If the naming of a new host on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show yesterday was treated as bigger news than a comparable switch on a broadcast news show, it’s no surprise. The Daily Show may have more influence on the nation’s political discourse than most traditional journalism outlets. Indeed, as crazy as it may sound, it could be that those looking for an event comparable to Trevor Noah’s succeeding Jon Stewart might have to go back to Dan Rather following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite on CBS in 1981. But with such outsized influence comes the same level of scrutiny. Within hours of his appointment being publicized, observers were rightly wondering how a South African with little knowledge of American politics could replace Stewart. Just as important, an examination of Noah’s tweets revealed him to be someone who traffics in bad jokes at the expense of women and Jews as well as showing signs of the anti-Israel prejudices so prevalent in his country. All of which shows that The Daily Show’s odd reign at the center of American political life may be coming to an end.
In an era in which humor seems to be more important than analysis or reporting, Stewart became the king of commentary. Throughout his long run, Stewart amassed a huge audience, many of whom relied on his often vulgar and consistently left-leaning rants and “reports” consisting of heavily edited interviews with leading figures for their news. Indeed, Stewart’s impact on American politics was greater than his audience since clips of his routines on leading issues of the day were widely distributed via social media. Liberals relied upon him to confirm their prejudices about the right while conservatives would seize upon those moments when he would skewer the left as indications of when their opponents had gone too far.
But while his takes on the news were more often wrong-headed than insightful, they were also the product of a clear command of American politics. While Noah can certainly pander to the same liberal biases that Stewart reflected, it’s difficult to see how his sensibilities can possibly have the same outsized influence of Stewart. Since the show’s producers know this, perhaps what they want is more of an international feel to the show and less American political knowhow. But it is precisely this tilt to international prejudices as opposed to domestic liberal angst that is the source of the growing concern about Noah.
Taking issue with political satire is a fool’s errand. Stewart’s barbs are not intended to be sober commentary or analysis. They are polemical broadsides meant to confirm the views of most of his left-leaning audience and to offend those on the other side of the issues. Though his lapses into pure empty-headed liberal prejudice and attacks on Israel are indefensible, he generally knew that there was a line that had to be drawn between his satire and more rabid, prejudicial material. That is precisely why Noah’s tweets about Israeli belligerence or Jewish stereotypes are so troubling. For all of his obvious shortcomings and the dubious nature of his authoritative position, he rarely if ever sank as low as to make jokes about overweight women or Jews in the manner that Noah seems to have employed.
There’s a huge audience for this kind of thing in the entertainment marketplace. In comedy, the only thing that counts is funny and if Noah generates laughs on the same scale as his predecessor, he will succeed.
But even in the world of cable comedy playing off the news, the cracks about Jews and women are not likely to strike the same chord as Stewart’s jibes. Even if Noah’s politics are roughly similar, by tapping someone with very different sensibilities than those of Stewart, it remains to be seen as to how Noah’s approach can possibly maintain The Daily Show’s position as the arbiter of liberal political cool. Though his coronation as the new host was a huge deal, the betting here is that his eventual replacement will not be considered quite as important. The ascendancy of this program illustrates the changing nature of the media and American politics. But if Noah flops, whether through tone deafness about American politics or by letting slip the crude anti-Semitism that comes through in his tweets, it can change just as quickly again.