A grandfather I never met lost his tiny Georgia grocery story (in which dad was born) during the Great Depression. He couldn’t bear asking customers, all neighbors and friends, for money they did not have and would not see again. Eventually, he gave away so much that he had to shutter the business.
So he started a medicine show, a common sight of the era. By horse and cart, medicine shows traveled from town to town to sing, dance, tell jokes and, hopefully, sell ‘remedies’ and trinkets to monied spectators. A traveling Tonight Show and souvenir shop.
Dad was too young to hit the road, so his eight brothers and sisters handled the entertainment. But my uncle Fonnie laughed so much at his own jokes that grampa had to cut him from the non-star roster.
Noah is the high-profile replacement to Jon Stewart. The South African-born standup comedian is clever, young and leading-man handsome — a trifecta in the cable TV derby. But something is missing in the retooled show.
The writers are the same. So is the left-leaning humor. But the bite lacks.
Perhaps it’s a matter of age. Political humor requires a certain world weariness. Stewart, 52, had it in spades. So does Larry Wilmore, 53, whose Nightly Show follows The Daily Show and who would have seemed a natural replacement to Stewart. Like Stewart, Wilmore is terrific at exasperation.
Noah, on the other hand, is terrific at tourist-like bewilderment. The 31-year-old often wonders aloud about an American political system that has become as cartoonish as Daffy Duck. His observations are on the money, and should be fodder for eternal material.
And then there’s the Fonnie Syndrome. Noah has a megawatt smile, and his laughter at punchlines feels genuine. Certainly, Stewart chuckled all the time at a good zinger. But Stewart laughed at the absurdity of a broken system, not the humor of his joke. There’s a razor-wire difference, and perhaps it comes from a half century of experience with red tape buffoonery.
It’s unfair to judge this early, and Noah may soon find his wheelhouse. It took Stewart the first six months of his 16-year stint to become a canny political satirist. And Comedy Central will not give a rat’s ass about wit if the millennials keep the Nielsen numbers high.
But The Daily Show had such a dry and knowing sense of humor it bordered on informational. Stewart eventually became a Post-It note reminder of the forgotten, the hair-pulling pundit for those who had to close their stores, join medicine shows and tap dance to the Muzak of The Department of Bureaus.
To lose that would be no laughing matter.