Daily Show host Trevor Noah on finding his voice in the Trump era
Trevor Noah wasn’t supposed to be here. Before the 33-year-old South African comedian took over hosting The Daily Show in 2015, the list of obvious successors to Jon Stewart included alumni of the show Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, as well as Saturday Night Live veterans Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Chris Rock. “It was ridiculous. There was no way I expected to get it,” Noah recalls, sitting in an office about The Daily Show’s studio, now his studio, at the edge of midtown Manhattan.
And yet Comedy Central made the risky choice to install a host little-known in America but famous around the world in the hopes of reaching young people, especially international young people. His debut wasn’t exactly smooth for an audience used to 16 years of Stewart. “When I started there was a lot of criticism around me not being angry. But what was there to be angry about? Progress was being made. Unemployment was dropping. Gay people were getting marriage equality. I refuse to be a part of an outrage machine,” Noah says, pausing. “And then Donald Trump was elected.
In the months since, Comedy Central’s bet on finding a more global audience for The Daily Show had begun to pay off. Noah’s viewership has yet to reach that of Stewart’s last season—though topping Stewart’s goodbye tour, Noah says, would have felt disrespectful in a way. But the network says international viewership has risen drastically since Noah’s debut (The show is now watched in 176 countries, up from around 70 before.)
“Donald Trump has made everyone interested in everything, everywhere. He’s a worldwide phenomenon,” says Noah. “And with everything that’s going on—the Muslim ban, threats to women’s rights, the environment—I feel like I can finally say the show has a purpose.”
Noah was born in Johannesburg, the son of a white Swiss father and a black South African mother, during apartheid, when it was illegal for mixed-race couples to procreate. His parents never married. The comedian writes in his memoir, Born a Crime, that he spent much of his youth playing alone indoors so that the police wouldn’t spot him and take him away. Noah, whose Netflix stand-up special Afraid of the Dark premiered Feb. 21, jokes that on family outings his father would have to walk across the street and wave at him, “like a pedophile.”
The decision to have a half-white, half-black baby perfectly encapsulates Noah’s mother’s view of authority: She doesn’t think much of it. When Noah was growing up if Patricia Noah didn’t like a rule, she would break it. A deeply religious woman—Noah and his mother would visit three different churches every Sunday—she always maintained that Jesus would protect her and Noah. Still, life was difficult. He writes in his book of being a chameleon, forced to choose between playing with white kids or black kids on the playground, code-switching with different groups but never really fitting in.
Many comedians make light of tragedy. Noah’s case is extreme: Noah, his brother and his mother once leapt from a moving minibus after the driver intimated he would kill them over their ethnicity. When Noah was in his 20s, his stepfather shot his mother in the head. She miraculously survived and, when she woke from surgery, told Noah not to cry because he was now the best-looking one in the family.
“I inherited a sense of humor from my mom, the ability to laugh in the face of danger, to mock it,” says Noah. “My friends always say to me, ‘I hope I’m never kidnapped with you because you’ll probably get us killed by making fun of the kidnapper,’ which is true.”
By his 20s, Noah was one of the first popular comedians in South Africa to have both white and black fans. He’d come up selling illegal CDs in high school and deejaying parties before finding his way to radio and stand-up. He hosted a South African late-night show in the 2010s and was the subject of the documentary, You Laugh But It’s True. He toured the world as a standup comedian, sometimes taking aim at America, eventually getting invited on The Daily Show by Stewart.
He found himself in the awkward position of turning down one of the world’s most powerful comedians. Noah was on a world tour and didn’t want to give up international gigs for a spot on an American television program. “I just didn’t have time,” he says. The two kept in touch and Noah eventually became a recurring correspondent on The Daily Show, using his segments to call out American ignorance and hypocrisy. In 2015, he earned one of the most coveted perches on U.S. television.
Noah may have begun his career on The Daily Show playing an outsider, but now he chafes at that label. Noah was one of the few talking heads to predict Trump could win the presidency, a suggestion his Daily Show writers found absurd when he made it over the summer. Many critics have attributed Noah’s clairvoyance to his outsider status, and in part they’re right. “Americans by their very nature think they’re exceptional,” he says. “And it’s true: America is an idea that shouldn’t work. But I come from a place where I’ve seen that kind of rhetoric work, where I know people aren’t immune.”
He says what really convinced him Trump could win was touring at least forty states, performing everywhere from El Paso to Sacramento to Erie, Penn. “I sometimes think I’m more of an ‘insider,’ than most people here [on the East Coast] because I was on the road for six years traveling America. I was never famous, so I was performing in was tiny little towns, tiny little clubs,” he says. “I would talk to people who liked Trump, nice people, people who’d come to my shows, and I’d ask them why? I could see why they liked Trump. What I really saw is people really hated Hillary Clinton.”
Ask Noah about his own political views, and he speaks in metaphors, often citing the Bible or old proverbs. Noah couldn’t watch much TV growing up, so Sampson and Noah were his heroes. He can still quote chapter and verse. One of his most effective adages is a play on the Chinese parable, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Noah points out that what’s missing from that story is whether or not the man can afford a fishing pole. Growing up poor in Soweto, Noah internalized the idea that those who did not have the means to lift themselves up—the ability to afford college, the money to start their own business—could never climb the socio-economic ladder.
If Noah still considers himself a “citizen of the world,” it’s less a reflection of his background than it is of his age. “Younger people are connected by the Internet, and that means we’re communicating with people from halfway around the world. It means we’re not brainwashed to think every immigrant is a bad person because we can talk to them,” he says. “You look at global warming—of course old people don’t care about the planet because they’re not going to be here for the consequences. “
Noah points out millennials have grown up creating change by swiping on their phones. It took Trump getting elected for them to step into the streets and protest. He maintains they will be as much a force for change as the generation before. “People who say millennials are the ‘me, me, me’ generation—I think an older generation has a ‘me, me, me’ attitude when it comes to issues like the environment. The older generation tries to maintain the status quo, and the younger generation pushes ahead.”
That’s not to say all millennials agree. Noah’s most viral interview to date was with Tomi Lahren, a young conservative firebrand with an online video series whose popularity rivals The Daily Show. The two butted heads over Black Lives Matter, among other topics. Although many praised the way Noah handled the interview, others criticized him for giving Lahren a platform for what some called “hate speech.”
Noah contends that it’s possible, and indeed more important than ever, to engage with people whose political views differ from his own. Especially, he says, in a “post-Trump, divided America with people yelling across the aisle at each other.”
“The question you need to ask yourself,” he adds, “is the person willing to concede? Is the person willing to walk away with a significantly different view? And, more importantly, are you willing to do that?’”
In that vein, Noah is even willing to draw a comparison between himself and his chief target, Trump. Because despite their differences, he does relate to the president—at least as a performer. “When I watch him, I see a comedian. I see somebody who loves an audience. Someone who likes to be liked,” says Noah. “You see the standing ovation in front of you, and yet the newspapers are writing that you’re not doing well. And the performer’s mind goes, ‘This is a world that’s clearly lying because I’m doing well, and it is against me.’” It’s a feeling Noah knows well. Which may be why The Daily Show feels so relevant right now.