverage more. To be fair, this wouldn't be hard. Fox News was Stewart's great white whale, and any successor would necessarily have to pivot somewhere, in order to avoid being written off as a retread.

But choosing internet news coverage in particular seemed a bit of an odd pivot. For one thing, TV isn't really set up well for the still-text-heavy coverage the internet offers up. For another, the increasingly decentralized nature of internet news coverage (i.e., you read pretty much whatever comes to you via social media streams) means that there's no one monolithic place for Noah to turn, no Fox News or CNN of the internet.

But when I asked him about this at the recent press conference, Noah got a little more specific. This isn't a question of directly mocking any internet news providers on a consistent basis. It's about looking at the approach of internet news, everything from weird headlines to stories that collect tweets from the ground of a major news event.

"Our go-to source is no longer dictated by a small group of cable news outlets," Noah said. "Sometimes, a story is made and breaks on Twitter. We have to find a way to react to that."

These are media practices that haven't really come under mass scrutiny. Perhaps The Daily Show's most significant role in Stewart's era was to push back against cable news sloppiness. And internet news could certainly use such a comedic watchdog — a ClickHole to Stewart's Onion. But there's still the central problem of how hard it is to make the internet fun TV to watch. Cable news comes with that built-in advantage: It's already on TV.

"The show is used to presenting video materials back to a video audience," Noah said. "What we’re working on is different ways to get that information, break it up, and then turn it into a show that we can talk about."

Major change may be impossible anyway

Jon Stewart and Fox News

Jon Stewart's favorite target was Fox News. The Daily Show may be too associated with that now to truly break free of it.

Comedy Central

The fact of the matter is that Stewart's Daily Show probably has too much gravity to make major, major changes possible. Once a show finds a structure that works, it's hard to alter it. If you can find one, go back and watch a Kilborn Daily Show. The shift in focus between his and Stewart's show is palpable, but it's not as if the presentation is wildly different. Or, for a more recent example, look at Colbert's Late Show and James Corden's Late Late Show, two series that mostly push at the late-night talk show format only at their extreme edges.

Television is resistant to change. It's inherently a conservative medium (in the non-political sense of that word) because once something works, the easiest way to get viewers to keep coming back is to repeat that thing over and over and over again. The truly groundbreaking series that changed everything are few and far between, limited to a handful each decade.

So those who tune into Noah's Daily Show will likely find that it looks a lot like Stewart's Daily Show. And for all of the series' noble ambitions of taking on internet news coverage and whatnot, it's entirely possible Stewart has so thoroughly coded the show as Fox News's left-leaning comedic counterpart that Noah will be inexorably dragged into that role as well.

Noah went on an extended riff on why he calls himself a "progressive" at the press conference, which mostly boiled down to the idea that he's in favor of progress and against those who are anti-progress. But he was also quick to point out that, hey, nobody's going to label themselves as anti-progress. In practice, his political viewpoints seem to mark him as a full-fledged political child of the internet — leaning left on most issues (especially social ones), with a few issues (mostly economic ones like Social Security reform) where he's more willing to listen to rightward voices.

Thus, the conflict Noah inadvertently plays into may be a generational one. Just as Stewart ended up spending a lot of the 2004 election wondering why so many people were still worked up about the Vietnam War, Noah may spend the 2016 election wondering why so many politicians are still worked up about things that happened in the '80s and '90s, particularly if the nominees have names like Clinton and Bush. The show may end up being about those who are concerned about the present and future railing against those who keep relitigating the past. That would fit with Noah's definition of "progressive."

But it's also possible that Noah's saving grace ends up being that internet team, quietly working away to safeguard against the day when both Comedy Central and The Daily Show are primarily thought of not as television entities, but as internet portals. The series has always had a robust internet presence — Stewart's back catalog was placed online for free long before most other networks were even thinking about such a thing.

But the web may turn out to be Noah's natural home. He has a tendency to slip easily between modes of speech, between formal and informal, and to find himself empathizing with all sorts of people. Both are key modes of internet communication, where the simple matter of reading someone's Twitter or Facebook feed places you inside that person's head in an incredibly powerful way.

In the end, Comedy Central may have chosen Noah not because he's funny or intelligent or handsome — though he is all of those things — but because he speaks the lingua franca of the age, the idea that we're all just a couple of clicks away from one another.

The way we consume news has changed, to be sure. Does that mean The Daily Show has to change its focus? I'd wager yes, but it will be interesting to see how successful it is at translating something that's inherently not TV into good TV — and how willing its diehard fans will be to let it try.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah debuts Monday, September 28, at 11 pm Eastern on Comedy Central.



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