“I feel like I picked up where Jon Stewart left off,” says The Daily Show host Trevor Noah as we sit down at his New York office to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 33-year-old South African, who currently is the youngest person and only person of color hosting a late-night show, continues, “I inherited a legacy from him, and I’m proud to say that I’ve just been continuing a lot of the work that he’s done. That was my job, to grow the show, to slowly evolve it into something new and different, but to still maintain the core, and that was an institution that thrives on giving voices to people who have interesting things to say.”
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Noah, the product of a mixed-race marriage (his father is Swiss and his mother is Xhosa), was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1984, during the last years of the Apartheid era. He was raised in the township of Soweto, in a hut with no indoor water or sanitation, but really grew up between two worlds, one white and one black, without ever being able to fully feel a part of either. “One thing I was blessed with was a family that found themselves through humor,” he says. “Laughter is something that people can’t really take away from you, you know? It’s your state of mind.” In addition to laughing, Noah loved reading (“how I traveled the world in my mind”) and hustling to make a buck (he was a prolific burner of music CDs until the police destroyed his computer). But his life changed one night when he and some friends stumbled upon some bad stand-up at a dingy bar and one of his friends dared him to try to do better.
Noah fell in love with stand-up, worked hard at it and proved prodigiously good at it, and he quickly became the most famous comedian in South Africa. “I was really lucky in that I kicked my career off as the [post] wave of South African comedy was growing,” he says. His stand-up sold out the biggest venues in the country (with 2009’s “The Daywalker,” a South African nationwide comedy tour), he hosted his own nightly comedy talk show (Tonight With Trevor Noah) and by 2011 he had grown famous and confident enough to take his comedy abroad. That year, he moved to New York; just a year later he was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; and not long after that he also performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. “By that time,” he says, “my dreams had all been achieved.”
Then one day in 2013, while performing in London, Noah got a call from Stewart, who wanted to tell him that he was a fan and invite him to become a contributor to The Daily Show. “Jon Stewart is one of the most talented individuals that has ever graced our TV screens,” Noah says. “In America alone, everyone is trying to do what Jon Stewart did in different ways. You see his DNA on everything.” Even so, Noah graciously declined the invitation, preferring to retain his freedom as a touring comedian. “I didn’t think it was the right move,” he says. But in December 2014, he was in New York and made a one-off appearance on the show, and then two more before February 2015, when Stewart announced that he was leaving. As Comedy Central embarked on a search for Stewart’s replacement, Noah says, “I was following all of the news just like everyone else was,” and then he got a call inviting him to meet with the network, which he did. “I didn’t really think I had a chance,” he says; he was wrong, as he learned via a phone call while he was visiting Dubai. In hindsight, Noah volunteers, “I definitely think that Jon was a big reason why I got the show,” adding that Stewart later gave him a parting gift of freedom: “Jon was like, ‘My show is dead. You need to make something new.'”
When Noah was announced as Stewart’s replacement, most Americans had never heard of him, a situation similar only to James Corden‘s, as far as recent late-night hires. “The downside of people not knowing who you are is that they rush to create a narrative of who you are,” Noah laments, “cobbling together what they can to try to build a narrative of who you are as a human being.” In his case, they found old tweets that he had written that struck some as offensive. Many thought the ensuing brouhaha might cost him his new job, but Comedy Central and Stewart stood behind him and he weathered the storm, assuming the anchor chair on Sept. 28, 2015, just a few weeks after Stewart vacated it on Aug. 6 of that year.
Noah took flack in the early days for his even temperament, with many wanting him to show greater anger and indignation while covering the presidential race that was the focus of much of his coverage. But with the passage of time, critics and audiences began to warm to his cool and confident style. He assembled a writers room and a team of correspondents markedly more diverse than the ones he inherited. He shined when the show left the studio and went on the road to cover the 2016 presidential conventions and the election night that followed. (“It changed everything,” Noah says. “The show had to lean less on the previous idea of what it was and more on the host’s vision of what it should be.”) As the election neared, his “outsider” perspective (like John Oliver‘s and Corden’s) began to be more appreciated (he was one of the few to predict the election of Donald Trump, who reminded him of an African strongman). He began attracting guests of the first order, including outgoing President Barack Obama last December. And by the end of May 2017, the show achieved its highest ratings yet under his tenure, averaging just over one million viewers per episode, with an audience younger and more diverse than Stewart ever had.
Noah is proud to be a part of a wave of late-night hosts who came into their jobs only in the last few years. “Many of these hosts I’m friends with and a lot of them I’m fans of,” he says. “I watch Stephen Colbert‘s monologue. … I enjoy watching James Corden singing in a car because he’s amazing at it. … John Oliver may have been one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to The Daily Show because I didn’t ever think someone with an accent similar to mine could do well in America, and there this guy was doing it.” Of being the only person of color among them, Noah acknowledges, “You would hope that there would be more representation,” adding, “I now see [being a late-night host] as not just a privilege, but to a certain extent a responsibility.” But, ultimately, he can only run his own desk-bound race. It’s one that he has found more grueling than he ever imagined, but one that he nevertheless is enjoying. “I’m having the time of my life,” Noah says with a smile.