In defense of Trevor Noah in a post-Stewart 'Daily Show' world

It’s been six months since Jon Stewart signed off as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” and his legacy is looking strong everywhere except on “The Daily Show.”

There, new host Trevor Noah is suffering ratings woes quite possibly related to the fact that he is not Jon Stewart. More on Noah, whose show I think is better than people give it credit for, in a moment.

HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the most successful “Daily Show” sort-of spinoff — after the now-departed and still sorely missed “The Colbert Report,” of course — is back with a new run of shows.

Its trademark long-form pieces (which people seem to forget Colbert also did) have taken on anti-abortion laws and discriminatory voter ID laws in the show’s first two weeks back. And Oliver’s show has found a near-perfect tone to back his blend of erudite and goofy aghast-ness at the American scene.

“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” which took over Colbert’s post-”Daily Show” time slot, passed its year anniversary in January. It’s a drier, more arm’s-length offering, although its standing title for the presidential campaign, “The Unblackening,” is hilarious.

Wilmore seems in fuller stride, though, when he is hosting the show’s panel discussions than when delivering comedy, which he does almost offhandedly. There is certainly room for a more likable Bill Maher.

But Oliver has made more than 60 shows by now and Wilmore has done a full year. More recent news is that former “Daily Show” stalwart Samantha Bee this month launched “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”

The TBS half-hour has been well received by critics for a perceived feminist slant on topical comedy, although giving a woman-hosted show a title that alludes to nudity perhaps would not have been the first choice of your alma mater’s women’s studies department.

Still, Bee’s take has been sharp in the initial episodes: The first one opened with a mock news conference about Bee being a female host, underscoring her show’s advertising slogan, “Watch or You’re Sexist.” On her most recent show she highlighted the logical inconsistency of politicians ignoring the Constitution to call for a delay in replacing deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a strict constructionist.

Even if “Full Frontal” is not always a well-oiled machine, it’s doing some clever things.

A smart staffer noticed that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves his hands a lot when he talks so, presto, a superbly edited short segment, presented without comment, showing Sanders as a classical music conductor. And a field piece derived from a Bee visit to Jordan, a sign that the show wants to do more than just offer the same wasn’t-last-week-crazy monologue everyone else is doing.

It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened to “The Daily Show,” which Stewart built into an essential part of the comedo-political conversation, if Comedy Central had made the more natural transition by giving the hosting job to Bee.

Viewers likely still would have realized that she is not Jon Stewart (it’s a canny audience this program has cultivated). But would the ratings be down almost 375,000 nightly viewers, or 30 percent, comparing early February weeks in 2015 and 2016?

That year-to-year decline — the show is also down, about 35 percent, in its share of the 18-to-49 audience demographic — comes despite a recent Noah publicity blitz and a December visit to the show from Stewart during which the former host did not actually pull out a sword and tap Noah on both shoulders. Nor did he grasp Noah’s face with both hands and kiss his forehead. Still, though, the viewers, who, again, are canny, got the idea.

“Oh, man, I heard about this in American TV,” said Noah, who is South African. “Are you taking the show back?”

“A thousand times no,” Stewart responded.

You can understand why Comedy Central went with Noah. At 32, he is a full generation younger than Stewart, 53, and he has most of a generation on Bee, 46.

But while he has had some growing pains as a host, including being able to read copy cleanly, the show remains one of the most sharply written you will find.

All comedy show fans are tired of the easy reliance on Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump by now, or at least they think they are. But “The Daily Show” on Monday at least found something fresh to say. Showing a Trump debate clip in which the candidate and Chicago tower embellisher described the campaign as “tough,” “nasty,” “mean” and “beautiful,” Noah said, “Only Trump could describe democracy in a way that also sounds like he’s sexually harassing it.”

It’s not quite up to the level of Oliver’s description of last week’s Pope-Trump tiff — “a battle between an infallible force and an illogical object” — but it’s pretty good.

Where Noah has been especially keen is in using his outsider status to marvel at the American presidential race. Monday he again drew comparisons between Trump and certain African dictators. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I think he has the chops to put across the smart material his writers are serving him (although his American character accents are, um, a work in progress).

Noah does not hold up in comparison with Stewart, but Stewart is a singular talent who was able to take an existing show and remake it into something deeper, smarter, more meaningful — and even funnier because of all that.

Noah, at least, is keeping it funny even as he seems to be improving as a host. Those are both good signs that, for me at least, have returned "The Daily Show” to its status as an almost daily habit.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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