Mention the name Trevor Noah in the US, and you might be met with a shrug, a sigh or a scoff. Many consider the South African comic’s first year as Jon Stewart’s successor at The Daily Show to have been a flop, a particularly excruciating one given the current political environment. A virtual unknown when he took over the gig, he has been casually dismissed as unremarkable.
But for years, Noah has been known globally for his standup, which mixes observational comedy with astonishing personal stories. He has always been an exceptional performer, possessed of a charismatic glow that makes it hard to look away. At the second of two performances on Saturday night at the Beacon Theatre, he could have won over many of his detractors.
Clad all in black, he was making a clear sartorial break from his Daily Show suits, and only rarely veered into politics. Instead, he talked about the possibilities and problems of a black James Bond, an epic night of drinking in Edinburgh, and his love and wonder at getting around New York City, where pedestrians are exceptionally trusting of the traffic signals because “in America, if you’ve got the white man on your side, you can do whatever you want”. This type of material is where he excels.
An extended bit about his time in Scotland was a reminder that the bread and butter of his standup has been his enthusiastic stories about travel and the people he’s met. His greatest skill remains his ability with accents — he flipped through nearly a dozen foreign voices in the show. A bit about Barack Obama’s speaking style gave a peek into his process for producing such mimicry.
But if there is one disappointment about Noah’s show, it’s the writing. A bit about the hypocrisy of nationalists in the UK and the US felt unsophisticated, while other jokes were clearly pandering to a liberal audience. He’s been accused of joke thievery in the past, but his real crime seems to be that he’s less interested in developing original material and more invested in using his talents to put on a good show.
And that puts him in a difficult spot. American standup, particularly in New York, is all about writing: there’s not much appreciation for a mediocre joke told brilliantly. And The Daily Show may not be the best fit for him: he seems better suited to a network show, where his gentle demeanor and genuine curiosity would be seen as assets rather than deficits.
These shows were recorded for an upcoming Netflix special, but whether this apolitical hour of standup will win over his Daily Show doubters is uncertain — he’ll never be the political whiz kid that some want him to be, and he really needs to be seen live in order to appreciate his charms. But maybe this will be a chance for America to see what Trevor Noah does best..