In fact, a premise often seems like just an excuse for him to show off verbal gymnastics, whether it’s pointing out the similarity between the ways Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama speak or showing that to be president you need a strange voice (cue a lineup of impressions). Even my favorite Noah joke, about how trap music sounds like a toddler complaining (from his special “Son of Patricia”), is a virtuosic display that turns ordinary human sounds into a kind of music.
Noah’s stand-up aesthetic is also more subtle and wry than his talk-show punch lines. In a joke from his recent special comparing Will Smith’s character in “Independence Day” to his slap at the Oscars, he displays such a light touch that the actor might not have even noticed the jab. (In fact, Smith gave one of his first interviews after the awards to Noah, a booking coup.) There’s a wit to his voice that recalls an earlier era. I would not be shocked to see him become a regular humor writer for The New Yorker.
Noah hit his stride on “The Daily Show” when he started speaking more off the cuff. The segments, released online, in which he did crowd work during commercial breaks were often long monologues culminating in metaphors. They showcased his gift for thinking aloud and in real time. What they don’t have is a ruthless appetite for getting belly laughs or winning an argument. The dearth of that hunger is also part of his legacy at “The Daily Show.”
On “I Wish You Would,” you get a sense of his temperament when he talks about why people were so angry during the pandemic. His theory is not that Americans were hopelessly divided, but that we were scared. “As humans, we get so comfortable knowing,” he said, emphasizing that last word in his volume and timing, “that we forget how uncertain life is.”
This is not just a more existential thought than is usually expressed on a talk show. It’s existentially fatal to a certain kind of talk show. Because as true as it may be, and it is, the job of daily commentator on political events is a lot easier if he at least keeps up the illusion of having a sure-minded, commanding take. Hamlet could never host “The Daily Show.”
Noah is startlingly good at appearing confident and assured, which made him a natural at the job. But talent can be its own obstacle. What you’re gifted at is not necessarily what you should be doing. Watching his stand-up, and especially reading his excellent memoir, “Born a Crime,” you sense that he is most comfortable in the moments of not knowing.