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If South African comedian Trevor Noah was holding onto any latent bitterness fueled by the Twitter controversy that followed his announcement as the new host of The Daily Show, he didn’t demonstrate it onstage at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. To be fair, in the one of his seven (SEVEN!) sold-out Arlington shows I saw this weekend, he didn’t touch on those problematic tweets at all. In fact, his only mention of The Daily Show was to share his family’s reactions to the news of his new gig. Apparently, his mother was equally, if not more, excited that Noah’s 11-year-old brother won student council president, and Noah’s grandmother was happy that he “had a job now.” According to his grandmother, the full-time gig as touring stand-up comedian wasn’t real since it did not include an office.
Noah certainly could have written some sort of comedic retort to the situation had he chosen to. He did greet the audience as “Washington, but not really” and wrote a quick and witty bit characterizing Metro near the beginning of his set (though his assertion that no one on the train speaks to one another would have probably worked in most American cities). Instead, Noah spent his time onstage with a more proactive aim—-introducing himself to his future audience.
It’s likely that most of the audience members hadn’t heard of Noah prior to March 31, when Comedy Central announced Noah’s ascendance to the Daily Show throne. Some might have been old-time fans: One woman shook a South African scarf when Noah took the stage and a few people in the back gave him a standing ovation before he even said his first word. In any case, the crowd understood that Noah probably won’t be performing in such an intimate venues for much longer. Furthermore, this is a city that understands its politics—-a good place for Noah to show off his comedic mettle and current events analysis, since we’d be quick to call bullshit.
Noah’s skills were on point. He got the laugh breaks you’d expect from a full-time performer, but he also got applause breaks when he spouted more elevated insights: “Terrorism isn’t a face, it is an act” and “Anger doesn’t cause racism.” Noah touched on police brutality and perceptions of terrorism, and he expanded on the Ebola joke that has already been circulating around the web. He did what Jon Stewart and John Oliver have done so well for decades: explain our foibles as both Americans and human beings back to us in a way that’s both brutally honest and wickedly clever. A wave of people smiled and nodded when he quipped during his Ebola material that in order to get America to care about a problem, you have to make it America’s problem.
It’s a good thing Noah appears to be a masterful craftsman, because as he’s already learned, a fearless set can easily take a wrong turn. He did not touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or say anything that could have been construed as misogynist, but he dug into sensitive issues. He talked about driving while black in America. He imitated Russian, American Southern, and Australian accents, and he had commentary on everyone. “You have every right to be offended,” he said when he sensed tension from the front of the room during a joke about why he flies on Muslim-owned and -operated airlines. Noah was not afraid of the tension, and while there were occasional gasps and tightened shoulders, he managed to dig himself out of every potential hole.
Obviously, his stand-up set isn’t 100 percent indicative of what he will be like as the host of a television show. When Stewart visited Baltimore two years ago, he conveyed comical but real distress that younger children were in the audience to see some of his dirtier material. But just as Stewart’s George W. Bush impression became a staple of the show, it’s likely that Noah’s Russian accent will get plenty of air time. While he showed that he could intelligently navigate the landscape of American and foreign politics, Noah also proved the most important thing he could have during those seven sold-out shows: that he’s damn funny.