A year ago, Trevor Noah’s name was barely known to American audiences. Starting Monday night, it will be a regular presence on their screens. Taking on the reigns of “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart, Noah has big shoes to fill — and he got off to a rough start earlier this year, when years-old tweets came back to haunt him.
These days, however, Noah is talking about a lot more than whether or not he should apologize for some poorly-conceived jokes. On Friday, Comedy Central invited journalists to visit the set of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” — which looked a whole lot like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — to chat with the new host, as well as his team of writers and producers.
The group engaged with the press for a Q&A and then hung out in the studio to talk further. On the whole, Noah came across as both well-spoken and reserved, though it was clear that his program was gearing up for some significant changes. Here are some of the major takeaways.
Comedy Central is banking on Noah’s youth.
Introducing Noah and his colleagues, Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless called Noah “a gifted storyteller who’s very funny and has a very unique world view.” But she tacked on another reason why the network is hoping the comedian will gel with “The Daily Show” demographic. “At 31, he’s a member of the millennial generation that is the multicultural audience that watches Comedy Central,” she said. “So we believe he’s perfect for this.”
The format isn’t changing that much, but it’s definitely a new show.
Many of the signposts of “The Daily Show” have not changed. The program still kicks off with a mock news introduction, as the camera finds its host seated at a desk. Noah will crack jokes alongside broadcast footage from the day. Correspondents are still providing lengthier segments from the field. There will be guests. “I think you’re going to see a big difference in the style, as opposed to a changing up of the actual structure of the show,” Noah said. “When I first started getting questions from people, one of the things that threw me the most is, ‘Are you getting rid of Jon or are you continuing Jon?’ I realized there’s a middle ground in there. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
After the press conference, longtime “Daily Show” executive producer and former head writer Steve Bodow elaborated on the fixed nature of the format in a conversation with Indiewire. “There’s a certain amount that might not change forever, because it’s the architecture of the show that makes it topical,” he said. “A lot of that will be similar, but the topics will be different, the jokes will be different. I think it will be very recognizably something that came out of Jon Stewart’s show, but as time goes by, will become its own thing.”
It’s more collaborative.
Bodow did single out one major change: The correspondents — aka “The Best F#@king News Team Ever” — will play a bigger role. “The balance of how much is Trevor versus how much is the correspondents will shift some,” he said.
Also on the set after the press conference, Hasan Minhaj, a “Daily Show” correspondent since last year, elaborated. “It’s a real ensemble cast, which is awesome,” he said. “The way we’re breaking down shows is reminding me of when I used to watch ‘The Daily Show’ and see stuff with [Rob] Riggle and Cordry, Ed Helms and Colbert. They’d build the acts around the pieces.” He added that Noah has been taking an inclusive approach in the writing process as well. “We’re more involved in the act structure. Jon had such a clear, powerful POV that he could take over two acts himself. Now, it’s like, yo, we can build our narrative and perspective on these issues together.”
For Minaj, that means there’s more of an opportunity to inject his own sensibility into the show. “I want to bring more of my perspective, you know, being a brown dude in America,” he said. “I want to add my perspective for that. In the past, Jon could break it down himself. Now we have the format and freedom to do that. Anything can go now.”
The focus will be less U.S.-centric.
It goes without saying that Noah, who is not shy about discussing his mixed race background or upbringing in South Africa, brings a different sensibility to the program. But he added on Friday that it would have a direct impact on his focus as well. “I’ve lived many places all over the world, so I’ve always seen myself as a citizen of the world,” he said. “For the show, I think we’re going to mirror that. We have views on the world and stories happening everywhere, but at the end of the day — even in my standup comedy — I perform around the place that I am. I’m living in America, so these are the things that I’m seeing day to day.”
As an example, he singled out the recent Republican debate, to which he wouldn’t have paid as much attention while living outside of the U.S. “It’s natural for me to watch it and comment on it with the team,” he said, “but I bring a certain level of ‘Did you see this other thing?’ that we get to talk about…now, they get an insight into that angle. So it’s about melding the two worlds.”
Bodow provided a more specific example, citing a recent test show in which Noah dealt with news coverage surrounding the Pope’s visit to the U.S., while pointing out the lack of attention paid to a visit from the president of China. “Here’s the guy who can really make things different,” Bodow said. “The disparity of attention became a thing that we ended up building our act around. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t have done that idea with Jon, but I know that because Trevor’s looking at it from his more international perspective, that more international juxtaposition came to mind. It worked great.”
Noah has a complex perspective on America’s history with race.
Asked about his stance on dealing with racial issues on the show, Noah joked, “It’s difficult. In America, there is no racial segregation. I’m not sure I’m quite familiar with this phrase.” Then he got serious.
“America is the one place in the world where I just innately understood what was happening because South Africa and the United States of America have a very similar history,” he said. “It’s different timelines, but the directions we’ve taken and the consequences — dealing with the aftermath of what we consider to be democracy, and realizing that freedom is just the beginning of the conversation, that’s something I’ve learned. I’m not now trying to understand what segregation or institutionalized racism is.”
He added that he’s witnessed an evolution of attitudes about race over the course of his relatively short career. “When I first started doing comedy, there was no such thing as a room that had black people and white people in it. That didn’t exist. As an outsider myself, I always mixed myself with different groups…I’ve never been afraid to go into a different space and relate to those people, because I don’t have a place where I belong and that means I belong everywhere.”
Noah’s politics may surprise you.
In the past, Noah has described himself as a “progressive,” but on Friday he provided more details on what that means. “I’m not a political progressive, but I consider myself a progressive person,” he said. “What makes me a progressive, in my opinion, is the fact that I try to improve myself and by and large improve the world that I’m in — in the smallest way possible. I know that I cannot change the entire world, but I’ve always believed I can at least affect change in my world. So I try and do that. Progression, in my opinion, is often identifying shortcomings — whether it’s views or the things you’re doing in your life, your relationships — and trying to find the places where you improve on those.”
Eventually, Noah offered some specifics. “In an American context, let’s say gay rights or marriage policy,” he said. “That’s a progressive thing. I understand that in an American context, that skews liberal. Okay, that’s fine, then.”
But he refused to place himself in any partisan category. “I’m neither left nor right,” he said. “We don’t have rural conservatives in South Africa…even in the big parties, we have very conflicting views. It’s interesting to come into this space and then point out from both sides what I think is right or wrong — or really just trying to find the truth in the matter without saying I have to find this truth because this is my side.”
Noah also touched on his admiration for certain stances expressed by Rand Paul during the Republican debates. “There are certain issues from Rand Paul where I say, ‘Yeah, I like that, I think we can move forward with that,'” he said. “When it comes to social security reform and ways of adjusting benefits for people, there’s definitely a conversation to be had there. I’m not an expert in it, which is the best thing. I just keep on reading and absorbing…but I do believe there’s a conversation to be had there.”
The show is attuned to new viewer habits.
Noah acknowledged that just as news cycles have been impacted by social media, so has the show’s ability to riff on them. “Our go-to source is no longer dictated by a small group of cable news outlets,” he said. “We have to expand our view. Sometimes, a story is made and breaks on Twitter. We have to find a way to react to that, to consume and also disseminate the information from Twitter, which is not an easy thing to do.” That means, he added, that they will have to innovate. “There’s news that happens in different spheres and can be made just as funny, but it’s not necessarily in the normal news medium,” he said.
To address that need, “The Daily Show” hired comedian Baratunde Thurston to head up an entire multimedia team. In her introduction, Ganeless said Thurston’s position would add “a multi-platform layer for the show that hasn’t existed before… it will enable us to have a conversation with viewers.”
However, Noah cautioned, “We have to try to find a way to get the show into those spaces in an authentic way. We’re not just trying to chop up ‘The Daily Show.’ We actually have to knowledge that Snapchat is a thing. So we will treat it accordingly.”
Expect some different kind of guests.
One of Noah’s first guests will be Ryan Adams, pointing towards a greater emphasis on musical guests each week. “We’re definitely going for more music,” Noah said. “It’s a great way to end the week.” Bodow also said they hoped to bring more documentary filmmakers on to the show.
Dave Chappelle is a big influence on Noah’s style.
Asked about his influences — aside from Jon Stewart — Noah didn’t hesitate. “Dave Chappelle is probably my favorite because of the way he broaches topics,” Noah said. “I’ve always enjoyed his lackadaisical approach. He’s somebody who doesn’t seem to be vexed by what he’s saying because I think he understands he’s trying to elicit a response — either a positive one or one that makes people think.” He added that Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Louie C.K. and Kevin Hart were also among his favorites, but ultimately circled back to Chappelle. “He’s a friend,” Noah said.
Edgy jokes aren’t off-limits.
“I love ebola jokes,” Noah said. “When done in the right way, maybe it gets people to learn about ebola, to learn about the stigmas behind the identities held by Africans and so on. Comedy is a great tool. We’re trying to find ways to use humor to enlighten people without preaching to them.”
When a reporter told the team that Speaker of the House John Boehner had just resigned — a revelation that provoked more than one baffled “What?!” from Noah’s cohorts sitting beside him — the host remarked, “That’s too bad. I liked him. He cried a lot.”