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Trevor Noah’s Moment of Truth Is Here As New ‘Daily Show’ Dawns

Analysis: In the best of all possible worlds for Comedy Central, Noah will repeat the Jon Stewart miracle

To replace Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central chose Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old South African virtually unknown in the United States.

If CBS, with its choice of Stephen Colbert to take over “The Late Show,” bellied up sober to the blackjack table, then Comedy Central walked into the casino, downed a shot of bourbon, then headed straight to the roulette wheel. Monday night we will get our first indicator as to whether that risky bet paid off.

The Noah experiment is nothing if not high-stakes. Stewart’s cultural footprint was Shaq-sized. He wasn’t just a comedian. He was, for the blue half of the country, anyway, a figure who bordered on Cronkite-esque. World leaders and presidential hopefuls lined up not to swing at softballs and slow-jam the news, but to field questions tougher than they might get on the Sunday-morning shows.

It became a trope — an exaggerated, but persistent one — that Generation Xers got their news from Stewart rather than traditional news outlets. Try as he might to insist that he was just a funnyman, he never approached the job as if trying to tuck America into bed at night. He wanted to and often succeeded at shaking the nation from its slumber, as evidenced by his parting thoughts at the end of his final broadcast in July, “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”

Stewart was also, arguably, the most important single person at Comedy Central (Trey Parker and Matt Stone being two people). “The Daily Show” was born in the late ’90s after then-network president Doug Herzog said that what the place needed was “a daily show” — a reason for people to come to the network on a daily basis.

The franchise was launched with the very blond Craig Kilborn as host, but it was Stewart when he took over in 1999 who made it appointment viewing. In the best of all possible worlds for Comedy Central, Noah will repeat that miracle. The network has been hit by ratings declines and the loss of Colbert, while corporate parent Viacom saw its stock suffer more than any other media company’s during August sell-offs spawned by panic over cable cord-cutting. If Noah could turn “The Daily Show” into a ratings monster, it would be an extraordinary boon to Comedy Central.

But that will be almost impossible to achieve. Late night is more fragmented than ever, with Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel engaged in a legitimate three-way race on broadcast and Conan O’Brien, Bill Maher, Andy Cohen and the man who would have been Stewart’s hand-picked successor, John Oliver, gobbling up niche audiences on cable. Add to that the way that younger viewers have practically abandoned linear viewing (see “Scream Queens,” Fox) and you have what looks like a doomsday scenario: Comedy Central has placed in its most important chair an untested kid whose most likely audience doesn’t watch TV.

But what if Noah manages to mirror Stewart’s popularity in his impact? The idea that Trevor Noah should break news to his viewers was all but dismissed by current Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless when she spoke to TheWrap this summer.

“When the show was created, it was reflective of a 24-hour news cycle,” Ganeless said. “Now we and the show want to reflect the news cycle as it exists today. You can’t do that with just a half-hour show or repurposing the stuff we do at night to other platforms.”

“The Daily Show” is no more likely now to inform people of the news than anything else on television is. The news happens on the Internet. Television is simply a platform for its discussion.

Noah, Ganeless and all the other major players invested in “The Daily Show” appear to realize this, and are building the new show to fit that worldview. As they do, they are looking no doubt to the ways that Fallon and Kimmel rewrote the rules of late night, approaching the broadcast itself as a platform for segments that would go viral the next morning.

And Noah could be the guy to take that model to the next level. The guy has energy, polish and good looks. He’s also really, really funny. The ingredients are all there. Whether they cook up right remains to be seen.

Noah’s first promo for his version of “The Daily Show,” unveiled last month, was equal parts funny and hip, with the new host settling into his chair to the tune of Kanye West’s “Power.” It was an appropriate tune. But an even better one could have been pulled from an era that predates Noah and his generation of multiplatform viewers — Tupac Shakur‘s “All Eyes on Me.”