Trevor Noah Doesn't Care if He's Making 'Too Many Black Jokes'
We sat down with <i>The Daily Show</i> host for some real talk about stand-up, race in America, and why it's actually easier to write jokes around difficult issues.
All photo by Meron Menghistab
A lot has changed on The Daily Show since Trevor Noah took over for Jon Stewart last year. For starters, Noah put a black barber on the Comedy Central payroll and had a small makeup room converted into a "barber shop," since no one on staff knew what to do with his hair. Changes like this are part of a bigger process of Noah redefining the seminal program with a nature and sensibility that is all his own.
Replacing Stewart, who spent 16 years at the helm of The Daily Show, would be a tough task for any comedian. As Noah explains, before he could make The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he had to first learn how to make The Daily Show with Jon Stewart . Now that he's got the hang of things, the 32-year-old Johannesburg-native is looking to use his platform as a way to reshape what a talk-show host should look and sound like.
This week, the comedian will be celebrating his first anniversary as the host of The Daily Show and covering his first presidential debate. Given the landmark occasions, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Noah in his "barber shop"—while he got a line up and a BET special on Tupac played in the background—and talk about The Daily Show's evolution.
VICE: What were you working on in South Africa before you were picked to host The Daily Show ?
Trevor Noah: I had a late-night show back in South Africa. I did that for a bit, but it was a weekly show. But I mostly just focused on stand-up. I started touring internationally, so I was going around the world and trying to build up audiences in different countries and different continents. Everything else was on the back burner. I focused 100 percent on stand-up.
How did what you were doing prepare you for The Daily Show, and what were you still unprepared for?
I think stand-up prepares you for all of it. Stand-up prepares you for an audience; stand-up prepares you for conversations you need to have; stand-up even prepares you for backlash or criticism because that's what stand-up is. Everything I did before was the road to getting here, but this is just on a higher scale. I always say, "It's like I was playing in high school or college sports, and this is major league." You can prepare all you want, but you're now in a completely different league with different criticisms, different competition, and different objectives. It changes everything.
"I actually find it easier when it's difficult. When it's difficult that means it's layered. And when it's layered, it means there's stuff to work with."
What things were you already aware of, that you knew you wanted to change about the show to make it your own?
I think it's just different ways of telling stories. I love playing with sketches. I love doing segments that go beyond just parody of news. I like exploring more pre-shot segments. So it's literally just about finding ideas that go with what I'm thinking and trying to coalesce my ideas with something that is happening out there and what I can actually do.
It's weird, because it's so gradual, and it's such an evolution. When you look at the day-to-day, you don't see much of a difference. But then if you were to go back a year or even six months, you're just like, "Wow! That's a big jump. We've changed how we've done that and we've changed how we've done that and we do that in a completely different way." I just try to change a small thing every week.
What are some of those things you've changed?
It's everything. How the show is presented, the way the information is worked through, the way I construct an argument, the way I engage in a news story, the way I make a joke. I've come into a space where people expect a joke to be told a certain way. [But] I have a completely different style! People expect you to take the angle that they would expect you to take. Working through that and teaching people in the building as well—having writers who have to learn my way of doing things is very difficult. I haven't taken that for granted. I'm different in every way. Think about it: You have a young, mixed-race, South African guy coming in. How do you even begin to write for that?
What was it like having to assert that?
I think time has been my biggest friend. It's about connecting with the people. One thing I've always been really lucky that it's a building filled with really, really nice people. Enjoying the people who you're with and enjoying creating the show is—I feel—as important to working hard on the show. That enjoyment comes through to the audience. They're like, "Oh, you guys had fun while you were making this."
"We can all make a joke about Trump. But can you use comedy to process information in and around social injustice?"
Earlier this summer, you guys had an episode covering the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. What do you guys do when you start off the day in the writers' room, and you realize you have to write around something that is difficult to talk about?
I actually find it easier when it's difficult. When it's difficult that means it's layered. And when it's layered, it means there's stuff to work with. I find it harder when it's simple. When Trump comes out and just says a thing—Trump oftentimes seems like he's parodying himself. How do you now go about tackling that? If you were to go, "OK, what would Trump do after hearing that planes have flown into the Twin Towers. What would Trump do?" Then you would joke and say, "He would probably brag and say now he's got the second tallest building in New York." You're like, "That's funny." But then the clip comes out of him actually doing that! Now what do you say? How do you take that to the next level?
We can all make a joke about Trump. But can you use comedy to process information in and around social injustice? Can you use comedy to process information in and around racial discourse? That's where it gets interesting for me.
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Are there things that you knew you wanted to focus on more with the show that affected the way the writers started writing?
I think the biggest thing was just trying to bring in a level of multiculturalism. The one thing I acknowledged when I got here was that the show was very white. And not in a negative way. It just was what it was. It was also understanding that white is, by and large, the default in America. It's not even called white—it's just, "That's America!" I remember the first time someone said, "Oh, that episode had a lot of black jokes in it." And I said, "What are black jokes? What does that mean? Was I doing white jokes in the other episode? Cause no one ever came to me and said that." Then I realized that I'm living in this world where there is this default, and that default has a face and that default has a sound. There are even people who go, "Oh, I'm open-minded, I don't mind." But then when they watch you, they go, "This is weird. This is wrong. This face, this accent, this is wrong. This is not how this should be."
So the biggest thing I had to and learn is that I should say, "Don't be afraid to ask me questions. Explore my world. Enjoy my blackness. Enjoy the fact that you are working with someone who can tell you about a different world." I tell these people stories about being African or growing up in a black family all of the time, to give them perspective and to share ideas. I feel like this is my space—the workplace—and if it doesn't happen here, where is it going to happen? If my writers have a greater understanding of the world, and it's diversity, they'll be better equipped to make jokes about it.
Totally. The fact that your show exists in the mainstream way that it does, it forces everyone to reconsider what that default is. But, for a lot of people, they can finally relate to what you're saying more easily than most things on television.
Yes. You don't have to try to put yourself in a person's shoes. You're just like, "Oh, those are my shoes."
That's why I get happy when you have like a Samantha Bee; that's why I get happy when you have our show. You need that! I see people go on these weird tangents where they compare us, and I'm just like, "Why do you guys try to make us enemies?" The whole point is supposed to be that people have voices. Why do you only want one voice to represent everyone? I want Sam Bee to be more into women's issues because she's going to be stronger on them. She's not trying to understand them—she is them.
Do you ever face pushback from the network around stuff you want to include on the show?
Never. If anything, the network will push me even further. They go, "More! We want more of you!" Sometimes, for me, I get afraid. I remember we did three episodes—not even back-to-back—three episodes in the space of a few months about Black Lives Matter and police protests and so on. You should have seen how many messages we got from people saying, "Oh, is this all that this show is about now? Is it just black-this and black-that?" But then you go like, "Wait, if I do a piece about the Keystone pipeline for five episodes, you guys... Nothing?" It's because that is seen as a fringe issue.
Someone literally said, "All you guys talk about on the show is Trump and police brutality." And I said, "Trump I will give to you, because this guy has been the centerpiece of the campaign and there's no media that's been able to avoid him. But for you to say Trump and police brutality in the same sentence means you're implying that 100-plus episodes that have maybe contained Trump is the same as six or seven maybe that have contained any reference to police brutality. That is the level that you have in your mind? Hearing about Trump 100 times is as irritating to you as hearing about police brutality six times?" Wow. That's a problem.
I also realize what happens is—and this is something I'll work at changing in my world—people want you to move on as if the story has ended. People want you to move on as if "All right, we gave it the attention that it deserves. Now we're done. Did we express outrage? Yeah. Did we attempt to eviscerate it? Yeah. Well, let's move on now." But the thing's not fixed. Is Flint fixed? We're still having a water crisis there.
Are there things that you feel responsibility to talk about or make your show about, since you have this platform?
When I started the show, I was just like, "Oh, it's just a show where you get to make jokes about what's happening in the world and on the news." I then came to realize that the show comes with a responsibility and that responsibility is to speak to what is happening around you. Now I've evolved to the place where I've realized it's not a responsibility; it's an opportunity. Which, for me, is even more humbling. You sit and you realize: How many people have an opportunity to help people? How many people have an opportunity to provide solace? How many people have an opportunity to try and build something with people? Whether it's a bridge or discourse or a movement or whatever it is.
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