EXCLUSIVE: Why Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show' Isn't a Place for Playing Games

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With an unyielding news cycle churning around President Donald Trump and other heads of state, like Turkish President Erdoğan, Trevor Noah has found his stride as host of The Daily Show, erasing any apprehension over Jon Stewart’s departure. Each episode, he leaps between topics like Erdoğan possibly ordering violence against American protestors on U.S. soil to Trump signing things that look like bills but are actually just memos he’d like to send to Congress with ease because, honestly, unrest often breeds the best jokes.

As a child in South Africa during Apartheid, Noah writes in his book, Born a Crime, that he was the product of an illegal relationship between his black mother and white father when interracial dating and marriage was outlawed. Instead of playing outside like most kids, he was kept indoors, and when he walked on the street with his mother, she dressed like his nanny to avoid questions. Noah credits his mother for her strength and sense of humor in the face of shocking situations like being shot in the face, after which she told him that he was now the best looking person in the family.

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With that influence, Noah made a career as a popular comedian on the world stage before joining The Daily Show as a correspondent. In September 2015, he was given the coveted opportunity to fill Stewart’s shoes -- a transition that was met with intense scrutiny and media attention. And in some ways, it was almost as if people had forgotten that Stewart, not much older than Noah at the time, had taken over the gig from Craig Kilborn. 

Now, a over a year and a half as host, Noah is now drawing record viewer numbers, averaging 1.05 million during the week of May 15. As he continues to strengthen his stride, Noah has picked up a Writers Guild Award nomination and the MTV Award for Best Host in 2017, with the promise of adding more hardware to his trophy shelf.

“I acknowledge the prestige that comes with winning an award, whether it is an MTV Award or an Emmy, but I don’t only work for those things,” Noah says. “But I do acknowledge that recognition helps everyone who comes together to make the show. I don’t take that for granted at all.”

Following his record week on air, ET spoke with Noah about how to engage with those he doesn’t agree with, how he handles shifting public opinions and his responsibilities to viewers.

ET: At the beginning of last year, it was reported by some outlets that The Daily Show was floundering, and last month, you attracted more viewers than your debut week in September 2015. How do you handle the shift in public opinion?

Trevor Noah: I’ve learned that I can’t control what people think I’m thinking or what they think I think of the show; all I can do is make the show. The only people I have to be worried about are the fans; the press is going to press.

With so much breaking news each day, is your head spinning to keep the show timely?

If anything, I enjoy it. I used to get so sad whenever House of Cards finished, and now I feel like I’m watching House of Cards every single day. This is the pace of news that I’m used to in South Africa, my President Jacob Zuma has the ability, very similar to Donald Trump, to create a lot of news at one time.

Are you exhausted?

Oh, no. I tell people that if you’re doing stand-up right you should be chilling. That’s where I go to be by myself and enjoy myself with an audience. Stand-up is where I go to be completely at peace with myself. 

You interviewed conservative online commentator Tomi Lahren, and some accused you of normalizing her views. Do you feel it was akin to Jimmy Fallon playing with Trump’s hair and normalizing his platform?

You’ve got to be careful. Are you giving a platform or are you engaging? There’s a distinction between the two; that’s often why we’re criticizing the news. If your views have not been challenged, then you were handed a platform. But if people now recognize you for the hypocrite you are, then I would safely say that’s what debate is all about. You can’t exist in a political space and not talk to people you don’t agree with -- then you’re in the world of self-congratulation, not in a world of engagement.

It’s different [from] if I was playing games with people. Then, appearing on my show could be considered a platform because there is no way that you’re going to walk away unscathed. But if you come on my show -- whether you’re John Kasich or Ben Carson or Tomi Lahren -- I will have you on the show because I wish to engage you and your views.

A lot of people are confident when no one’s talking back to them, and that’s what it’s about as well. You say we got flack for that interview, and I’d say that we got more praise for it. You need to be willing to go head to head with a person you completely disagree with, and if [their opinion] is the truth, it should be able to stand up.

Is there anyone else whose ideas you’d like to challenge?

There are a few, but now they don’t want to come on the show anymore. Before Trump was a serious contender and in [the White House], we had Republicans on and we’d have conversations that were really spirited about their views and ours. It was fun, but I won’t lie to you, once Trump got in, everyone became afraid. We had Omarosa booked and then at the last minute, she pulled out on us. I’d love to have Speaker Paul Ryan or Senator Mitch McConnell on, but I think we’re in an age where people don’t want to engage.

Is there a line you won’t cross when covering Trump?

I will always afford Donald Trump the respect of the presidency, but as a person, there’s still a level of respect he has to earn. When making the jokes on the show, I don’t set out to be particularly disrespectful, and if I can’t make jokes based on what he’s done or said, if I have to dig to a personal level, then I’m failing. There are so many real things that Donald Trump has done that I don’t need to make up anything to bolster my comedy. I stay in the space where I’m not trying to be mean for the sake of being mean, rather I’m using the comedy to say something.

Is it weird watching racism tear apart America in the same way colonialism has torn apart England?

It’s weird but it’s standard. People don’t often look at history; everyone acts like they’re living in an isolated period of time that has nothing to do with another period of time. When I see that, I can only laugh. Everything has a cause and effect.

When it comes to all of these conversations and what’s happening in America, the key is to provide context, because a lot of young people don’t know. For many, they are experiencing this for the first time. They don’t know the history of how things came to be or how laws come to be made. That’s a space I enjoy being in: I get to ask questions that everyone feels they know the answer to but oftentimes, they don’t.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your debut as host until now?

The biggest thing I’ve learned is the same thing I learned from stand-up comedy: You don’t let the good shows get to your head and you don’t let the bad shows get to your heart. You have to keep creating what you feel you would want to create and you have to strive to be in the place that you’d always want to be in. That’s all I can do.

Is that what sets you apart from the other Daily Show alumni

The biggest difference between me and many of them is that I’m probably the only person that doesn’t share a distinct DNA with Jon Stewart. The way I see the world and how I’ve been trained in it is different. I remember Jon said his favorite thing about me was that I wasn’t going to try to emulate him in any way. I want you to watch The Daily Show in two or three years and say, “Man, that show is completely different. It’s trying to do something that is still similar -- in that we’re still calling out BS -- but in a completely different way.”

Have you thought about an end date at all?

I’ll know it when I see it. This is my journey, this is my world. It’s a responsibility and an opportunity. I don’t take it for granted.

I’ve got a platform and I have people who appreciate the many voices that are represented by the show. I remember one young man said to me in an airport, “Hey man, I just wanted to say thank you because if it wasn’t for you, I don’t know where I’d be seeing anyone in the mainstream talking about the police shooting black people, because you guys aren’t afraid to talk about it.” That’s a space that needs to be occupied and I’ve come to realize that it’s something I don’t have to be afraid of or ashamed about.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.