Nine months into his run as host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah is not yet America’s most-trusted news source. And as he tells The Daily Beast in a new interview this week ahead of next week’s 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions, “replacing” Jon Stewart was never his goal.
But while the 32-year-old South African comedian has taken heat from critics for offering what some view as a less impassioned, more facile brand of late-night political comedy since he first sat in Stewart’s chair last September, Noah has in recent weeks been showing more of a willingness to take a stand when he thinks it’s important.
Take last week’s commentary on the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. With one simple and seemingly obvious phrase—“you can be pro-cop and pro-black”—Noah deftly used his platform to put forward a positive message about an issue threatening to tear this country apart. Then, hours later, a sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven others during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.
This month, Noah is putting everything else aside and taking his show on the road for the Republican and Democratic conventions. When Noah first found out he would be succeeding Stewart, he says he wanted to move the show away from U.S. politics. But the 2016 presidential election, and the rise of Donald Trump in particular, have just been too good to pass up.
After November, however, Noah says viewers shouldn’t be surprised if his Daily Show “spreads its wings” and puts less focus on domestic issues, even if Trump is in the Oval Office.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What’s the biggest thing you know about hosting now that you didn’t when you started?
The biggest thing I know now that I didn’t know when I started was just how much scrutiny there was, you know? I really took for granted how divisive and how politicized this position would be. I’ve come from a world where satire exists, but very seldom is the satirist the target of the criticism, which is a very, very strange world to be in. It’s an interesting world where people will level more, if not the same level of criticism at a satirist than they will at the topic of the satire itself, which tells me there’s something wrong with the system. But, I mean, that’s the world that I’m in.
In an interview on NPR last fall, you said you “did not anticipate how much journalism” you would have to do as host of what is supposed to be a comedy show. How are you feeling these days about your responsibility as Jon Stewart’s successor?
Well, I think I’ve just come to accept it as part of what I’m doing for now. Over a few years, I think the vision of the show will be shaped more completely. I know it took Jon at least three years to get to his final destination. But I’m taking my time and I’m working as fast and as hard as I can, but also not trying to rush it. And I realize that there are certain things I need to do. So you have to essentially do your own investigating, you have to be researching your own facts, discovering your own sources, because at the end of the day, the news in America is not the most reliable. And this is an unfortunate truth, whether it be the fact that they sometimes take a political bent or the fact that it’s ratings-driven. These are two things that undermine the integrity of the news. And so it means if you are trying to comment on the truth, you are in a precarious position.
Oh, definitely. I think the more people that do it, the better. What John Oliver does is really fun and interesting; it sparks my mind in a different way. Sam Bee, who has come in and is angry and fighting, is much needed as well. I think everyone has to be playing their role. It’s like The Avengers. Everyone is playing their position, everyone is doing their thing. You need Hulk for certain moves. You need Thor to step in for certain positions. And Iron Man is going to be doing his job. At the end of the day, you need everybody doing as much as they can to move the ball of progress forward.
The show is going to both political conventions this month. What are you looking forward to at each event?
Wow, what am I looking forward to? In Cleveland, I’m looking forward to any bit of chaos that happens in the process. I’m still excited for the idea that some delegates will try to stage a coup. I’m excited at the idea of it somehow slipping out of Donald Trump’s grasp. But I’m also excited at the idea of him winning in the end and taking the Republican Party to the place that I feel like it has basically been alluding that it has wanted to go all along but didn’t realize that they didn’t actually want to. I’m anticipating chaos—both in the streets and at the event. And then I guess at the DNC, I guess now that Bernie Sanders has come in and endorsed Hillary, it doesn’t seem like there is going to be much madness. It seems like it’s going to be a cohesive celebration of the nomination of the first female presidential candidate, which is really exciting.
Did you see his endorsement of her this week and did you think it was warm enough of an embrace?
Yeah, I think it’s as warm as it could be in terms of it being genuine. I mean, if Bernie now all of a sudden flipped and became super, completely warm, then you’d be like, “Wait, who are you?” So I think in terms of him and his policy positions and how he has shifted Hillary towards his agenda and her acknowledging that and working to embrace a lot of his positions, that’s as genuine as it can be for now. And that’s a good place to be. But I agree with what he’s saying. Whether you’re a Democrat, or even a Republican, you cannot lie and say Donald Trump would be a good president. That’s just a fallacy.
What has it been like for you to watch this campaign process as an outsider to the U.S.?
I think the biggest thing has been how long it is. How vague it is. How convoluted it is. It’s like, “Are you guys really doing this for this long? Going around in this many circles?” A lot of it seems pointless as well. It genuinely seems done for the sake of doing it, but people have forgotten the real purpose behind it. And so as an outsider I watch this and I say, “Why would you do this the way you are doing it? Have you not tried different ways? Do you not think there are ways to improve your campaign financing structures? Do you not think there are ways you could improve your debates? Do you not think there are ways you could improve just general accountability with regards to the facts?” These are strange things that I struggle to come to grips with. And I guess that’s what I’ve tried to bring across on the show.
Your piece on the latest police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests received a ton of attention last week. But you filmed that before the massacre in Dallas. What did you think when you first heard about that shooting?
I had many thoughts. I was afraid, I was sad. I was afraid because it felt like it was taking America into a very scary place that at some point you won’t be able to come back from. I was sad because it destroyed a crucial dialogue that was taking place. You know, a lot of people don’t realize that Dallas is one of the few police departments in the country that has realized its implicit bias, realized there are ways that they can improve their local police force and they’ve been working towards that. And even at the protest the police were there with protesters taking pictures, they were talking. There was a generally joyous atmosphere where the police were protecting and serving those people who had a right to protest.
And then because of the actions of one man, fueled by whatever he may have been fueled by—and we don’t know what mental state he was in—but for one person to go and do that, it’s completely taken the conversation back to that divisive place where it was before, which was, “Now what are you? Are you black or are you cop? Are you pro or are you against?” It’s just taken everybody back so many steps. And you felt that there was a general groundswell of people coming together on the Friday when people were marching and celebrities were getting involved and sports people and singers and news anchors. There was a beautiful feeling of people coming together and acknowledging that there was a problem. Not that there were people to blame, but just that there was a problem that we should be fixing. And then when I saw that, I was just like, “Here we go, back again.”
I think my role, I’ve realized, is just to be a human at that time. It’s to be a human that connects with an audience. My role is to connect people’s emotions with some sort of sense in terms of where to go from here and how we process this information. I guess my role is just to give people some space wherein they can get the catharsis that they need.
There has been the perception in the press that, compared to Jon Stewart, you haven’t made your own political beliefs a big part of the show. Is that intentional and are there issues that you can see yourself speaking out about more forcefully?
It’s funny how people write and people’s writing blows with the wind. I was a big fan of The Daily Show. I was a friend of Jon Stewart’s and he had brought me into his world. And I remember him showing me articles where people were writing stuff about him being too angry and him being bad for political discourse. People blow in the direction that they choose to blow and you come to realize you just have to do what you’re going to do at your own pace in your own way and find a way to connect to your audience as authentically as possible. So, exactly what you said is correct, “compared to Jon Stewart.” And that is immediately where it falls apart—if you compare. I never intended to replace Jon Stewart. I’m not replacing him. Jon Stewart left and then I’m taking up the vacancy. Replacing Jon Stewart is impossible and something I would have never tried and have never tried. But I guess I understand the instinct people have to draw that comparison. But because I’m not trying to do that, it’s something where I’m like, “Well, I cannot satisfy a person’s need for me to be another human being, because that’s not who I am.” So all I keep doing is working to be myself and working to get my point of view across in the best way possible.
Have you heard from Jon Stewart recently or does he reach out to you after you do certain segments?
That’s the great thing about Jon: we just talk when we talk. It’s not like he’s keeping an eye on the show and making sure that I don’t crash the ship. He’s just checking in on me like, “Hey, how are you? What’s going on in life or so on and so forth?” We just touch base as people because we’ve come to realize, and I think he said this on the David Axelrod podcast, that there’s so much more to life than just this bubble of the show. And you have to learn that what you’re trying to do, in essence, is bring life to the show instead of trying to make the show life. And that’s what we strive to do and that’s what I strive to do now.
Going back to the election, when Obama was elected, a lot of people thought Jon Stewart wouldn’t be as funny as he was when George W. Bush was president. How will the outcome of this year’s election affect your show, whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
That really is a tough one, because I don’t know. I will say this though: I don’t think of this show as being as focused on policy as maybe The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was. So I don’t know if it will affect us that much. I do know that if Donald Trump becomes president, A) I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay here, and B) I don’t know what the new laws or rules will become. I mean, this is the same man who says he wants to open up the libel laws, change them so that people like you and me can be sued if he feels that what we’re saying about him is damaging—even if it’s based in fact. So we don’t know where we’ll be.
We know with Hillary—like I say to people all the time, I wouldn’t be shocked if Hillary’s plagued by a scandal in the middle of her presidency. She’s a solid politician, but I don’t think that means the presidency will be devoid of any interesting scandals. But I also think that after the election, that’s when The Daily Show with Trevor Noah will spread its wings a little bit more, we’ll have more of an opportunity to focus on the world. I watch politicians and elections and politics all around the world. I was interested in what was happening in Australia in their recent elections. I’m keenly following Brexit and what’s happening there with Theresa May. There’s so much more to absorb in the world, so if you have a boring presidency, which is what I would hope for America, that would be good. Because boring is good; it means things are going as they should go and everyone’s having a good time. Then you would get an opportunity to enjoy what’s happening in the rest of the world.
So do you resent Donald Trump for forcing you to pay so much attention to him?
Oh, no. Not at all, not at all. I acknowledge him as a giver of gifts. And that gift is comedy and that gift is madness. So essentially, he’s here for now because he needs to be here for now and I accept that he’s a part of my show and I will comment on him accordingly. And then when he is gone, he will be gone.