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'Daily Show' Debut Exposes Rifts in Language, Age, Culture

  • Anita Powell

Trevor Noah appears on the set of his new show, "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," in New York, Sept. 25, 2015.

Trevor Noah appears on the set of his new show, "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," in New York, Sept. 25, 2015.

How did South African comedian Trevor Noah do in his debut as host of the wildly popular American news satire "The Daily Show?"

The answer depends on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re on.

In his native South Africa, Noah's debut was widely hailed as a smash hit, with South Africa’s foreign minister taking time out of her schedule at the United Nations General Assembly to visit the comedian in his new New York studio.

Having a South African host the show, said Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is not funny business - it’s cultural diplomacy.

"Mr. Noah is assuming an important global platform through which he will be flying the South African flag high,” she said in a statement.

On Twitter, many South Africans described him as “brilliant” - praise coming from people as diverse as comedians to the nation’s sports minister to the national rugby team.

But across the sea, Americans described his debut with an American word that needs no translation: Meh.

In fact, in the youth mecca of Austin, Texas, VOA News found exactly one person - from among dozens we approached - who actually watched the show on Monday night. And that one person does it for a living.

Omar Gallaga is a technology and culture critic for the Austin American-Statesman, the largest newspaper in the state capital. Speaking the morning after Noah's debut, he echoed sentiments made by other American critics.

“I really don’t feel, based on the first episode, that it was much different than 'The Daily Show' under Jon Stewart,” Gallaga said. “The writing felt very similar ...To me, it felt very much like a substitute teacher trying to hype everybody up over the same lesson plan.”

Noah, who is 31, was touted as the younger, cooler version of Stewart - who grew progressively more ornery and gnarled during his 16-year tenure. Noah underscored this point by referring to Stewart as “dad” during his opening monologue.

But it appears the “new dad” - Noah - will have to try to win America’s youth, many of whom said they just didn’t watch the show.

Justin Heubner, a cool, bouffanted 28-year-old bicycle taxi operator, took pity on this exasperated reporter and patiently, slowly explained this phenomenon.

“A lot of people don’t watch TV anymore, at least a lot of younger people, don’t watch TV or have cable,” he said.

But, I asked Gallaga, is it possible that Noah’s sharp wit - which to this reporter’s ear, hit all the right notes and made some cutting observations about the harsh reality of the world and the United States - was lost in translation?

He answered by using another Americanism - the debut show was not, he said, a “home run.” That, he explained, is a baseball metaphor - and one that, he acknowledged, would be lost on most of Noah’s normal audience.

And likewise, he acknowledged that two of Noah’s jokes - one about the lack of indoor plumbing in South African homes, and another about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS - were maybe better understood by an African audience.

“AIDS jokes and jokes about indoor plumbing, that completely flew over my head that had had anything to do with Africa,” he said. “In the context of the show, I took that to mean he’s trying to spotlight that he has a humble background, that he came from nothing. And the AIDS joke just felt completely jarring to me like ‘whoa, that’s completely out of left field’ - another baseball term - but, you know, knowing the context … yeah, that might just be something that gets lost in translation. And Americans are very uptight about humor.”

It’s clear that Noah, a fixture of the South African comedy scene, will need time in the anchor’s chair to learn how to speak to his new American audience.

Or maybe, with luck and hard work, he’ll teach the world a new language, one that everyone finds funny.