Talk about trying to fill enormous shoes. On September 28th, viewers of The Daily Show will find a new face behind Jon Stewart’s freshly vacated desk: Trevor Noah, a smart, politically minded stand-up comedian from South Africa who’s huge abroad but an almost entirely unknown quantity here. Stewart transformed the politically minded talk show into a late-night institution. The challenge for Noah, 31, is to honor what his forebear accomplished while ushering the show into a new era — one in which social-media drives news cycles as much as, if not more than, Stewart’s old cable-news foils, and one where programmers are scrambling to attract as many millennial eyeballs as possible. Here, the host talks about where he’s from — and where he wants The Daily Show to go.
What can people can expect from your first episode?
The first episode will be a reintroduction of the show — but you can’t just go off one episode like, Oh I know what this is about, I know what this is. It takes a lot more time. You’re building a relationship. So what we’re doing is dividing the first week into a four-part miniseries that will set the tone for what we hope the show will be.
Have you spent the summer working?
Yes. It’s been a lot of preparation, preproduction, watching old shows, looking at new stuff, figuring out scripts and writing, and so on. If I have time in the evenings I’ll maybe try to catch a show on Broadway or do a bit of stand-up or whatever, then I start my next day working again. But with The Daily Show, for the most part you’re preparing to be prepared when something happens. It’s not like we can write the shows now.
You began your stand-up career in post-apartheid South Africa, which means you came to comedy as an inherently political act. Standing on a stage and telling jokes about your life as a mixed-race man was radical to the degree that it would have likely been criminal a decade earlier. How has that stayed with you?
I’ve always seen comedy as a fantastic bastion of free speech. But I think over time, by traveling, and through meeting other comedians, I’ve also come to learn and enjoy comedy about the mundane: Sometimes it’s just great to make people laugh about something really stupid. It’s not just about serious issues. That’s the enjoyment of it — finding a place where you round it all out, and this is what I want the show to be.
On the subject of free speech, people like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have complained recently about what they see as the chilling effect of a new strain of political correctness on comedy — they argue that some people who are interested in social justice, of a certain generation, can’t take jokes. Do you agree?
I think there’s two conversations being rolled into one. The side that I think Jerry and Chris are referring to isn’t really political correctness — it refers more to a machine of outrage and a hunger for outrage that has become popular. Everybody wants to speak out on everything, and everybody wants to be offended about something. Instead of getting off their asses and actually being a part of some sort of movement, they just want to put a hashtag on it and go, “This is my stamp, this is me supporting something.” And that’s not really activism.
At the same time, we evolve a lot as people and as a society. If you look at jokes that were acceptable 10, 20 years ago, like the way comics referred to certain groups — minorities, people of certain sexual orientations — you go, Wow, I can’t believe that was a normal thing to say. At certain points we say, Hey that’s actually not acceptable. We shouldn’t have been doing that or saying that!
When it comes to that outrage machine, sometimes there’s a lack of precision in how we deal with and respond to comedic speech, as distinct from other kinds of public speech.
Think of comedy like a research laboratory: The things we are doing in there are not for everyone to be doing. It’s not what everyone can be doing. That’s why you do it in the space of a comedic environment. But now because of the social-media world we live in, people take it out of there and now you’ve got somebody basically running around with a test tube in the middle of the street, and that’s not the place that a test tube should be. It should have stayed in the research laboratory.
Over the last few years, racism and specifically racist police violence have dominated our national conversation. One idea that’s taken hold is that America, 239 years in, remains a white-supremacist nation. As someone who grew up under an explicitly white-supremacist regime, do you see it that way?
I wouldn’t say America is a white-supremacist country, but I believe America suffers from a level of institutionalized racial segregation. And the effect of that is very similar to South Africa: It’s difficult to remedy that instantly. If you look at the legacy of slavery, if you look at the legacy of oppression…I mean even if you just look at women’s rights, take a step away from racial issues: Society has a long way to go in terms of getting women equal pay, equal recognition in the workplace, and so on. And yet women have been “free” for many years. Freedom is almost the first step, which a lot of people don’t realize. A lot of people who aren’t particularly progressive think that freedom is the end, but you don’t realize that freedom is really the beginning of the conversation. Freedom and equality are two totally different conversations.
Wyatt Cenac recently told a powerful story about the acrimonious end of his time working on The Daily Show — he was the only black person in the writer’s room at that time, and had an extremely heated disagreement with Stewart about his Herman Cain impression, which Cenac thought lapsed into an ugly stereotype. He says their relationship never really recovered. Is increasing the diversity of the show, both onscreen and off, important to you?
Oh definitely! Because that’s a big part of who I am. I myself am a diverse human being: I’ve been mixed in blood and in my cultural upbringing, so I believe in that. And when a story comes out that you’re going to cover, it’s nice to have a voice that has a direct connection to it. You can directly go, “How does this feel for you?”
What does that mean practically?
Well, already we have people coming in and the racial diversity of the correspondents has gone up dramatically. I won’t tell you who they are but you will see them. Gender-wise, we’ve got a ton of great female writers, too. In the new submissions, 40 percent of the final writers we decided to go with are female. And finding those voices is difficult but we’re lucky in that I’ve worked with great people of every color and I’ve worked with fantastic female writers as well. So we’re bringing that into the room.
As a practitioner of political comedy, how thankful are you for the continued campaigning success of Donald Trump?
[Laughs] He is a gift and a curse. To a certain extent, Donald Trump makes it almost too easy: He is giving you the joke and it’s nice to get the joke — but sometimes it’s nice to work for the joke! Maybe he was just a farewell present to Jon Stewart.