From Pain and Tragedy to Global Empire: How Trevor Noah Became the Busiest Man in Comedy
Alexandra Gavillet

From Pain and Tragedy to Global Empire: How Trevor Noah Became the Busiest Man in Comedy

Replacing Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show' seemed like a suicide mission, but nearly four Trump-filled years in, the biracial South African star has become a best-selling author and a household name in U.S., all while keeping up a grueling stand-up schedule: “When there's no conflict, pain or tragedy, I don't know what to do."

At a sushi joint a few blocks east of The Daily Show studio this spring, Trevor Noah sits comfortably in an all-too-visible window seat contemplating a question he ducked earlier that evening: When did he stop feeling like Jon Stewart's replacement?

The late night comic begins by recounting his early days on the job, way back in 2015, when he was first thrown into the fire of daily television. To legions of Stewart loyalists, he looked like a baby-faced lightweight, unfit to succeed their liberal demigod. Noah was confident about proving them wrong — confidence has never been Noah's issue — but he worried about accessing the kind of outrage that had fueled Stewart and made his iteration culturally important. Life in Obama's America seemed pretty good to The Daily Show's new host. In fact, he often felt like a Southern California weatherman being asked to issue storm warnings despite reliably sunny skies. He needed something to combat complacency. Something to inspire him.

Then came Hurricane Trump. And that's it. On election night 2016, Noah stopped feeling like Jon Stewart's replacement.

The South African millennial, who came of age under apartheid, recognized on that November evening that he was better equipped than most to talk about this particular category storm. What seemed terrifying to so many in the Comedy Central audience felt familiar to him. Noah saw in Donald Trump the attributes and governing style of an African dictator, which he masterfully showcased in an early Daily Show segment that quickly went viral. Noah's outsider perspective was suddenly an asset.

"I know what it's like to live in a country that's extremely divided by race — where people feel like it's crashing every day and they don't trust that their president has their best interests at heart," he says now, as the sashimi platter he'd ordered arrives. "And we joke about it not to minimize it but to try and heal the wounds. Where there's no conflict, pain or tragedy, I don't know what to do. I'm a horrible superfluous comic. If anything, I'm only trained in this."

As Noah heads into another election cycle, he's no longer weighed down by comparisons to his predecessor. Now 35, and still a half-decade younger and several shades darker than any of his traditional late-night rivals, THR's Comedy Star of the Year parlayed that unique perspective into a bona fide empire. He's the centerpiece of Comedy Central's brand, locked into the show through 2022 and in partnership with its parent, Viacom, to create other projects with voices not unlike his own. His best-selling memoir, Born a Crime, which has moved more than 1 million copies since its late 2016 release, is being turned into a film, via Paramount Players, with Lupita Nyong'o attached to play his mom, Patricia; and another deeply personal book is on the way. There's a new podcast, too, along with more Netflix specials and a global arena tour that has him on the road nearly every weekend. Combined, the portfolio is said to rake in eight figures annually, making him one of the highest earners in the comedy business.

Without pandering, Noah uses his platform — be it onstage or on air — to push narratives in ways few others have or could. On the topic of police brutality, for instance, he speaks from experience, having been beaten, tear-gassed and regularly pulled over back home in South Africa. On the issue of domestic violence, he offers the harrowing family trauma of his own mother being shot in the head by her former husband, Noah's stepdad. He brings personal insight into discussions of mental health, too, openly sharing his own struggles with depression — as he does with race and racism. "The biggest difference in [being black in] the U.S. is learning how to navigate white spaces with a certain level of deftness about you," he says, citing his relationship with the cops as an example. "Where I'm from, you talk [back] to police. Here, I have to be afraid of them."

Which is not to say Noah doesn't throw up certain boundaries in conversation. Questions about his eligible bachelor status (he split from his real estate agent/model girlfriend, Jordyn Taylor, last summer) or the $20 million pad he recently purchased in Los Angeles are largely met with a "Why does anyone care?" shrug. He's more forthcoming on the subject of settling down, but that may be because he has no near-term plans to do so. "I don't want to have a child before I believe I want a child; I also don't want to be in a position where I resent either the child or The Daily Show for taking time from the other," he says. "What I've come to realize is that life is not as urgent as you think it is. So for me, right now, it's head down and grind, and I don't feel guilty like I'm abandoning or deserting anybody because I'm single. My wife is The Daily Show."

He has made time to assemble a roster of mentors and advisers, from whom he's carefully collected morsels of wisdom. It was Jay Leno, for instance, who told Noah to never stop touring ("Once you lose that muscle," the former Tonight Show host said, "you may not be able to get it back") and Chris Rock who advised not to tour too much ("If you want to be a great comedian, you've got to live life, too"). Dave Chappelle told him a lot of people can be funny but few can be interesting ("So don't forget to share who you are and your mind with the audience"), and Jerry Seinfeld said to care a little less about fitting in ("Once you're in, you're too afraid of being kicked out to make jokes").

None was as impactful as British comic Eddie Izzard, however, who was the first to urge Noah to mine his own often unbelievable life story. "If I were you," he said, "that's all I'd be talking about."

***

Noah hadn't set out to be a comic; and on the surface, little in his past seemed funny. As his book title suggests, being born to a black, South African mother and a white, Swiss-German father was evidence of a crime under apartheid. Being seen in public with either parent put the family at significant risk. His mom, who'd have to disguise herself as the maid to visit his dad, faced considerable jail time; and young Trevor, life in an orphanage.

Too white to be considered black and too black to be considered white, he found humor as a bridge between disparate worlds. But there was no obvious path to a career in comedy in the South Africa of his youth. He instead dabbled in radio, acting and deejaying, until one fateful night when, at 22, he tagged along with his cousin and a mutual pal to a comedy night in Johannesburg, where the stand-up scene was in its infancy. A few drinks in, his cousin suggested Noah was a hell of a lot funnier than any of the guys onstage; before he knew it, he was thrust up there to prove it.

Without a lick of training, Noah began telling stories. There was one about a stoner buddy of theirs, and another about an electrical shop-cum-porn shop where he'd gotten his TV fixed. He left the stage to rapturous applause. "It was like watching a baby come out of the womb knowing Shakespeare," says David Kibuuka, a South African comic who's since joined Noah at The Daily Show. And though it would be years before he could quit his paying jobs, he sought every opportunity to get back onstage.

"I was doing gigs that nobody was doing, in areas that no one else was doing them," says Noah. While his peers focused on one show a night, he'd be busy lining up four or five, sometimes driving as many as two hours between venues just to get the reps. On Izzard's advice, his material evolved from surface-level observations to considerably more personal fare. The more vulnerable he became, the more devoted his fan base grew.

By 2009, Noah had rented out a 1,100-seat theater in Johannesburg for what would be his first solo show. Nothing of its scale had been attempted in South Africa, prompting accusations of arrogance by a few fellow comics. But the show sold out, and the DVD became one of the best-selling in the country's history. "It turned into this mega cultural event," says Noah's friend David Paul Meyer, who began trailing him with documentary film cameras around that time. "You'd take a bus to a remote part of Africa, riding down a dirt path, and even there, on the bus, they'd be playing Trevor's special."

More specials would follow, along with tours that took Noah from South Africa to the U.K. He was tapped to host major awards shows, too, and a slew of reality shows, even fronting his own late night talk show for a few seasons. Before anyone knew it, Noah had become the biggest comic in South Africa, full stop. On a recent trip back for the 2018 Global Citizen Festival, which Noah hosted, his Daily Show producers got their first real glimpse of his celebrity status there: "It was like The Beatles had arrived," recalls executive producer Jen Flanz. "There were literally women and children running into the streets crying."

In time, Noah grew eager for more. So in 2011, he packed his bags for the U.S., where he'd have to start virtually from scratch. He landed coveted spots on Leno and, later, David Letterman, the first South African comic to do either, and a gig opening for Gabriel Iglesias on tour. He got to see much of America, but America didn't exactly see him — at least not to the extent he'd been seen elsewhere in the world.

By the time comic Neal Brennan caught up with him during a stop in Denver, Noah was ready to hang it up. "I think we were both making $1,500 for, like, eight shows that weekend, something crazy," says Brennan, now a Daily Show contributor, "and I remember him telling me, 'I don't think they understand, I'm a big deal in my country.' But no one cared. If they can pay you less, they will." Though he hardly needed convincing, Brennan encouraged Noah to head home, saying there was no sense in wasting his time in the U.S. — where, he acknowledged, international comics historically had struggled to break through.

Noah had been back in Johannesburg for only a year or so when Stewart's producers cued up a video of his Letterman set. They were eager to sign him as a Daily Show contributor, and they needed their boss to sign off. Stewart watched just one joke, about Noah's first trip to New York City, and did so immediately. In fact, per Flanz, he stood up and told those gathered in the room, "Yep, that guy's going to take my chair one day."

***

In early 2015, that day arrived. After 16 years at The Daily Show, Stewart informed the higher-ups at Comedy Central that he was simply too angry and too tired to continue.

Right away, with Stewart's input, they began drawing up lists of potential replacements, paring it down to a group that included Noah, along with the Amys (Schumer and Poehler), Chris Rock and a few others. "There were plenty more, big names, who I think just wanted to see their name in the mix or felt like their name should be in the mix or wanted to know why their name wasn't in the mix, but the truth is, there wasn't anybody we could put in that chair who wasn't going to be a risk," says Comedy Central's former chief Doug Herzog, who'd already been forced to contend with the departures of Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee. "What we knew was that trying to replace Jon Stewart with Jon Stewart Lite was a fool's errand."

By that point, Noah had made only three appearances as a Daily Show contributor, and it wasn't clear he desired more. After all, he'd rebuffed Stewart's initial offer to join the show, citing his touring schedule at the time. He'd turned down early entreaties from Comedy Central's Kent Alterman, too, for a digital series featuring tour dispatches and possibly a special. And though Noah's name recognition among U.S. viewers still hovered close to nil, the network heads, along with Stewart, were struck by both his unique perspective and his progressive credentials. Plus, says Alterman, "he's charming and funny, and his dimples are pretty irresistible."

At first blush, Noah was emphatic in his lack of interest — in part for the obvious reason that it's a lousy career move to follow a legend. "Why would I want that curse in my life?" he told his reps, who were already down the road on a sitcom based on his life that had attracted serious interest from five outlets, including Netflix. Still, he agreed to sit down with Herzog, Alterman and Comedy Central's Michele Ganeless, accompanied by his manager, Norman Aladjem, on the same evening Stewart made his news official on air.

Over dinner at Amici in Brentwood, they discussed, in broad strokes, what Noah's iteration of The Daily Show might look like. "I won't lie — when I watch the show, I don't understand most of what's going on," he said. "It's very highbrow, and I don't think there are enough international stories. So if you brought me on, the risk you're taking is I'm going to talk about international stories and I'm not going to try to make the show smarter than it is." All parties walked away from the meal eager to keep talking.

"Honestly," says Alterman, "my biggest hesitation at that point was whether he was some kind of cyborg because I'd never met anyone so composed and in command of themselves."

Noah, just 30 at the time, was flattered by all the attention. He appreciated, too, the risk they'd be taking on him and felt their promise to be patient with a new host was genuine. He then reached out to Stewart, first to be sure he was leaving on his own volition, then to get his vote of confidence. "I like that you remind me of me," Stewart told him, "but that you won't try to be me."

Several weeks passed without any word from Comedy Central, leaving Noah all but certain he'd fallen out of contention. Though he'd returned to touring overseas, he devoured every news story he could on the host search, only one of which included his name. Then one night, as he was coming back from a comedy show in Dubai, he got a call from Aladjem: "How would you like to be the next host of The Daily Show?"

What followed was a contract negotiation made trickier by Noah's already significant touring income, which was poised to take a major hit. "I remember I said, 'I'll have to figure out how I'll manage with taking a pay cut,' and they were like, 'What do you mean a pay cut? You're going to become host of The Daily Show," says Noah. "And I go, 'Yes, and I know this is hard for an American to process, but you can be very successful working in the rest of the world. Please don't think I'm belittling you. … I just have to make sure I'm not giving up the world I've built for myself for something that somebody else controls.'"

After receiving assurances that he could finish an already scheduled leg of his tour in South Africa, Noah signed on for the suicide mission of replacing Jon Stewart.

***

On March 30, 2015, Noah's appointment was announced to the world. Not 24 hours later, all hell broke loose.

A handful of years-old Noah tweets had been recovered, and, lumped together, they showed an immature man scoring cheap laughs out of misogyny and anti-Semitism. Never mind that Noah was raised by a strong, single mother, who'd converted to Judaism and bar mitzvahed her son.

In one, from 2009, he had written: "Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn't look b4 crossing but I still would have felt so bad in my german car!" Another, from two years later, read: "Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!" a quote he attributed to "fat chicks everywhere."

Suddenly, Noah and his new bosses found themselves under fire. "We went [from being] forward-looking geniuses," recalls Herzog, "to the idiots who hired the guy who made shitty Twitter jokes." Friends and advisers urged Noah to apologize. Just do it and move on, they said. But he wasn't raised to just apologize and move on, even if it might cost him his dream job. It'd be hollow, he reasoned, and what, exactly, was he apologizing for? Wasn't it more significant that he'd actually evolved in the years since he'd fired off those tweets? "In many ways, social media and comedy are time stamps of who we were … and if you're not disgusted by what you did when you look back five, 10 years ago, then I'd argue you haven't grown," says Noah. "But we live in a society where people are more concerned with the platitudes of apologies than they are with the actual change in human beings."

He grows more passionate as he continues. "I just don't think it's healthy for us to berate and destroy people for who they were versus who they are because 'are' is more important," he says. "And that's the problem I have with the 'cancel culture' a lot of the time — you condemn people to only being that forever. What's the value of atoning if it doesn't mean you're welcomed back into society?"

In the end, executives at Comedy Central stood by their choice; and as with most news cycles, the media moved on. Alterman suggests that the whole saga, while a noisy headache at the time, proved helpful in that it lowered an impossibly high bar: "I kept thinking, 'Go ahead and underestimate him.' "

***

As Noah's start date drew closer, Comedy Central plastered major cities with billboards and bus ads featuring reassuring slogans like "Brand-new host, brand-same show." Then, on Sept. 28, his Daily Show launched and the inevitable happened: mixed reviews and crap ratings, down about 30 percent compared with season one.

"People just missed Jon," says Flanz, who'd been at the show when Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn a decade and a half earlier. "I don't even think they could see this guy on TV — all they could see was that he wasn't Jon."

Noah refused to let himself get wrapped up in the mild hysteria, at least not in the same way others around him seemed to. His past could keep him grounded — after all, he jokes, his former self would simply be impressed that he now had a flushable toilet — as could his family. When he'd first called his mother back in South Africa to tell her he'd landed the gig, she famously equated his news with that of his teenage half brother, who'd just been elected head of the student council. And though she clearly has tremendous pride in her eldest son, she's never watched a single episode of The Daily Show. "She'll say, 'Why would I need to consume a distilled version of you, Trevor, when I know you 100 percent for who you are?' " he relays with smile.

Asked at one point whether the woman who Noah regularly calls his hero would consider speaking for this profile, he swiftly declines on her behalf. Please don't be offended, he says, but he's been down this road before and he knows what his mother will say: "It's his world, his fame, his job; I'm not involved in it." (She did agree to spend time with Janine Eser, who's writing the Born a Crime screenplay, and though she hasn't met Nyong'o, she approves of the casting choice.)

It was helpful, too, that Noah didn't actually need the career break. If The Daily Show hadn't panned out, he had a lucrative stand-up career to fall back on. In fact, to this day, he takes issue with any suggestion that it was the Comedy Central platform that brought him fame and fortune. "People don't understand that I came to America from a country where I was really successful," he says, revealing at one point that there were Teslas and Range Rovers long before there were Moments of Zen. "And I'm proud of South Africa because that's where I made my fortune. I had my homes and my cars and my nice things, and my country gave that to me. So I wasn't escaping anything. I'm here because I want to be here."

The Comedy Central platform did, however, enhance that fame and fortune. Though there are now rumblings of potential endorsement opportunities and seven-figure book deals, the lift arguably has been most visible on the road, where Noah's now selling out shows across five continents. "He's just this machine," says Live Nation Comedy president Geof Wills, who marvels at the cross section of people Noah's able to attract: "It's young, it's old, it's black, it's white, it's Asian — it's everybody." Over the past five years, he's grossed nearly $14 million on tour, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore, and industry sources expect that number to rise dramatically as he continues to add arena dates at venues including London's 02.

His real estate holdings have improved, too, as has his watch collection. Ditto for Noah's Rolodex, with names from Ron Meyer to Ryan Coogler casually dropped into conversation. He has yet to parlay his soaring profile into major acting roles, but, per Aladjem, it's not for lack of studio overtures. "When I first started working with Trevor, my overriding feeling was that he could one day be a huge movie star," says his manager, "and now I'm convinced of it." Just not anytime soon. At least for the next few years, his Daily Show schedule will accommodate only minor roles, like his recent cameo as Griot in Coogler's Black Panther (yes, that was his voice).

Increasingly, Noah's been able to put his own distinctive stamp on The Daily Show, too. Emmy voters have taken notice, granting him his first series nom last year, as have executives at Viacom's highest levels. Former chief Philippe Dauman may not have known Noah's name when he landed the role, but his replacement, Bob Bakish, is said to be intimately involved in making sure the comic stays put. Ratings have steadied to a respectable nightly average of 1.3 million viewers; and while there are still plenty of vestiges of the Stewart era, including the Moment of Zen signoff, it is, as Noah initially vowed, a considerably more global show in both its coverage and its reach. It's also more social, to be expected when a 30-something replaces a 50-something. The various Daily Show feeds, which count more than 25 million followers, are integral to the show and not, as they often were with Stewart, fed as an afterthought.

Noah doesn't try to shoehorn his interviews to fit the linear format; instead, he allows those that require more time to run as long as 30 minutes online, where his show averages 74 million monthly YouTube views, up from 8 million when he took over. The cameras continue rolling during commercial breaks, too, as he fields audience questions for his popular "Between the Scenes" installments. Though the latter are designed to showcase Trevor off-script, the Q&A sessions often give way to impromptu sermons like the one he delivered this spring on the thorny subject of reparations and white privilege. "For white people, it's hard to accept you have benefits for the color of your skin if you can't see those benefits," he acknowledged, breaking it down for the white male audience member who'd asked: "There are different levels of suffering to consider. Don't think of it as privilege; think of it as a golf handicap — you've got more chances than the rest of us to put the ball in."

With another election season heating up, Noah insists he's no longer afraid to use his platform to say what he sees, trusting himself and his perspective in ways he didn't a few years earlier. In recent months, that's meant taking issue with the left as well as the right — as he did with Democratic candidate Kirsten Gillibrand for backpedaling from her past, Trump-esque views on immigration, which he mocked via fresh lyrics to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." No subject gets as much airtime or demands as blistering a critique as the current president, however, but then he is the man who gave Noah purpose in his chair. It's just past 11 p.m. now, and the restaurant has all but cleared out. Noah takes a final sip of his green tea and rises to leave. He's got to get to bed. There's another storm coming tomorrow.

*** 

Trevor Noah Inc. 

STAND-UP

"I've never seen the guy have a bad show," says Live Nation Comedy president Geof Wills, who's watched as Noah has gone from selling out theaters to selling out arenas. Per Billboard Boxscore, he had a top 10 comedy tour in 2018, grossing more than $5 million, and 2019 is on track to be his biggest yet with some 40 more dates lined up. Another lucrative Netflix special is on the way, too.

PODCAST

In April, Noah added podcaster to his dizzying résumé, inking a rich deal for his On Second Thought podcast to be housed on the subscription service Luminary, alongside those from Lena Dunham and Russell Brand. The weekly installments feature in-depth conversations on subjects including sports, science, art, capitalism and race.

BOOKS

Multiple sources say that Noah scored a seven-figure deal for his 2016 memoir, Born a Crime. According to the NPD Group, the collection of stories from his South African childhood, published by Spiegel & Grau, has sold 756,000 copies in the U.S. alone — and that doesn't include all those purchased at events. Though details are sparse, Noah is contracted for a second book and is said to be in the early stages of formulating ideas.

TV & FILM

In 2018, Noah not only re-upped his deal at The Daily Show — where he's now committed through 2022 — but also entered into an expansive arrangement with Comedy Central parent Viacom. The latter has first-look rights to all film, television and digital projects from Noah and his Day Zero Productions, which recently tapped veteran Haroon Saleem to lead. But first, Noah and his staff will gun for another series Emmy nomination, which explains the eye-catching if controversial FYC ads that poke fun at the Green Book Oscar hullabaloo.

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.