Trevor Noah's debut as Daily Show host Monday night had so much Eau de Jon Stewart spritzed around the set, the only thing that was missing was Stewart himself.
That's an entirely logical circumstance, as Noah was obligated to acknowledge the massive baton pass during his first outing in the host chair. Breezing past it wouldn't have been right. But while there were glimmers of winning comedy throughout Noah's first half-hour, the premiere left the impression that Comedy Central used up all of its appetite for risk-taking on naming a young, little-known-in-the-U.S. comedian as host. Everything else around Noah reeked of not only too much Eau de Jon, but just an unwillingness to reconsider the enterprise.
Let it be said, though, that there are some virtues to consistency. The entire writing staff, fresh off their Emmy win earlier this month, remains onboard. It is one of the elite teams on TV, as was evidenced by the show's many tasty lines. "It's weird because Dad has left," Noah said during an opening minute acknowledging Stewart. "And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad. And he's black."
Similarly, a bit about John Boehner between Noah and correspondent Jordan Klepper got mileage from the conflation of "Jon (Stewart)" with "John (Boehner)" and how different things were going to be without them. A faux-anguished Klepper gave voice to what some longtime fans of the show may be feeling: "The font is new, the desk is new," he ranted. "No one asked me!"
Those highlights, though, couldn't help the first show overcome the overriding sense of sameness. After a disarming start nodding to Stewart, Noah shot fish in a barrel by mocking the media's saturation coverage of Pope Francis' visit. A second correspondent report about Mars with Roy Wood, Jr. fell flat and seemed to strain the already-heightened "live correspondent" gimmick. Perhaps producers and execs felt that offering up a pre-taped segment instead would have interfered with the spirit of Noah's debut, but it seems like a lost opportunity, as those reports are not only a big part of the Daily Show's legacy, but logistically speaking they can be refined and recut as necessary.
And speaking of recutting, the choice to have Kevin Hart on as debut guest felt a bit tame and even Hart didn't seem completely connected to the moment. He "cheated out" to the audience, positioning his body so it was open to the audience and creating distance from Noah despite the host's repeatedly fawning entreaties about his "ripped" physique and "rock-star" status. From the opening moments, when Hart charmlessly offered Noah a gift of new ties, to the end, when he extolled the virtues of physical fitness, the segment just came off as plain uninspired. Certainly, it was an odd way to go for the debut voyage, even if the show didn't have the luxury of a Stephen Colbert-style runway – instead, little more than a month from Stewart's bravura farewell to Monday's new chapter.
It will be fascinating to watch the show's next steps. As B&C deputy editor Mike Malone noted yesterday, it will be exceedingly hard to judge by the initial moves this week, or even over the many weeks to come. Still, there's enough familiarity to The Daily Show to breed, if not contempt, then wariness of its new steward.