Why Trevor Noah Sees 'The Daily Show' as a Reprieve From All the Outrage (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Since taking over as host of The Daily Show in September 2015, Trevor Noah has comfortably assumed the duties of delivering the news with a mix of wit, satire and deference that has made the longtime Comedy Central program a late-night success. Any apprehensions about Jon Stewart’s departure have been erased with the South African comedian firmly in his stride as host, pulling in record ratings last year and expanding the show’s digital presence with Between the Scenes, which shows what happens when the broadcast cuts to commercial and won a 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Variety Series.
Outside of the show, Noah wrote the autobiographical comedy book Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, detailing his life growing up in post-apartheid South Africa as a biracial person. The book was recently optioned for a film adaptation starring Lupita Nyong'o as his mother. The actress most recently appeared in Black Panther, in which Noah has a voice cameo as computer program Griot.
In a conversation with ET, Noah talks about filtering out the “garbage,” maintaining a balance in tone amid a toxic news cycle -- a Donald Trump presidency, the devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the horrific gun shootings around the nation -- that often makes it hard to see the humor in anything, and how the show has created a unique platform for its many guests.
ET: In the current news cycle, what is the decision process for determining what to cover?
Trevor Noah: I think when deciding what to cover on the show, there are a combination of facts that I like to consider: What is newsworthy, what is informative, what is original and what is entertaining. And I try to tick as many of those boxes as possible, because I understand that fundamentally that I'm making a television show -- first and foremost -- so keeping people engaged and entertained is a core purpose of the show. I then understand that beneath the entertainment, many people tune into the show because they want a point of view, they want to be enriched, they want their knowledge to be expanded. So it's trying to figure out what combination of factors is touched on by the story of the day.
Given the current news cycle, there’s so much of what I call garbage or noise. When you think about the parameters you just laid out, are there things you just won’t cover?
There are many stories where I don't cover the fringe elements of them. I don't cover the more salacious stuff that comes out of the Russia investigation. I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories. If anything, I'll use them as fodder for jokes. So I'll make the same joke about Donald Trump with Russian hookers as I would about Barack Obama and his birth certificate. I think both of them are crazy, outlandish stories and I treat them accordingly, and that's my point of view. So, when looking through the stuff, what I do sometimes is take what's quote-unquote trash and I will use that to burn the coal that I consider to be the real story. And that's what I think helps propel the show forward. I mean, the same thing goes for the Stormy Daniels story. I wasn't a fan of covering it initially because I felt like that was between Donald Trump, his wife and his world. When it became a campaign ethics violation and became a story that escaped the parameters of just an affair that happened before the presidency, then we cover that story accordingly.
When it comes to tragedies like Parkland, Florida and the other deadly gun shootings, is it hard to decide when to cover and how to cover? Because I think a lot people turn to you for the comedy, but you also have to meet that with some deference.
It is difficult to figure out how to cover it and when to cover it because we live in a world where achieving the balance between sensationalism and acknowledgement is a fine line. I never want to be seen to be creating the show based on the pain of a massacre or a tragedy. But I also don't want to be seen to be ignoring it. So finding that balance is really important, too. I think, if anything, I've become comfortable in presenting the views and the feelings we've had within the show onscreen on those days. Because that's what The Daily Show really is: an expression of my opinion informed, in many ways, and shaped by the people around me because we're a community within this building and we're a family. So, it's giving you an impression of how we feel about what has happened.
There’s been a lot of conversation about what comedy means in a world of polarized nations, a Donald Trump presidency and the tragedies that have happened. Do you feel like what comedy is has changed? Does it still have the same kind of value?
Well, I think in many ways, comedy exists as a constant. But because comedy is reacting to the world around it, the cutting nature of comedy changes depending on the environment it is set within. So, comedy before Trump would definitely not be seen as confrontational or as cutting because when there is not much to talk about, benign observations are generally the order of the day. When there is something that's happening to people, when there's an element of fear or discomfort, that's when comedy has more of a reaction. It's like a chemical reaction -- you combine fear, you combine discomfort. With comedy, you have this explosion of relief, which is generally expressed through a laugh or a gasp. So, I think great comedy is commenting on the time that it is within. It's a snapshot of the time period. If you're living under a Donald Trump presidency, I think it's inevitable that the comedy will be as unique as the president at that time.
When you compare The Daily Show to Last Week Tonight With John Oliver or Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, where they are a weekly format and can go deeper on some topics, do you feel like you’re able to spend time on topics and give them some more attention versus having to chase the daily news cycle?
I think I find a balance. But I also understand that we have the show that we have. I talk to John Oliver about his show all the time and sometimes he goes the other way. He goes like, “Oh man, I wish I could do a daily thing because, you know, then it's done every day and then you get to do something tomorrow. And you know you have a tomorrow.” Whereas, you know, John will spend all his time on a really amazing show and then on the day, something happens and then he has to crowbar some other information in. So I always think what your gift is is what your curse will be. So what we enjoy being on this show is your one stop for processing the news. I appreciate that there are people who say, “I get my news from The Daily Show because the news is so depressing that I don't want to watch it without some sugar infused within those bites.” And that's what I'm trying to do: is create a space where you can be informed and be entertained at the same time, so you don't walk away feeling like every, single day is the end of the world.
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Speaking of John Oliver and Samantha Bee, there are times when both hosts get really angry or emotional on their shows. Whereas your demeanor is often serious but fairly calm, never letting that outrage boil over.
I grew up in a country where black people were very quickly taught that their anger would not be met with the most welcoming attitude. And when you grow up under apartheid, you realize there are different ways to navigate around an issue as opposed to hitting it head on with anger alone. You know, Nelson Mandela was a big proponent of that. So was Martin Luther King in many ways. I think oftentimes anger is a tool afforded to some and not to others and when living in America, you understand the perception that comes from being an angry person of color. You're seen as more threatening. You're seen as being more violent. So learning to navigate that is something that I think great comedy does. Something I do onstage is process the world around me. Do I get angry? Yes. Are there are things I wish to be outraged about? Definitely. There are moments where I express that on the show. What I do understand, is that people are tuning into the show because they feel the same way. So I do not wish only to exacerbate a negative feeling in society. I wish for my show to be a reprieve from that. If you are outraged, I would like you to tune into The Daily Show so we can turn that outrage into some positive energy that you can take back out into the world and keep yourself functioning. And that's what a lot people say when they watch the show. They say, “Thank you. Thank you for keeping us going. Thank you for telling a joke at time when I didn't think there was anything I could laugh about.” And for me, that's the importance of laughter. It's the anesthetic for the soul. It doesn't take what is happening away, but it helps -- just for a moment -- numb some of that pain.
When you think about the interviews you are doing, is the celebrity element less important? Or does it feel like that those celebrities coming on are willing to have more serious or topical conversations?
We're really lucky on The Daily Show in that we've set ourselves apart on the show where people can come to have a fun conversation about nothing and people can also come because they have something that they wish to speak about, an issue that is close to their hearts. So you may have a Diane Guerrero who comes on the show and talks about Orange Is the New Black and Superior Donuts,but then seamlessly transitions into talking about immigration in America and her story as a child of undocumented parents who were deported. I think having a space to share those stories beyond just the surface is what makes The Daily Show a unique and interesting space to be a part of. And so, in booking these people, Matt Damon came on, but he was coming on specifically to talk about water and access to water in and around the world and how people can help people from developing countries have access to water, a gift that many people take for granted. And he said to me after the interview, “Thank you for having me on. Nobody has had me on to talk about this.” And that's what I'm always trying to do is provide an additional space for people to interact with an audience. There are many shows that have people on, so to have an audience that's willing and receptive to exploring either an entertainer or politician in a completely new way is what I think sets The Daily Show apart.