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Trevor Noah on Daily Show, Twitter controversy: Interview

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James Yang/Comedy Central

When it was announced last March that a relatively unknown comic from South Africa would be replacing beloved icon Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Sept. 28, there was a collective “Who’s that?” So we decided to get to know the 31-year-old a little better and ask him some questions as tough as the ones he’ll be asking. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Trevor Noah.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You grew up in South Africa during ­apartheid as the son of a black mother and a white father. In your routines, you say that you were “born a crime.” What was that experience like?

TREVOR NOAH: It was a normal experience because it was the only experience I had. As a child, not that you don’t know your own suffering, but if it’s the norm, you don’t believe that it’s an extreme version of life.

When your mother was stopped by the cops, she pretended you didn’t belong to her, almost as if she’d been caught with a stash of drugs and pretended they weren’t hers. You must’ve known that that was a different experience?

No, I genuinely didn’t. You know, I didn’t see my dad in public, but my other friends didn’t see their dads in public either. Some of them didn’t even know their dads. So in your mind, there’s many variations on what a dad is. You just think this is normal. It’s like if you grow up in a neighborhood where there’s crackheads, you don’t think crackheads are the weirdest thing — until you learn that there are places in the world where there are no crackheads running around.

When did you realize that your situation was different?

Maybe when I was 10 or 11 years old. When kids ask you questions like, “Why is your dad white?” and these are questions you’ve never asked. As children, you don’t think, that’s the black crowd and that’s the white crowd. You just hang out. And then over time you’re taught who your social circle is and you start to minimize that circle and make it less diverse. So that’s when I started thinking, “Oh, I’m different, and that group of people is very different. Which group of people do I most relate to?”

Which group did you most relate to?

I grew up in a black neighborhood. Black is the only experience I know intrinsically. But I can associate with white, because my dad is white. I’ve got friends who had no contact with white people whatsoever, so for them, white is the most foreign concept in the world. When I first moved out here to the United States, my only friend was a white Jewish guy from Pasadena. We’re still friends to this day. He directed my DVD specials both in South Africa and the U.S.

What was the stand-up comedy scene like for you in South Africa? I read that comedy there is way more confrontational than it is in America, especially when it comes to talking about race.

Yes. We’ve had democracy for 20 years. That’s not a long time. All the comedians had an explosion of free speech, so people wanted to talk about race and politics in a world where we were never allowed to speak about that. I was always fascinated when I would watch comics from America and a guy would be complaining about how a bottle of milk opens. It was like, “Wow! I want to get to a place where the biggest problem in my life is the fact that the milk doesn’t open the way that I want it to! That’s a great life!” For me, I can do mundane comedy, but it’s like, is this really what I’m worried about? I’m not worried about milk. I’m worried about police brutality.

When Comedy Central announced you as The Daily Show’s next host, some people complained that your early tweets were sexist or racist. Do you think we’re too eager to police comedy in this country?

Definitely. I understand where it comes from. But people would say, “Are you going to change?” And I’d say, “You went back three years to find the tweets! If I haven’t repeated those things, haven’t I changed?” If you look back three years and you’re not disappointed in who you were then, you’re not progressing.

But we live in a world of faux outrage. It’s hashtag this, hashtag that. There are people who jump onto trends before they even know what the trend is about. People want to be part of the good, but they don’t want to put the work in, so they think, “Can’t I just say that I agree?” Then you have an artificial inflation of what the problem is. All of the sudden you get all of these big scandals, but they’re not big, because everyone is on the periphery of the argument.

In South Africa, we have that in the rawest form: mob justice. In the townships, they’ve lost faith in the police, so they’ll exact a punishment themselves. One person catches a thief, and within then minutes, 50 people are beating up the thief. Some people are just walking past; they don’t know why the person is being beaten up! But they think, “You must be there for a reason.” It’s a place to let out your inner anger.

When Jon Stewart started at The Daily Show, he targeted Fox News and right-wing talking points. How would you describe the political culture that you’ll be focusing on?

We’re coming to the end of a racial honeymoon. When Obama came into power, people went, “Maybe there is hope!” The same thing happened in South Africa. We got our first black president, and it was like, “Yeah!” But then you realize that it’s easier to vote a black man into power than it is to give all minorities the freedom they deserve. It’s a very tough realization when you’re like, that was just the first step. Right now America’s dealing with a lot of pent-up frustration and pain.

Jon Stewart mostly covered cable news, but you’ve said you’ll cover BuzzFeed and Gawker, too. Does that mean you’ll critique media more generally, not just political coverage?

Politics, media, anything. Like I’m always amused by Vice. Sometimes it’s less about the news and more about “Look, we found 2-year-old babies that smoke!” Stuff like that is easy to satirize, because that’s really the role of The Daily Show, to sift through what should be news and what shouldn’t.

The Daily Show has always been fairly left-of-center politically. Which way do you lean? Far left? More to the center?

I never grew up with those terms. We don’t have “progressive” and “conservative” [in South Africa]. Even the word conservative is strange to me, because it implies that you’re against progress. So, Cecil the Lion — when I look at that story, I’m not going, “What is the left’s angle? What is the right’s?” I’m going, “What is the truth in this thing?” People hunt for sport all the time. We’re gonna make it seem like we’ve never walked past a bar that’s got buffalo heads in it? Then you realize, well, maybe it’s people finding an outlet for rage about police brutality. It’s like, “This poor lion did nothing! You just went out of your way to kill that lion!” It’s like the universe gave us a metaphor.

You’re working with the same executive producers as Jon Stewart and many of the same writers. Is it important to you to have a more diverse writers’ room?

Definitely. Right now, we only have one writer of color, so that’s something that I’m definitely going to look to improve. At the same time, I would rather wait for the right person than just slot someone in because they’re a minority. You’re doing yourself and them a disservice if you’re putting someone in a position where they don’t have the ability to thrive, because then people go, “Oh, well, I guess that’s why we don’t have many minority writers!”

When I asked Jon Stewart why late-night writers’ rooms aren’t more diverse, he said, very honestly, that people generally hire people they know. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. So when you come into an environment where most experienced staff writers are white men — even if they’re mostly very talented white men — how do you make those rooms more inclusive without specifically looking to hire someone who’s not a white man?

Well, that’s the thing. You have to realize is that it’s reflective of a segregation that’s in society. You ask very liberal white people, “Do you have any black friends?” And they’ll go, “Actually I don’t.” So that becomes part of the issue. I think the key [to a more diverse writer’s room] is to let it happen organically. Obviously, I’m more likely to know black comedians and black writers, so already it’s not a stretch for me. I just reach out to the people I know already.

When people analyze your time at The Daily Show, as they’ve been analyzing Stewart’s, what do you hope they’ll say?

Most important, I would love for them to say, “Who would’ve thought that after all this time, that show’s still funny?” Then, if people can say, “We thought of things differently because of him,” or, “We had conversations we never would’ve had because of him.” I want people to say, “He made a positive change in the world.”

That’s interesting, because I think there’s an overemphasis on positivity in late-night right now. Jimmy Fallon is so likable, but he doesn’t ask tough questions. When late-night hosts come from overseas, their tone often changes. James Corden was very sarcastic when he was in the U.K., and now he’s very upbeat.

It depends on your personality. Fallon — he’s just doing Fallon. Leno is the same. I would argue that they got those jobs because they’re extremely likable. The U.K. is a very dark, sarcastic place. Corden might just know that’s not welcome here. In South Africa, we’re not dark. We’re just open. I’m not trying to offend people, but there’s a funny side of everything. Nelson Mandela laughed a lot. If you can laugh when you think you’re going to be in jail for the rest of your life, I don’t think anyone has an excuse to say there’s nothing to laugh about. There’s always something to laugh about.

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