When Trevor Noah took the reins of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, critics wondered whether he could live up to the reputation of his scathing satirist predecessor, Jon Stewart. Four years later, the question facing the South African comedian is much bigger: not whether he can survive in America, but whether his brand can conquer the world. By Nick Fouriezos
Don't believe it? Just consider that Noah, 35, with his made-for-television childhood (literally, now that his best-selling memoir Born a Crime is receiving a film adaptation), gives him a truly global perspective that none of his late-night contemporaries can match. Not Stephen Colbert of the Late Show, nor Seth Meyers at Late Night. Nor even John Oliver, who is British, but reiterates the firmly Anglo-Saxon tone of his talk-show peers. "This is still clearly very U.S.-centric kind of stuff. But he does manage to slip in a lot of perspectives we don't get anywhere else on late night. He manages to do it in ways that are usually really funny," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
In that mix, Noah, the last Black man standing on late night at the major networks, stands out. And he's gone from doubted to lauded -- from the pages of Time magazine, which named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world last year, to The Hollywood Reporter, which placed him among the 35 most powerful people in New York media the last two years. In April, Comedy Central reported that The Daily Show was tied for the 2019 late-night talk show lead among men ages 18-34 -- and generating a weekly average reach of 56 million video views on social media.
Heady stuff for the Johannesburg native who not long ago performed stand-ups to nothing crowds while trying to transform his South African stardom into American relevance. He is now selling out shows across five continents, grossing nearly $14 million from tour dates alone, according to a Hollywood Reporter profile this month calling him the "Busiest Man in Comedy." "He's an international TV comedian who has penetrated the American environment, and by having a daily program that's pretty significant. He is the first who has done that," Thompson says.
Yet Noah has not escaped New York's bright lights completely unscathed. Criticism of his maturity began early, literally moments after his hire was announced, when internet sleuths unearthed weak Twitter digs at Jews and fat women. A 2016 interview with then-ascending conservative star Tomi Lahren earned him praise from those who saw him as holding a slippery figure accountable ... and criticism for a "why-can't-we-all-get-along" shtick in his questions, beginning from the first one: "Why are you so angry all the time?"
The child of an African mother and a Swiss-German father, Noah's unusual upbringing leaves an indelible stamp on his work. He told OZY co-founder and CEO Carlos Watson on the PBS television series Breaking Big that when he first started working on the stand-up scene, his mother thought he was selling drugs: "So you go away at night, and you don't work during the day. You're never working. And then you just have money. What do you say you do?"
But Noah took off in South Africa, then internationally, thanks to what Watson describes on Breaking Big as "his superpower as a comedian -- his unique and global perspective."
But as he becomes an American institution, that otherness has drawn heat from critics like BuzzFeed's Tomi Obaro, who argues that Noah's remarks "suggest a profound misunderstanding of the way racism works in America."
However, it's precisely Noah's separation from American life, at least to start, that leads to some of his most effective segments. It was way back in October of 2015, just days into the job, that Noah saw something few others could: how "presidential" Trump could be. Declaring Trump "America's African President," he juxtaposed outlandish Trump statements with similar comments by African dictators, from Uganda's Idi Amin to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and, most cuttingly, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. "What I'm trying to say is Donald Trump is presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent," Noah said, even if the latter point proved incorrect.
Back when he was a newly minted international correspondent on The Daily Show, he provided an outsider's vantage point on everything from stateside hip-hop to understanding the American use of the word "napkin," which in the U.K. means a diaper. Of particular humor was the way Americans obsessed over their sports, with 24/7 ESPN replays, yet had little understanding about the state of the economy.
Even before his Daily Show fame, Noah was rolling in nice cars and homes, a note he reminds reporters of often: He had already secured his status as the most famous comedian in South Africa, a nation of 56 million people.
Still, as Noah points his microphone worldwide, his greatest accomplishment isn't making the international community notice America -- that's a given. Rather, Noah's biggest punch line is that he is drawing an audience of tens of millions in every week and giving them a piece of the world, both in how other countries perceive them and what they can learn from others. It's a role no late-night host -- past or present -- has been able to pull off.