We Talk To Trevor Noah About Trump And How Hosting ‘The Daily Show’ Is A “Gift And A Curse”
"I accept that [talking about mass shootings] has now become a part of what I do."
Trevor Noah, the motor-mouthed host of The Daily Show, is a bit of a study in contradictions. South African-born, to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father, Noah is known for his brazen comedy, which is often focused on race and identity. After nearly a year as host of The Daily Show – heir presumptive to long-reigning favourite Jon Stewart, who hosted for 17 years before Noah took the reins – Noah’s cheeky persona is becoming a comedic touchstone for American (and international) viewers.
But when I chat to Noah over the phone, he seems startlingly different to how we’ve come to know him on-screen; now he’s a more careful, quieter comedian. Though perhaps that’s just because he’s exhausted: The Daily Show, which airs Monday to Thursday every week for a large portion of the year, is one of stalwarts of late-night TV. The series has regularly made headlines, both during Stewart’s reign and through Noah’s first year on-air, for its ‘blistering take-downs’ and its careful blend of silly/caustic political commentary.
“It’s been insane,” Noah says. He’s just come off set after filming another episode, and as we chat he stifles a yawn or two. “I did not anticipate it being this taxing on the body. And that’s just the daily [filming of the] show. But I talked to my fellow late-night cohorts and it’s a common thing where people go: ‘Yep, it’s a lot harder than you think’.”
Life Before The Daily Show
To some, it might seem like Noah came out of nowhere; but he is an accomplished stand-up comedian and performing all-rounder. Before his time on The Daily Show he hosted a weekly talk show in South Africa, Tonight with Trevor Noah. “It’s very different,” he says. “I mean, I was doing a weekly show, and I was doing that in South Africa. I think the biggest difference is the volume, and also the audience. I don’t create [The Daily Show] like I’m creating it specifically for the US, but rather from the US for the world.”
Since taking over The Daily Show, Noah has indeed tried to steer the show toward a more “global perspective”, as well as reaching out to a younger audience. “That’s just because we’re building a new relationship,” he says. “So we’re delving into some topics for the first time, we’re engaging in conversations that the show maybe wouldn’t have before.”
Noah has done everything from stand up and hosting a gossip show, to a role on the South African soap opera Isidingo, which was his television debut. In person, he seems more introspective. This might come as a surprise to those who followed the exposure, soon after the announcement of Noah’s Daily Show gig, of some rather thoughtless tweets unearthed from his Twitter history. I ask Noah whether his comedic style has changed with the new job.
“I think it has, to a certain extent,”he says. “Or what’s happening is a merging of the two worlds. So on one hand it’s my style slowly melding into the show, and the show in some ways affecting how I approach my stand-up.”
Noah still performs stand-up, even with his commitments to The Daily Show. In August he’s coming to Australia to tour in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. “I’m super excited,” he says. “I love coming out to Oz. I think Australia was one of the first places that I went to and had a solid time doing comedy.” Noah first performed in the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2013 and was nominated for a Barry Award. “Australia is a place where I’ve really connected with the audience,” he says.
Interestingly, Noah still considers stand-up to be “purest form of what I do” due to its tangible connection to his audience. TV is a different kind of challenge. “You learn every single day,” he says. “It’s different every single day.”
Late Night TV As Social Justice
One of those challenges is finding the right balance for the show, between, as Noah puts is, “comedy and commentary”. “Some people have an idea of what they think The Daily Show should be. As you know, some people think it’s purely a comedy show that’s satirical; other people wish for it to be a vehicle for social justice. So it’s about finding the balance and figuring out what are the best shows to put out there.”
In many ways, late-night TV is a vehicle for social justice, not just in America, where socio-political commentary from the likes of John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert go viral, but also in Australia, with our news satirists and commentators: Charlie Pickering, Shaun Micallef and recent Gold Logie-winner Waleed Aly. Unfortunately this mantle also means that Noah is called on to commentate horrific political events, like the recent mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando.
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) June 14, 2016
“That’s the gift and the curse of having a platform: having an opportunity to speak out in these situations. And so in my head I go: ‘If we can spend time connecting with people and trying to give them, I guess, any solace, then that’s a show well done’,” he says. “So in those situations I accept that it’s now become a part of what I do, and all I do is try and build the relationship with the people who watch the show because at the end of the day I have these conversations with my friends, so it’s trying to get to the place where we’re connecting and humans, more than just as an audience and a host.”
“My role is to, in a funny way, engage with the truth and then present that to an audience. That’s literally all I’m trying to do.”
Looming on the American psyche (and on the minds of the world at large) is the upcoming US election, which makes tiring work for any political commentator. “It’s a great time to start, right?” Noah quips. “Thrown straight into the deep end with Donald Trump, why not?”
“The challenge in this election is just how big the swing is in terms of entertainment. On one side you have a candidate who is just really a professional politician, who, yes, has her moments of controversy or scandal; but then on the other side you’ve got Donald Trump, who is just completely adverse to not being in the news,” he says.
“If a day goes by and he doesn’t have a news story, he finds a way to get back in, which is really impressive and scary at the same time. So that’s been the biggest challenge: trying to find a way to talk about the entire election without just focusing on Donald Trump because he is that pervasive.”
Although Noah often thinks in terms of “day-to-day, week-to-week” about his work on The Daily Show, he’s able to reflect well on his first year in the hosting chair. “I think the best part of my job now is seeing any moment where the show connects with someone,” he says. “Any moment where I see someone say, ‘the show changed something for me’, or ‘thank you for speaking to an issue’, or ‘thank you for making me laugh’.”
“Sometimes just people keeping people company, them using the show as a friend. I think those are the moments for me where I realise how much I appreciate it.”
Trevor Noah Live
Melbourne: August 31 and September 1 at the Palais Theatre.
Sydney: August 28 at the Sydney Opera House.
Brisbane: August 23 at the Brisbane Convention at Exhibition Centre.
Perth: August 25 at Perth Arena.
Get tickets here.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.