Jon Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show after 16 years and umpteen Emmys left a pair of pretty big shoes to fill, and some were surprised when a relatively unknown 31-year-old South African comedian and sometime Daily Show contributor named Trevor Noah got the job.
But as anyone who’s seen his standup act can attest, he’s bitingly funny and not afraid to tackle politics, racism and hot button social issues head-on, which should serve him well in his role as host of the fake news program, which returns to Comedy Central tonight at 11/10c with Kevin Hart as the first guest.
For Noah, the tricky part is honoring Stewart’s legacy while making the show his own. He shared his plans for doing just that in this enlightening conversation.
“I look at the show like a car: this is the updated model, but you should still be able to see the classic signatures.”
How do you compare your hosting style to Jon Stewart’s?
I will be coming from a different place. I’m a lot more inquisitive, I guess. I’m positive, more playful with things. I don’t claim to have the 16 years of experience Jon has so I’d do it in a different way but hope to get to truth in a comedic way. I look at the show like a car: this is the updated model, but you should still be able to see the classic signatures. I understand there will be comparisons. My intention is to start something off the way he did at the same age many years ago. Luckily, I have a foundation that has been set up by a wonderfully smart and funny man.
Are your politics in line with his?
If they weren’t, I don’t think Jon would have picked me to do the show. It was very organic—the way we met, the way we started working together. We found common ground. He’s a white Jewish guy who grew up in Jersey on the other side of the world. I’m a half-black, half-white kid who grew in Soweto, and yet we see eye to eye on many issues. Our looking glasses are from a different perspective. I’m a black person that grew up in a different world. But as progressives, we’re striving toward the same goal.
Did Jon give you any advice?
He said, “Make the best show that you feel needs to be made.” Very sage advice, and I’ll figure it out.
Do you feel nervous, any pressure?
The biggest pressure for me is living up to the expectations that Jon has of me. Jon believes in me. There’s immense pressure for me personally to live up to that legacy, to keep the flagship going. For me, it’s all about the show. But I’m the person that people are looking at. I understand that. So that’s where my pressure comes from.
What kinds of things do you want to update or add?
I think of it as an evolution, as opposed to a revolution. Things will change a little bit but we’re not going for a major overhaul. I’m looking at a way to incorporate more of the newer media but still keeping the core of what the show is. The Daily Show is comedy, but it’s still the truth. You’re using humor to tackle issues. So that’s something I’ll never let go. Is it interesting? Is it funny? Then it’s going to be on The Daily Show. We’ll be covering the elections, obviously that will be part of it. As someone who can’t vote, I have no horse in the race, which opens up an interesting point of view. I hope Trump stays in for not so long that it becomes a problem, but long enough that we get to have fun with it.
Does your perspective as a non-American give you any advantage?
I’m from South Africa, but because I’m living in America, I’m affected by the same stories, the same potholes, the same traffic. I have some of the same fears around policemen. You start to learn that you have so much more in common and where you came from is less relevant. It’s just my point of view that may be different.
When did you know you were funny?
I’ve always known I liked making people laugh. Because I grew up as an outsider, I always knew that that’s the one thing that bridged the gap. If you laugh with somebody, then you share something. I think I only realized comedy was a viable thing for me when I was 22 years old, and a friend said, “I think you should try this.” I never thought it was anything I would ever try and do.
Which comedians influenced you?
In standup, the Richard Pryors of the world, and political satire I learned from Jon Stewart.
You came under fire for saying some ill-advised things as a younger comic, which people are still commenting on. Any lessons learned?
I don’t strive to be offensive. That’s not who I am as a person. That’s not who I am as a performer, but you can never control what people find offensive or not. The great thing about touring the world is you start to learn that it’s less about the subject matter and more about the angle that you tackle it from. The show is based in America and it’s coming from an American point of view, so I will always be cognizant of that. I’m lucky that I’ve done a lot of shows in America that I think have slowly informed me as to what works and what doesn’t.
What was your childhood like?
My life wasn’t the easiest life. I grew up in a home where there was domestic abuse. I grew up in a country where I witnessed violence almost daily—violence in society, violence in and around the way the police treated people. But I also saw my mother come out of that domestic abusive relationship. I see her as a beautiful woman today who’s come through it and still smiles and finds reasons to laugh. I see a country that’s come out of that madness into something that is progressive. It’s still challenging, but it is leap years ahead of the way it was when I was a young child.
Does it give you a unique perspective?
Yes. The way I see things has always been from both sides. I always try to interpret it in different ways. There are things that make me angry, but I like to think before I speak or act. I think growing up mixed is a beautiful thing. The more diverse we get, our conversations become more rounded. Barack Obama was a big part of that.
Are you planning any standup appearances?
My focus is the show now so I’ve cut down most of my dates if not all of them.
But you will return to it?
Of course. I’ve done comedy all over the world, anywhere there’s a stage. Anywhere people want to laugh and have fun, I’ll be there.
Photo by Peter Yang/Comedy Central
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