Noah kicked things off with a series of strong monologue jokes that went over well for the most part. Not surprisingly, he paid proper homage to his predecessor, Jon Stewart, describing Stewart as our "political dad." But then he went on to quip, "And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad, and he's black … which is not ideal." Long, tired, weary as hell, sigh. That joke was clearly intended to make white audiences comfortable with his black face, but there was nothing in it for the rest of us.
Moreover, given how anxious he seemed for approval, which is fitting for the occasion, Noah came across less like a stepdad and more like the adopted son who inherited his father's prized car and was excited and grateful but also really nervous about totaling it.
Noah went on to provide some funny, albeit fluffy, coverage of big topics like Pope Francis' visit and Speaker of the House John Boehner's resignation, but then threw in a couple of cringeworthy jokes that didn't go over as well.
He described Boehner's role as speaker as "the bouncer at Club Congress, which is probably the worst club ever." He continued, "I mean, first of all, there's hardly any women in the club. There's always a bunch of old guys talking about laying pipe. Oh, and everyone at the club has aides." Get it? Get it??
Offering commentary on criticism that Boehner wasn't conservative enough, Noah joked, "It's like crack telling meth it's not addictive enough. You make teeth fall out? Big deal. I took down Whitney Houston … too soon?" For many viewers, the answer was yes.
These jokes, through which Noah appeared to be testing his audience's boundaries, seemed inconsistent with his attempts to make his audience comfortable at the top of the show.
Noah went on to do a hilarious bit with Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper, during which they did a play on Boehner's successor, followed by another fun bit with new correspondent Roy Wood Jr., about whether black people would be welcome on Mars.
The half-hour show culminated with a spotty and, at times, awkward interview with comedian Kevin Hart, whose positive energy, enthusiasm and crowd appeal should have made him the perfect first guest. Hart even came bearing gifts—a box of ties for Noah's new job—but Noah was so awkward and unenthusiastic about receiving them, you almost hoped it was a bit … but it wasn't. And that sense of uneasiness colored the rest of the interview, during which Hart shone and Noah looked slightly uncomfortable.
All in all, Noah launched his reign at The Daily Show with a solid performance peppered with several bright spots and plenty of room for growth. Most of his jokes landed, he riffed well with his correspondents, and his charming smile proved that it can probably dig him out of most ditches. His interviewing skills could use some polishing, and he'll need to find his comedic comfort zone, but as with anyone's first day on the gig, Noah probably just needs more time to hit his stride. Given his promising performance last night, viewers are likely to give him all the time he needs.
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.