When Comedy Central announced in 2015 that Trevor Noah would be taking over hosting duties on its popular late-night satirical comedy show The Daily Show from the much-loved Jon Stewart, the decision was nothing if not bold.
Stewart was an institution who, over more than 16 years as The Daily Show host, had performed the incredible feat of making progressive politics and questioning the status quo not only acceptable to mainstream US audiences, but funny and entertaining too. The show changed the face of late-night US TV, with The Daily Show correspondents including Stephen Colbert and John Oliver taking on their own series as the networks scrambled to catch up with the new world where politics was cool.
Now, here was Noah, who had only recently become a correspondent for the show and was virtually unknown to American audiences. Not only that, but Noah was a black man in an on-screen medium dominated by white comics and he wasn’t even American. In fact, he could hardly have been less American — while British comics such as Oliver and more recently James Corden have long been granted special dispensation to poke fun at American culture from an outsider's perspective, Noah was South African. The idea of asking an African to pour scorn on the peculiarities of a nation where even the most proactive liberal trends towards fierce patriotism was either extremely clever, or incredibly stupid.
The backlash was immediate, with Twitter in a predictable uproar. While many initial reactions to Noah’s appointment were unprintable, Tom Dick Harry from Illinois was among the Twittersphere’s less inflammatory commentators, stating: “The job requires an American perspective on current events, otherwise it’s just some foreign guy blasting Americans from a teleprompter, and John Oliver already does that job.”
Here in the UAE, too, reactions were far from universally supportive. Local broadcaster OSN dropped the show from its listings, and Kholoud Abu-Humus, vice president for programming at the time, told The National: "We did not believe that Noah will hold the show for our target audience." As Noah prepares to host his final show tonight, more than seven successful years later, it’s fair to say many of those commentators made the wrong call, and the smart money is on the appointment falling in the “very clever” category.
Noah himself also falls into that category. A polyglot who speaks eight languages, he seemed to know how to position himself for US audiences from the outset. The comic set out to observe American culture rather than belittle it. Even before Donald Trump famously won the US presidency in 2016, Noah seemed to know that lampooning the very stable genius would merely set himself up as a meddling foreigner among a large section of his potential audience. Instead, he praised him, pointing out how well-suited Trump would be to running a dysfunctional African dictatorship.
As the child of a mixed marriage — his mother is Xhosa, an ethnic group that is the second-largest in South Africa, while his father is of Swiss-German ancestry — in apartheid-era South Africa, where his parents’ union was illegal, Noah was well-practised in the outsider role. There can hardly have been a more qualified commentator on hand following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Noah had actually grown up in a country where the oppression of racial minorities was enshrined in law. That may not be the case in the US, but Noah’s astute and often deeply passionate observations shone a light on how close it might be, from a uniquely experienced standpoint. Even the most ardent apologist for police brutality would find it hard to claim Noah wasn’t speaking from a position of deep knowledge of the subject.
At a recent talk for the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, Noah shed some light on his perspective: “How I view it is me echoing the culture I’m existing within, the people that I’ve grown up with, the world I’m living in. I grew up in a very mixed family, in a very mixed country. What happened over time is that I learnt how to transfer information between people, how to send messages between groups who don’t necessarily communicate in the same wavelength.”
Noah perhaps made The Daily Show even more accessible than Stewart before him. While the sharp-suited Stewart, with his thoughtful monologues and penetrating stare always seemed to be coming from within the political establishment, albeit a progressive place therein, Noah seemed more like one of us, with his often-unkempt afro, playful high-pitched voice in contrast to Stewart’s measured pronouncements, and the ability to always look slightly confused, even when breaking down the most complex political or economic matters into bite-size, audience-friendly chunks.
It was a routine he would perfect during the pandemic, when presenting via Zoom from his very normal (give-or-take the Golden Globes) flat, in an array of very average-joe hoodies and loungewear much like the rest of us were wearing during the long days on our sofas.
Noah has taken the show more global than ever. The broadcast is registering its lowest ratings in the US since the comic took over, but this is in line with most late-night talk shows, and linear TV in general.
But with more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube, Noah can reasonably claim to leave the show with a bigger worldwide audience than ever. Audiences and broadcasters are changing, and it’s appropriate that Noah hands over to a rotating roster of hosts including Hasan Minhaj and Wanda Sykes, both of whom not only continue flying the flag for diversity on the show, but have also achieved international success on Netflix.
Local audiences, meanwhile, will be pleased to hear that OSN rethought its decision, and the current season 28 is available for catch-up on OSN+ ahead of Noah’s final farewell later tonight in the US (which is 8am UAE time).
As for Noah, his plan is simply to “breathe”, he told the audience in Abu Dhabi. "I'm going to take my time. I'm going to appreciate what this moment in my life has been. It's been a chapter in my life."