Trevor Noah Talks 'The Daily Show,' Samantha Bee and Responding to His Critics
The late night scene has made incremental progress toward improving its diversity in the last two years. What was once an all-white, all-male fraternity now features two white women hosts, Samantha Bee and Chelsea Handler, on TBS and Netflix, respectively; and two black men, both of whom air on Comedy Central (the other being Larry Wilmore).
Hailing from South Africa, comedian Trevor Noah had an arduous task ahead of him: He had to fill the shoes of Jon Stewart.
Noah has anchored The Daily Show since September, pledging to continue the war on bullshit his predecessor made iconic. He's taken a different tack, however, as he crafted a tone quite a bit less fiery than Stewart's. Considering the current internet outrage culture, a softer tone can be a tough sell.
The host has earned his share of critics in the process, many pointing to his lighter approach to the political scene at a time when we need an unapologetic, incensed voice — a role Bee has assumed with a Stewart-esque veracity.
But Noah is making his mark in other ways, too. He's brought a global perspective to late night that his peers cannot present, and draws more millennial viewers to the program than Stewart was ever able to.
In an interview with Mic, Noah discussed how he's adjusted to the late night scene, what his narratives on The Daily Show can distinctly provide and how the show benefits from taking the production on the road, airing live at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Mic: You've been host of The Daily Show for nine months now — how do you think you've settled into the role?
Trevor Noah: I think it's a work in progress, you know? You're slowly finding yourself, you're trying to, I think, calibrate the show to match up with your voice and your take on everything, and it's been a journey. It's still going to be a journey. I'm enjoying it, though. The most important thing is finding the most authentic way that I can communicate with my audience.
You've also entered the late night scene at an incredible time. There's an endless supply of material — especially at the hands of Donald Trump. Has that made the adjustment any easier?
TN: It was perfect timing for me to get into a race where, initially, people were like, "Oh, you're not an expert in American politics, so how can you do this show?" And then luckily for me, the race ended up being run by a guy who basically knows absolutely nothing about any type of politics. Essentially, I'm in the right place at the right time.
One thing that's really stood out in your Daily Show coverage so far is a focus on more global issues, particularly political issues in Africa. Is that something you'd like to focus on more after the election?
TN: I think it's nice to get that perspective from the world; it's nice to know what's happening out there; it's nice to know that there are issues. It's also nice to know about things before they affect America.
For instance, if you look at how America treated Zika, it was like this fringe disease that's affecting Brazil, but now it's slowly growing in the U.S. If something's not done about, it could turn into one of the disasters where people start asking the question, "Why couldn't we have done something?" Well, we could have done something. It's good to know about these things, to talk about them on the show, just to get people some insight into what's happening in the world.
What other narratives would you want to focus on that can distinctly be yours?
TN: There's a whole bunch. Obviously, there's the global stories. I think also just dealing with — I'm someone who's very passionate about a lot of social issues so a lot of the time, late night shows aren't prone to talk about those things. Everyone will focus on the broader political issues and so on; social issues are tougher ones to tackle and I think that's where The Daily Show stands out.
Your coverage of Black Lives Matter and the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were good examples of that.
TN: Yeah, that's what we should be doing more of, and that's the space that we should be in.
You've come under quite a bit of scrutiny in your position — as anyone who took up the mantle after Jon would have, of course. How do you handle criticism?
TN: I understand that criticism to a certain extent is fickle. It exists only to criticize. I'm very lucky in that I knew Jon before I was in this position. I knew Jon before there was even talk of this position existing, and the one thing Jon showed me was that the amount of trash that the press wrote about him for a lot of his tenure was part of his job. People forget about that. People forget that for years that articles were being written about Jon being wrong for The Daily Show and Jon should retire and so on and so forth.
Now, essentially, I have to battle against nostalgia, which is a powerful, powerful thing. I understand that. It's not something I disagree with, I think everyone has a right to their opinion, but it doesn't mean that I have to share that.
What would you say to Jon Stewart fans who aren't sure about you?
TN: The biggest thing I'll say to them is watch the show. That's the medium I use to communicate, that's the medium I use to connect with people. I also understand that I won't be for all of them. I'm not trying to be everybody's guy, I'm trying to find my audience and the audience that best connects with me. I don't think it's any mistake that from my time taking over the show has become more diverse in its viewership and it's also become a lot younger, because that's who I am as a person. We're going to get more minorities watching, we're also going to get more young people watching, and I understand that.
I'm not saying that's who the show is for, I'm just saying the show starts to reflect the world and the views of the host. If anything, I'd say to people, watch the show — give it a fair chance, but if it's not for you, I understand.
Another new host on the late night scene is Daily Show alum Samantha Bee, and her tone is certainly more emblematic of Jon's. How would you describe your tone by comparison?
TN: I have never lent myself to a tone of outrage, I've never been that person and I don't think I'll ever be that person. It's not how I tackle issues; it's not how I tackle problems. But there is definitely a place for it. There's a catharsis that comes from that when it's expressed in the right way, if you're the right person. It's just a style thing.
I think it's strange that we live in a world where people — and you see this not just in TV shows, but in politics as well — where people need one show to not exist for another to exist. Instead of celebrating the fact that there's multiple shows, some of them would rather focus on one show not needing to be around. Like, why don't you just have all of them — why don't you celebrate that?
The show is going to hit the road at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the only late night show that'll originate in both locations. What are you looking forward to covering that other shows, which won't be at the venues at the same capacity, can't provide?
TN: Being at the convention. Being close to the action, having a direct feel — it's a feel that can't be replicated. It's the same way when the Super Bowl is on, and the commentators go to the stadium; halftime is at the game. I think these things add to it, because you can feel the atmosphere, you can feel what's happening. You're not relying on second-hand reporting to come to your conclusion and I think that's pretty much what taking the show on the road does.
I touched on this earlier, but one of your most resonant segments came when you discussed racial equality and the police force, reminding viewers that you can stand for black lives and police lives at the same time. What other segments have stood out for you in the nine months that really nailed what you're trying to do with the show?
TN: I was really proud of our piece on the transgender "bathroom bill" as it's called, HB2. I'm proud of that. I was also proud of our coverage of what was happening in and around gun control as well, after the Orlando shooting. I was proud of the fun stuff as well. We did a thing on Cam Newton and Peyton Manning a while back, and that was really fun and different.
I think that's the thing that people sometimes forget. The show is daily and I do not think it would be healthy for us as a daily show to only exist in a space of outrage and contempt. Because we're on every single day, that's not a natural thing. As a person, you're not angry every day, and if you are, you need to get help. I think the show needs to reflect those emotional changes and that's why it's nice to have different pieces like that. Any piece where we've been able to find the perfect combination of factors amplifies my voice as much as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.