This was not a five-minute charisma re-up, carefully orchestrated down to the slow jam. This was not an absurdist tableau in which all parties were in on the joke. In fact, Trevor Noah’s Monday-night interview with President Obama didn’t fit with any of the pre-established templates for comedians publicly interacting with our commander-in-chief. More than that, despite taking place on one of the most prominent platforms for satire in America, it arguably wasn’t even comedy.
The sit-down, pretaped at the White House rather than recorded in Noah’s New York studio, took up nearly the entirety of The Daily Show’s 25-minute runtime, and cut to the chase. Noah’s first interview with a sitting president was notably and nearly completely jokeless. The host made a few halfhearted cracks during segues to commercial breaks; even then, the first cut to commercial set the tone with a simple, “We’ll be right back with more from the 44th president of the United States.” In between, the biggest laugh the president gave was one of recognition, when Noah described what it’s like trying to speak about race as a black man.
In short, the vibe was far more “millennial Diane Sawyer” — patient, nodding, neither hardball nor soft — than “2016 Jon Stewart,” or even “Comedy Central’s Samantha Bee.” When Obama appeared on Full Frontal in late October, the segment was sarcastic, faux-combative, and snappily edited. He was there to have fun. On The Daily Show, he was there to talk, and not so much with Noah as to his audience. The chat started with Russian hacking and only got more somber from there, progressing to the state of democratic discourse, climate change, and Obama’s post-presidency. Throughout it all, Noah barely inserted himself, acting as a sounding board rather than an interlocutor. Noah was obviously going to defer to a sitting president; it wasn’t obvious just how deferential he was going to be. The exception was the final question, in which Noah asked Obama how he, as a fellow biracial, half-African man, dealt with presenting his identity in the public sphere. This was the only time Noah chose to assert his identity, and it was as a conversation partner, not a comic.
The interview was significant — it was viewers’ first extended look at Obama since the election, and Obama’s first chance to speak to them — so there was strategy at play on both sides. For Obama, it’s slightly easier to track: As Comedy Central is fond of pointing out, The Daily Show under Noah is especially popular among the young — precisely the base Obama wants to keep informed and engaged. But this wasn’t Between Two Ferns. Instead, Obama was sobering and the slightest bit reassuring, even when he nodded to the possibility of a Muslim registry or mass deportations. At least he was acknowledging our fears, while his antagonist would gaslight us into thinking they were never there.
For Noah, the goal was a bit more opaque. Since the election, The Daily Show has made headlines not for its monologues, but for its interviews. Much has been made of the spectacle Noah staged by placing himself in dialogue with live-action Facebook comment Tomi Lahren; since then, he’s also sat down with activist and CNN personality Van Jones, as well as leading anti-Trump conservative Evan McMullin. At their core, all of these interviews have been exchanges of ideas, albeit in varying degrees of good faith. They have not been talk-show bit delivery systems, or even witty sparring sessions. When comedy has intruded, often in the form of thunderous clapter from the audience, it’s felt like an intrusion.
In some ways, the Obama interview is the apotheosis of that trend, cutting the audience out of the equation and simply letting the two men speak. On the one hand, if that’s the direction in which Noah wants to take the show, more power to him. He’s getting good results and better press — certainly more than he’d get if he continued trying to beat Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and the rest by making desk pieces his cornerstone. On the other: Isn’t this a comedy show? If his comedy show is its best self without the comedy, what does that say about Noah? Didn’t Jon Stewart veer furthest off course when he tried to do the same thing toward the end of his run?
These aren’t questions a single show is going to solve, even one that finds the sitting president urging viewers to sign up for Obamacare before it’s extinguished. But they are ones that should be percolating in our minds when we take stock of what the role of the contemporary late-night host should be, and of what Donald Trump has done to our national discourse at large. When mockery proves ineffective and the rest of media becomes more unreliable by the day, maybe it’s alright for certain entertainers to retool themselves into arbiters of sanity. Or maybe the serious discourse Noah seems interested in pursuing is fundamentally incompatible with satire, and to try both is to fail at each. Either way, Noah may be steering The Daily Show and the widely replicated model it represents into uncharted territory.
In the recent uproar over so-called fake news and the role it may or may not have played in swaying the election, many have pointed out the term originally applied to mock-cable news shows very much like Noah’s. (Well, exactly like Noah’s — just with a different host.) All the more ironic, then, that Noah has chosen to respond to the madness by going openly, earnestly straight. With Fake News behind him and Fake News all around, Trevor Noah wants to be Real News now.