Incoming "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah, in some respects, faces a long road to becoming No. 1 – at something.
He isn't the first virtual unknown (at least to U.S. audiences) to notch a major late night TV comedy show (see: O'Brien, Conan). The South African comic isn’t the first non-U.S.-born entertainer thrust into such a role (see UK-born "Late Late Show" hosts Craig Ferguson and James Corden, and, sure, count Canadian Alan Thicke, if you like). Noah isn't even the first successor to the "Daily Show" mantle (Jon Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn in 1999).
But Noah has one crucial first hanging over him: He's the first to replace Jon Stewart, who made "The Daily Show" his own during a storied 16-year run. Noah's first show Monday marks the start of a major test of whether he'll be accepted in Comedy Central’s marquee weeknight post amid a level of scrutiny – and potential rush to judgment – Stewart didn’t have to endure late last century.
Jay Leno faced similar challenges when he succeeded Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" in 1992. Stephen Colbert recently got off to a promising start taking over CBS' "Late Show" for David Letterman, only second to Carson in the shadow cast by his late night legend.
At least Leno got years of practices – and exposure – as a guest host for Carson. Colbert crept into the public consciousness as a "Daily Show" correspondent and became a star on "The Colbert Report," a program that arrived with little hoopla a decade ago and left with great fanfare nine-plus years later. Letterman, O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon all benefited from initial runs in 12:30 a.m. time slots on NBC’s “Late Night,” where they to got experiment with quirky humor and hone their acts before playing to larger crowds at earlier hours.
Noah, at age 31, hosted a show in his South Africa, where he's known for his smart, sharp standup comedy, which gained him a following beyond his homeland, largely via social media. His digital footprint came back to give him a swift kick, though, when the announcement of his hiring for "The Daily Show" was followed by stories about past controversial tweets.
Comedy Central backed him. So did Stewart, whose greatest gift to Noah – and fans – may be creating a show strong enough to go on without him, as evidenced by Jon Oliver's successful substitute run in the summer of 2013, which led to his own weekly news satire show on HBO.
The lead-up to Noah’s debut has milked humor from his outsider’s status (in one promo, his correspondents try to kiss up to him with clumsy references to cricket, rugby and soccer) while suggesting that big changes aren’t afoot. His first promo boasted the tagline “Same chair, different a--.”
Much of the supporting cast – Vanessa Williams, Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal and Jordan Klepper, among them – will remain with the show. Noah’s initial slate of guests, which includes Kevin Hart and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, suggests he’ll stick to a Stewart-like mix of entertainers and politicians.
Noah’s biggest challenge is to put his mark on the show, balancing the franchise's familiar format with his own, evolving style. He comes armed with a quick wit and a foreigner’s perspective, as well as a youthful take, given his status as the youngest host of a major late night TV comedy program.
Noah also arrives amid the excitement of the presidential election season, presenting him with a year-plus baptism of fire. The program’s “Indecision ‘16” coverage could render the verdict on Noah.
As Trevor Noah gets ready to launch his own TV story arc, with an eye on rising to No. 1 amid a sea of late night TV hosts, check out a preview.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.