The controversy over Trevor Noah is probably best viewed through the lens of what Stewart embodied for those who’ve championed him, and what Williams has appeared to squander: trustworthiness. The Daily Show is no longer just a comedy news show. This is not James Corden taking over for Craig Ferguson. It is, ironically, Dan Rather taking over for Walter Cronkite. A mantle of trust is being passed, and the questions about Noah — is he actually racist, misogynist, or funny; what is South African comedy, anyway? — are reasonable, maybe even crucial to ask. Ultimately, they amount to this: Can liberals trust him to carry the mantle?
Noah is being positioned by both Comedy Central and himself as an honest-to-goodness successor to Stewart. Who knows what doing that successfully would entail, but he didn’t come from nowhere, and nothing about his stand-up work — or, for that matter, his radio work — says “pass the mantle to him.” That the same was arguably true of Stewart, who began as a replacement for Craig Kilborn, doesn’t quite matter under these circumstances. The show Stewart inherited is worlds different from the one Noah has been tapped to do. And Stewart had a profile in America as being a misfit with promising, untapped talent. Before The Daily Show, he seemed professionally stuck — at age 36. It is Stewart’s show now. So the controversy that has arisen around Noah seems inevitable, thoroughly modern, and entirely necessary.