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29 July 2016 02:07 (South Africa)
Life, etc

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: SA comic bags one of TV’s biggest roles

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc
RebeccaTrevor.jpeg

This is the biggest thing to happen to a South African entertainer since Charlize won the Oscar. News that 31-year-old South African comedian Trevor Noah would replace Jon Stewart as the host of America’s top satirical TV programme, ‘The Daily Show’, set the internet ablaze on Monday. The interest in Noah’s appointment in the States is testament to the hugely influential role ‘The Daily Show’ occupies in American popular culture. Noah faces a daunting task. By REBECCA DAVIS.

One of the interesting aspects of You Laugh But It’s True, a so-so 2011 documentary on Trevor Noah’s attempt to make it in comedy, was the sense you got that Noah was deeply resented for his success and good looks by some of his fellow South African comics. The likes of comedy veteran Mel Miller, who, when asked about Noah on camera, rasped about how young black comics “mustn’t come bitching about Apartheid”.

Miller and co. must have been seething with envy on Monday, when Comedy Central announced that Noah would take Jon Stewart’s seat as host of The Daily Show.  

To give a sense of just how big a deal this is, one 2010 poll put Jon Stewart as the most influential man in America, ahead of Barack Obama. A number of serious academic papers have been written assessing just how much of an impact The Daily Show has on popular opinion in America, and on actual political polling. When Jon Stewart and fellow satirist Stephen Colbert threw a “Rally to Restore Sanity” in 2010, more than 200,000 people attended.

As a Salon piece put it in 2013: “What [Stewart] and his staff decide to cover on The Daily Show both reflects and shapes the political conversation of the moment”.

Overnight, Noah has gone from being a stand-up comic better known in South Africa than anywhere else, to being potentially one of the most powerful voices in the USA.

It had been speculated in recent days that Noah was the frontrunner for the role, but that didn’t mean he was the most obvious choice. Others under consideration were reportedly Stephen Colbert; ‘Last Week Tonight’ star John Oliver, who got his break as Stewart’s correspondent; and two current Daily Show contributors, Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams. All these other contenders, however, allegedly ruled themselves out of consideration either because they had other commitments, or because they thought themselves “under-qualified” – to quote Williams.

One can understand a certain amount of trepidation to take on the role. Stewart is TV royalty in the States after his years at the helm of The Daily Show, and almost anyone who replaced him – beyond, perhaps, huge comedy names like Tina Fey – was certain to attract some skepticism.

Noah has only appeared on The Daily Show a handful of times since his debut as “international correspondent” in December, and his appointment has raised some eyebrows. The New York Times referred to Noah’s promotion as “huge and unexpected”. Comedy Central has said that they hope Noah will bring something fresh and different to the role.

Nonetheless, there will inevitably be naysayers. The New York Times continued: “The decision also invites questions about Mr Noah’s experience and visibility (or lack thereof), and why the network did not choose a woman to crack the all-male club of late-night television hosts”. There had been calls in the lead-up to Comedy Central’s Monday announcement for the channel to buck the trend and appoint a woman to fill Stewart’s shoes.

Despite his appearances on The Daily Show, Jay Leno’s Tonight show and the David Letterman show, Noah remains little-known in the USA. His comic turns on the abovementioned shows have tended to dwell largely on his position as an African in the US, puncturing stereotypes about the African continent and pointing out the absurdities and hypocrisies of the US. The travails of growing up as a mixed-race child during Apartheid also feature heavily in his international material.

For South Africans, meanwhile, Noah is synonymous with thoroughly local content: jokes about aspects of South African life from President Jacob Zuma to e-tolls.

Unless the show is planning to drastically change direction under Noah, however, The Daily Show’s bread-and-butter is the criticism of American politics and the US news cycle. Noah’s nationality is certain to add an interesting dimension here. American viewers have sometimes revealed themselves to be very resistant to “foreigners” telling them what’s wrong with their country (cf Piers Morgan) and sometimes very responsive (cf John Oliver).

Noah will, however, have the support of a Daily Show team of over 100, including an extensive writing team. “The Daily Show has always been much more of an ensemble production than it gets credit for, with a superb team of writers and producers surrounding Mr Stewart,” the Times wrote in 2014.

Stewart’s level of celebrity is now such that it’s easy to forget that he, like Noah, was something of an outlier when he took on the show to replace its first host Craig Kilborn. Like Noah, Stewart was more of a stand-up comic than a political satirist, and his Daily Show co-workers reportedly had little faith in his abilities when he began.

Since relatively little is known about Noah in the States, early reports on Noah’s appointment on Monday saw American journalists plunder Noah’s social media profiles for clues as to his character. While the New York Times decided that Noah’s Twitter profile could be characterised as “earnest”, in South Africa he has drawn some heat in the past for some over-the-line tweeting.

In August 2013, he tweeted: “Happy Women’s Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Caster” – a reference to the gender testing which South African runner Caster Semenya was forced to undergo after winning the 800m world championships in 2009.

A year earlier, he suggested on the same platform: “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the women said no they were in the perfect uppercut position”.

It’s not yet clear exactly when Noah will begin hosting the show, but the next US presidential election takes place in November next year, and the race is already kicking into gear. That means that Noah will need to find his feet soon, as it’s during elections that The Daily Show has traditionally shone. Both Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama have appeared on the show in recent years.

This isn’t Noah’s first hosting rodeo: he previously hosted South Africa’s Tonight with Trevor Noah, which debuted in 2010. That late-night talk show was explicitly modeled on, among other programmes, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Even for a comic as hardworking and ambitious as Noah, the transition from the M-Net studios to Comedy Central’s flagship political comedy show must seem more than a little surreal. DM

Read more:

  • Trevor Noah to Succeed Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’, on the New York Times
  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc

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