When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, he was 36 years old. His successor, South African comedian Trevor Noah, is just 31. As far as age differences go, this one is slight but significant. When Stewart first hosted, he was already outside of the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic and well on his way to becoming the disarmingly charismatic satirist he is today. Noah, on the other hand, is a bit closer to the middle of The Daily Show’s prize demo with a lot left to learn.
Over the last few days there’s been a lot of talk about Trevor Noah’s Twitter timeline making him ineligible to host, but the simpler truth might be that he is too young for the job. Or, at least, Noah might be too young for the The Daily Show as we’ve come to know it.
Stewart had 13 years of comedy under his belt when he sat in the chair, and it showed. On his first day, he interviewed Michael J. Fox with confidence, cracking ad-libbed jokes with ease. Noah will take the seat after less than a decade of joke-slinging with no hints that he is capable of similar improvisation. He could prove to be an effective host in time but we’re going to have to wait a little longer for him to mature.
His past immaturity is already making the transfer of power bumpier than it should have been. Since the announcement, Noah has come under fire for several jokes he has tweeted—mostly dating from 2009 to 2014—that have been labeled misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist. He even once took a dig at Caster Semenya, a famous female South African runner who was born with an intersex condition. While it would be nice to live in a world where male comedians didn’t sharpen their chops on lazy humor like the above, Noah’s bad tweets are par for the course for a comedian of his youth and inexperience. His questionable history of humor is as much a function of his age as anything else.
In the first decade of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart acquired an important comedic skill that’s hard not to attribute to his age: He showed us that using comedy against entrenched authority could be funny. He skewered the Bush administration, he took on Big Oil, and he loathed the one percent. Stewart was the liberal uncle whose cathartic anger sustained us after our conservative parents went to sleep. He wasn’t so old that he was unrelatable but he was no spring chicken, either. He sometimes spoke with authority but not with condescension. We were all Goldilocks and Stewart dutifully fed us progressive porridge that was just the right temperature: neither too cool for school—as Noah might prove to be—nor too hot to swallow—like, say, Lewis Black’s tirades from the same era.
As Stewart aged, he naturally settled into his half-ironic elder statesman role with a strange grace. When he donned that unforgettable American flag fleece at the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, he almost pulled it off.
Noah, on the other hand, is still in the leather jacket phase of his life.
It’s certainly not the case that Noah is so young that he doesn’t have television experience. In South Africa, he hosted a variety television shows beginning in his early 20s. It’s that he’s been doing comedy specifically for much less time than current and former correspondents like Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi and Wyatt Cenac. Even the 25-year-old Jessica Williams—who called herself “under-qualified for the job” when the Internet prematurely pressured her to pursue the position—has about as much experience doing comedy as Noah. Williams started doing sketch comedy in college at around the same time as Noah was reportedly shifting his career from hosting to comedy. After lobbing unfunny frat humor on Twitter not too long ago, Noah has somehow managed to skip go and collect one of the most coveted positions in comedy. It’s a mystifying and risky choice for a now-established franchise like The Daily Show.
But Noah is also inexperienced in the only other field that counts for the gig: his knowledge of the beltway. As The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove notes, Noah “acknowledged during a recent Comedy Central podcast that he knows next to nothing about domestic American politics.”
His exact words: “I know nothing about your politics, really … And I like that, because I come in with a perspective where I know your world and yet I’m not a part of it.”
This insider-outsider dynamic has formed the basis of his handful of perfectly competent appearances on The Daily Show in which Stewart provides an ignorant American foil to Noah’s more worldly perspective. It’s also the running thread in his special African American, which can be watched on Netflix. This schtick might work for smaller bits and for a themed special but domestic politics are the bread and butter of The Daily Show. It’s hard to imagine The Daily Show’s 2016 election coverage boiling down to Noah repeatedly joking: “Isn’t it bizarre how you Americans do elections?”
But just because Noah might be too young or too uninformed for The Daily Show that we’ve grown familiar with doesn’t mean that he can’t eventually make the position his own. It will be strange for him to be younger than some of his viewers for the first few years—to speak from within that generation rather than with Stewart’s wry authority. And if he has a tenure as long as his predecessor, Comedy Central will have to figure out how to manage his transition from fish-out-of-water to a John Oliver-esque expert on America because it’s clear already that his current routine won’t be funny forever.
Noah can move beyond the embarrassing jokes that have been unearthed on social media. He has already acknowledged his “evolution as a comedian” on Twitter:
And he can guzzle down enough Fox News to understand the bizarre American political system. But it’s going to take some time for him to grow into the slot.
Comedy Central claims that he’s “a very quick study.” Let’s hope so.
Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.