Trevor Noah Can't Be Faded

The new 'Daily Show' host survived apartheid, domestic violence, and his bitter white rivals—then Jon Stewart offered him the gig of a lifetime.

Image via Complex Original

Down the hall, beyond the green room, and to the right, The Daily Show’s dim and disused control room is littered with the production crew’s notes of Jon Stewart’s farewell broadcast. Watched by 5.1 million people on Aug. 6, 2015, Stewart’s departure was orgasmic triumph, the end of an era, a moment of zen—but not quite a finale.

We’re now t-minus 12 days until The Daily Show’s incoming host, Trevor Noah, inherits the anchor’s desk, the 11:00 p.m. time slot, and a 1.5 million-strong audience of insomniacs and dormitory leftists. This is regime change, incomplete until Sept. 28, when The Daily Show with Trevor Noah debuts. Yet today, when Noah, sporting his sharpest navy suit and smelling as fresh as his haircut, arrives and shakes my hand, the control room is unquestionably his.

In March, when Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah would be replacing Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, critics vomited bewilderment, with reactions ranging from “Who the fuck is this Trevor Noah?” to “He’s no Amy Poehler, that’s for sure.” In that vacuum of context or familiarity with the guy, we quickly scoured Noah’s Twitter and compiled a history (2011-2014) of crude punchlines that he cracked at the expense of “fat chicks” and Jews.

Noah did not apologize. Instead, he answered this inaugural backlash with a comedian’s standard-issue defense; “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn't land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian," he tweeted. Just a couple hours earlier, Comedy Central had issued a press statement with a similar gist. “Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included,” the network said. “Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.” 

“His point of view is going to be way less ‘outsider’ than people would ever imagine.”
—Kent Alterman, Comedy Central president of content and original programming

Noah’s been touring America since 2009, having moved to L.A. in 2010 and resided there for two years before his touring commitments reeled him back across the Atlantic. Despite his far-flung origin, Noah swears he’s proficient in the peculiarities of our entertainment and politics; he was raised on CNN segments and Eddie Murphy comedy specials like the rest of us, and now he’s mastered a variety of American accents.

“When you watch CNN International, they just tell you the news,” Noah says. “CNN in America is like fireworks. That’s something that I came to learn. Here there is a lot more presentation around the news.”

In an odd and ironic twist of Stewart’s famous distaste for a certain, defunct CNN pundits’ showcase, Noah credits CNN International with importing the The Daily Show to South Africa. “I thought it was a news show,” Noah says of his earliest glimpses. “CNN was just like, ‘sometimes we just like to let loose.'”

The Daily Show is far from achieving the largest average viewership in late-night comedy. (NBC’s The Tonight Show, the market leader, has triple the TV audience of The Daily Show, according to Nielsen.) But The Daily Show’s global influence is incomparable, with Stewart’s having inspired similar hosting formats in other countries. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who hosted Egypt’s broadcast satire program al-Bernameg from 2011 through 2014, cites Stewart as the chief influence in his production of al-Bernameg, and Stewart thrice invited Youssef onto The Daily Show to discuss Egyptian politics.

Shortly before he moved to L.A. in June 2010, Noah was hosting his own late-night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah, in Johannesburg. At that point, he'd heard of The Daily Show but hadn't really studied its success. Noah recalls: “My friend David Meyer, who is now working here at The Daily Show with me, was like, ‘You remind me of Jon Stewart. I guess you’re trying to do it similar.' I said, ‘Who are you talking about? Who is this man?'”

Stewart wasn’t the original host of The Daily Show, but he’s the show’s definitive host, and he’s senior vanguard of Comedy Central’s brand. Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central and a founding veteran of the network, credits The Daily Show, which debuted in 1996, and South Park, which debuted in 1997, with minting Comedy Central’s bona fides as America’s premiere laugh factory. Quickly after Jon Stewart took The Daily Show over from O.G. host Craig Kilborn in 1999, he shifted its focus from pop culture to news and politics.

“Jon made The Daily Show into an institution,” Ganeless says. “But The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is over, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah begins in two weeks.”

At The Daily Show’s offices on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, there’s a general messiness about the lobby and hallways but no obvious urgency in anyone’s stride. On Monday, Sept. 28, The Daily Show will go on; the writers, producers, correspondents, and host Trevor Noah will launch the same ol’ program but with a new, yet-indeterminate vision.

In December 2014, Comedy Central signed both Noah and the comedian Hasan Minhaj on to Stewart’s Daily Show as correspondents. Despite Noah’s transition from bit player to host, Minhaj still regards his boss as a brother-in-arms. “Everybody can talk about how great his dimples look and how he is the mixed race person of the future,” Minhaj says, then underscoring that Noah’s real asset is his perspective as an ambitious outsider with his own, alternative perspective on race, privilege, civil rights, and political corruption. 

“Now, if Trevor was this crazy, prop comic that beatboxes on stage, I’d be a little concerned,” Minhaj says with a laugh. “I’d be like, ‘Oh man, how are we going to talk about the election? Are we going to bring in Justin Timberlake and have him rap the whole thing behind the desk?’”

While that particular dig at Jimmy Fallon suggests that The Daily Show isn’t at risk of celebrity trivialization, neither Noah nor anyone else at Comedy Central will confidently announce what, exactly, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah will be.

“I cannot plan my enemies nor my battles,” Noah tells me. “I’m not going to start out fighting with anybody or [targeting] a person or a network. That’s not who I am.”

But isn’t that what The Daily Show is?

“When it rains on you in America, it’s going to rain on me. I don’t have some South African umbrella. I’m in it.”
—Trevor Noah

In 2011, the comedian Anthony Anderson—now starring alongside Tracee Ellis Ross in ABC’s black-ish—co-produced a documentary about the life and professional debut of the young, sensational, South African stand-up comedian Trevor Noah. The documentary’s title, You Laugh But It’s True, is a nod to Noah’s earliest solo stand-up comedy special, The Daywalker, which he had debuted in 2009.

Noah’s pedigree is famously complicated and taboo. His father is Swiss. His mother, Patricia, is Xhosa. (Like the late Madiba.) Noah, 31, was born in 1984; his parents and maternal grandmother raised him in Johannesburg during the final decade of apartheid, which prohibited miscegenation and effectively splintered his family. “I wasn’t even supposed to exist,” Noah says in You Laugh But It’s True. “I was Project X.”

Through Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the de Klerk government’s dissolution of apartheid in the following years, Noah lived with his father in Hillbrow, which was, at the time, a “whites-only” neighborhood in downtown Johannesburg. (“My mom had to act like she was the maid,” Noah recalls.) After his father returned to Switzerland in the early ’90s, Noah lived in his grandmother’s living room in Soweto, a black municipality that was effectively segregated from the rest of Johannesburg until 2002.

Noah attended a private, Catholic high school at Maryvale College in Johannesburg. At 18, after a brief acting stint on the South African soap opera Isidingo, Noah found work as a host of local radio and TV programs. In his downtime, Noah drove a cab in Johannesburg—until he lost his taxi in a carjacking.

In You Laugh But It’s True, he speaks of his earliest interest in local comedy clubs as the initially half-hearted recourse of a kid who grew up watching imports of American comedy. "So many great comedians that have come to South Africa were guys I never knew of. Not famous names or anything. Just great comedians," he recalls. "I just wanted to experience that for myself—to see what it was like to be a road comic working tiny clubs every single day of the weekend." For a few years, Noah made a living by performing profanity-free gigs for corporate clients while also playing comedy clubs. As Noah refined his material and located his racial ambiguity as the core of his appeal, he joined a generation of young, black, post-apartheid comedians who mine South Africa’s recently atrocious past for laughs and reconciliation. That subject matter red some resentment among Noah’s white South African rivals, including stand-up comedy veteran Mel Miller, who describes Noah as "arrogant."

When discussing adversity, Noah tends to speak in big, transcendent, conciliatory themes. “I’m blessed,” he says. “It’s not a mistake that I speak languages. It’s because of my mom. It’s not a mistake that I’m comfortable traveling the world and talking to new people. It’s because of my dad. It’s not a mistake that I relate to a bunch of different people. It’s because I’m mixed. I’ve been kicked out by white people. I’ve been kicked out by black people. I’ve been kicked out by people who look like me, but then it turns out I’m not like them. I know what it’s like to be out.”

As spectacle, Noah’s early success resembles the ascent of Barack Obama in America politics: here we see a mixed-race, light-skinned, handsome, charismatic, persuasive but equally empathetic wunderkind triangulating his way to international prominence. (I should note that Noah is 23 years younger than President Obama, but both men are relatively young for their station within their respective professions.) Noah’s four stand-up comedy specials—Daywalker (2009), Crazy Normal (2011), That’s Racist (2012), and African-American (2013)—frequently cast him as a bewildered political observer at home, and similarly perplexed tourist of Pretoria, Zambia, London, and Hollywood.

In 2013, Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president of content and original programming, and Stewart both launched separate campaigns to recruit Noah to Comedy Central. “Jon is the person who lured me in,” Noah recalls. “I got a random phone call one day, when I was in London. He said, ‘Hey, my name is Jon Stewart, and I got a show called The Daily Show.’ I was like, ‘I know who you are.’” Stewart was initially interested in featuring Noah as a guest on The Daily Show, with hopes of signing him on as an at-large correspondent as Noah ramped up his international touring.

Noah declined Stewart’s overtures. “When you get to the point where you are selling out 5,000-seat venues, you take that seriously,” Noah explains. “I had just achieved that, so at the time the [Daily Show] job wasn’t right for me.”

While Noah was touring abroad, Noah and Stewart kept up a semi-regular correspondence with one another. “As comedians, we got along,” Noah says, recounting the moment when he finally, stubbornly, succumbed to Stewart’s invitation to the Daily Show. The two had been vigorously debating some bit of the news cycle. “Not an argument,” Noah clarifies, “but we were both passionate about it. He was like, ‘You’ve got to come on the show!’ In the heat of the moment, I was like, ‘Yeah! I’ll come on the show!’ After that moment I was like, ‘Damn you, Jon Stewart! You tricked me!’”

Their rapport aside, Noah and Stewart are hardly twins in their comedic sensibilities. Take, for instance, the notorious Crossfire massacre of 2004, when Jon Stewart disemboweled hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala before a studio audience on CNN’s own turf. It is difficult to imagine that Noah, who rarely swears, would eviscerate two clumsy pundits so intimately, and with such unregulated nerve. Where Stewart voiced exasperation and disgust, Noah is the sort of comic who’d counter fools like Carlson and Begala with endearing, diplomatic rebuttals, and a smirk. As easily as one could imagine Noah hosting The Daily Show, one could just as easily envision him hosting NBC’s Nightly News in place of Lester Holt.

Noah’s graceful nonchalance is, at times, confounding. In You Laugh But It’s True, there’s footage of Noah with fellow stand-up comic Rabin Harduth on a living room couch, with Noah offering feedback on the first few minutes of Harduth’s routine. "As a comedian, you can smile while people are dying,” Noah advises at one point, then revealing to Harduth (whose father was murdered long ago) that his mother’s ex-husband had recently shot her in the back of her head. Harduth, hearing this, is initially unsure whether Noah is being truthful and serious, or whether he’s simply misheard him. When Noah repeats himself, he’s nonetheless dispassionate.

Accordingly, Noah’s colleagues all tend to describe him as “unflappable.” Kent Alterman going so far as to wonder whether Trevor Noah is “a cyborg,” incapable of being fazed, frustrated, or faded. Even when addressing the backlash to his old, #problematic tweets, Noah is at plain, analytical peace with the world. “I can’t begrudge the media,” he says, “because people have to write a story. I understand how newsrooms work.”

In The Daily Show’s control room, a couple dozen Sony flatscreen TVs fill the wide, back wall. The screens are on but the boxes are black, the room dim as a result of their vacancy. Noah is lit by our camera’s flashes. As Noah vogues and adjusts the knot of his skinny tie, our photographer asks him whether he’s nervous. Noah lifts his chin, and the bulb flashes, revealing a shit-eating grin as his reply.

In a recent New York Times profile of Comedy Central, the journalist Jonah Weiner revealed that Chris Rock had considered succeeding Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but only on the condition that he would host no later than Nov. 8, 2016, the date of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. While that contingency plan was, ultimately, a no-go, fans have wondered (via social media and in various comments section) whether Rock’s interlude as host would’ve softened the impact of Stewart’s departure and, coincidentally, given the network an extra year to groom a permanent anchor.

Since he’s come fresh from his barber’s chair to the control room, it’s tough for me to discern what additional grooming Trevor Noah could possibly need.

Nonetheless, Noah empathizes with the resistance to such abrupt and uncertain change. “If we went straight from monkey to man,” Noah says, “the rest of us monkeys would kill that man. They would go, ‘You are a freak of nature. You need to die.’ But we evolve.”

Alas: The late-night comedy landscape—and the general profession of comedy—isn’t as progressive or inclusive as the term “evolution” might suggest. A recent Vanity Fair photo shoot featured 10 late-night hosts, all of them men, and the only black voices among them were Noah and The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore—both of whom are on Comedy Central. While critics call for greater diversity in programming and hiring, casting and writers’ rooms have evolved at a much less swift and inspiring pace. 

“Something like Meek Mill and Drake beef is relevant to Trevor [Noah]’s life and my life, and we can draw
those analogies.”
—Hasan Minhaj, Daily Show correspondent

Generationally, however, Comedy Central’s programming is comprehensively ahead of the network’s competitors: NBC, ABC, CBS, and, arguably, even HBO. It’s in this context that Stewart had lately begun to stick out as a withering mascot for Comedy Central, a network that’s recently resurged on the strength of young comedians Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), and Hannibal Buress. Where Millennials once looked to Gen Xers as their favorite entertainers—comedians like Stewart, Rock, and Dave Chappelle; artists like Kurt Cobain and Kanye West—the launch of Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO in spring 2012 marks the moment when, finally, Millennials were laughing at themselves.

Jon Stewart was 36 years old when he inherited The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn; he’s now 52, still handsome but dated as a grey patrician who adores Bruce Springsteen. As early contributors Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Samantha Bee left The Daily Show for even greener pastures, the generational gap between Stewart and his pool of correspondents expanded.

“There are certain things that Jon didn’t talk about because it wasn’t his experience,” Minhaj explains. “Something like Meek Mill and Drake beef is relevant to Trevor’s life and my life, and we can draw those analogies.”

As his exponential trajectory suggests, Noah is quite like Jason Bourne in how quickly and instinctively he’s learned his seven languages, his trade, his accents, his impersonations, and the bounds of his ambition. “He’s savvy and he processes information quickly, and he has spent so much time living and traveling and touring in this country,” Alterman says. “His point of view is going to be way less ‘outsider’ than people would ever imagine.”

British comedian John Oliver, formerly a correspondent and guest-host for The Daily Show and currently host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is the nearest kin to a guy like Trevor. Oliver is a white Brit who’s reliably, theatrically aghast when explaining the dramas and idiosyncrasies of U.S. elections, Congress, the state of Florida, and whatnot. Even 53-year-old Wilmore is, effectively, an outsider—an old black man addressing a young, white demographic. (Craig Ferguson, a Scot, recently ended his 10-year run hosting CBS’ Late Late Show, yielding his desk to English comedian James Corden.)

In the unabashed madness that is our national political theater, you’d think foreignness would be an asset; especially such as it radiates from a young, handsome, charismatic black man who survived the conclusion of South African apartheid. It is strange, then, that Noah and the executives at Comedy Central are so precisely opposed to emphasizing Noah’s foreign, first-gen perspective on our news.

Perhaps the fear is that The Daily Show’s otherwise progressive audience is as averse to change as anyone else. “If an actor leaves and they switch him for another actor,” Noah says, “my first reaction is, ‘This is never going to be the same! I can’t watch this show! It’s horrible!’” He cites Spin City, which, in its fifth season, replaced lead actor Michael J. Fox with Charlie Sheen. Noah says, “A few years later, they are doing a look back, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot that dude played that character.’”

There’s an unfortunate upshot of that comparison: Sheen lasted just a couple seasons until Spin City lost a few other cast members and, well, the plot, leading ABC to scrap the show altogether.

Television is a fickle business, and, according to Michele Ganeless, Comedy Central’s core late-night audience is restless like never before. “The world has evolved. The audience has evolved. The news cycle is different than it was 17 years ago, when Jon took over,” she explains. “It’s no longer a 24-hour news cycle; it’s a 24-second news cycle.”

In Ganeless and Alterman’s common estimation, this generational shift isn’t just a matter of attitudes and brands of humor, but broader adjustment of how The Daily Show’s viewers engage with the world. “Jon elevated that show to the level that I don’t need to describe,” Alterman says. “But [his Daily Show] was focused on skewering the American political process and the media coverage of politics from the viewpoint of the 24-hour cable news network.”

“That is the new world order of television and content,” Ganeless adds.

In such a hyperactively polarized paradigm, the best-case forecast is that Trevor Noah’s prevailing calm will form the eye of the storm. Still, Noah rebukes my repeated suggestions that he is, to his potential benefit and distinction, an outsider. “When it rains on you in America, it’s going to rain on me. I don’t have some South African umbrella,” he says. “I’m in it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that John Hodgman left The Daily Show. He in fact is still part of the News Team. 

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