Last March, The Atlantic ran a story enumerating “What Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Had That Trevor Noah is Missing.” It was the latest in a long line of think pieces about the new iteration of Comedy Central’s flagship show, all with a common thesis: Trevor Noah is no Jon Stewart.
When the 33-year-old stand-up from South Africa was plucked from obscurity in 2015 and asked to fill the biggest shoes in late night, he had zero experience interviewing celebrities from behind a desk. By comparison, Stephen Colbert inherited the Late Show from David Letterman with nine years of hosting under his belt—and even he had trouble finding his groove. Expecting Noah to climb out of Stewart’s shadow and fine tune his voice in his inaugural season was akin to asking Tom Brady’s eventual successor (whoever that poor sap may be) to win a Super Bowl in his rookie year.
It didn’t help matters that Stewart—who became one of the most trusted voices in America, especially in times of political tumult—stepped down as the country was on the verge of the most batshit crazy election in its history. Noah was left to navigate a political minefield while simultaneously keeping the media in check. Oh, and he had to be funny as hell while doing it.
Then something funny happened. Like every great hero, Noah found his nemesis. Stewart had Bush, and on November 8, Noah got Trump. (When Noah did The Playboy Interview, last June, the primaries were just winding down.) Since his election win, audiences have been tuning into The Daily Show in record numbers, and in January, Noah had his highest-rated month since his debut. Much like his fellow late night freshmen Seth Meyers, and to a lesser degree Colbert, Noah’s singular point of view has crystallized since Trump took office.
We asked Noah—whose new stand-up special Afraid of The Dark is currently streaming on Netflix—about what Trump’s rise means for America, and about what he personally thinks about our new POTUS. According to Noah, the two men have a lot more in common than you’d think.
Most people here know you as a The Daily Show host first and a stand-up comedian second. Do you think audiences go into your shows expecting you to go heavy on political material?
Well, I’m comfortable doing anything, because I believe everything is politics. I’ve always been fascinated by the conversation in America: “Do you consider yourself a political person?” and I’m like, “What does that mean?” Everyone is a political person. Don’t you vote? Don’t you know what’s happening with your president? What your councilman is doing? All of this is politics. Anyone who says they’re not a political person, I’m like, “What are you doing in society?” Politics is everything you do in your life, from the potholes, to your house, to how much you pay in taxes. So I’ve never been worried about that, because I feel all topics pertain to politics in some way shape or form.
One of the jokes that’s been getting the most reaction from your special is your take on the word “pussy.” Is that in an ode to your mother, who you’ve said many times is the great hero of your life?
Yeah—I mean, I think it’s to women in general. But my mom wasn’t going to let any man take away her power, steal her sexuality or her femininity from her. She didn’t believe in being shamed, she didn’t believe in having to restrict who she was, to make a man feel comfortable. I grew up in such a strong matriarchal world, and it was really my mom who said, “You can’t hold me back from me doing my thing. If you’re not man enough to handle a woman like this than that’s your business, but I’m not going to become less of myself so you feel like more of a man.” One of the ideas that has stuck with me in life is if men spent less time trying to oppress women to be below us so that we feel more like men, and just spend more time just trying to be better men, then we’d have a better society. If you empower women, the women empower you back and you’re in a place where everyone is winning.
As a comedian, was there any part of you that rejoiced after Trump’s win? Let’s face it: Late night TV has become must-see for the anti-Trump crowd.
I wasn’t happy at all because of the assaults that have come along with it. If Donald Trump were purely comical, maybe. But just look at the anti-Semitic attacks, the rise in hate crimes, look at the general chaos. I was never enthusiastic about that. There’s so much other stuff to make jokes about, and I was really ready to be done with Trump and move on to other things. So now the challenge is to create a world where your sole purpose isn’t to be anti-Trump. You shouldn’t be anti-Trump in my opinion. If you’re an American, you should be pro-America and you’re pro-democracy and you’re pro-progress and those are things you put any politician or any idea up against, and it’ll tell you which side of that idea you stand on.
At what point do you think we should we should stop laughing at his antics and maybe start to think “Oh shit, this guy poses a real danger to our existence?”
I always say Donald Trump is like an asteroid heading for the planet which could kill everybody and we’re all afraid but at the same time, it’s shaped like a penis. So you’re in the place where you’re like “Yeah it’s dangerous,” but you can’t deny the moments where it’s so ludicrous just you have to laugh. The key, though, is to remember that the two things can exist simultaneously. You can laugh at a dangerous clown, but you must never forget that it is dangerous. So that is something I am always conscious of. Use the laughter to tackle ideas and conversations that are difficult. Don’t use the laughter to ignore the fact that something is happening.
Do you legitimately worry that the President might not be of sound mind?
Yeah. In my head I’m like, “Maybe he’s so delusional he won’t even get anything done.” You know, he could get so delusional that he could get stuck in this world of thinking he’s doing when in fact he’s not. Maybe this guy can be like a Truman Show version of his presidency where he thinks he’s doing everything, he’s signing papers, but nothing is actually getting done.
Donald Trump is like an asteroid heading for the planet which could kill everybody and we’re all afraid but at the same time, it’s shaped like a penis.
Some people think the chaos in the White House is carefully orchestrated by Trump as a way to distract us from the really insidious things that are happening within the administration. What do you make of that?
People give Trump too much credit. We need to get over this idea that he’s a genius who’s orchestrated everything. Yes, there are many things that he does on purpose. I think he plays the media on purpose, and the media takes the bait all too often. People can get angry, people can march, but the press can just call the guy out. When the media runs banners that say “Is the media the enemy of Trump?” and then spend the whole day talking about Trump attacking the media, I’m like, “You can’t talk about that; you are the media! Move on!” Think of it like a boxing match. Donald Trump is your sparring partner and it’s your job to hold him accountable, and when he punches you, you punch back.
How do you see Trump’s presidency playing out globally? Will other countries stop looking to the U.S. for leadership in times of crisis?
Definitely. I think they’re doing that now. Here’s the thing that Donald Trump is right about: America has been picking up a lot of slack for the rest of the world. There is no denying that. But don’t take for granted that picking up the slack for somebody also gives you a lot of authority. There is a reason America gets to dictate so many decisions around the world. There’s a reason America is in the room for every conversation: It’s because they’re picking up so much of the slack. But once other countries start to fill that void, when Russia is now the protector of the other countries around it, and the same with China, and as other countries start to pick up that mantle, America might look around and say “Oh, look we have no more responsibility,” which also means they get no more rewards.
As the host of The Daily Show,where do you exist in the space between comedy and hard news?
I think if anything, we’re the real fake news. From the very beginning, from Jon Stewart’s legacy, which I was lucky enough to inherit from him, we’re an organization that prides itself on aiming for the B.S. of society, and I think what we’re going to be doing over the course of the year is not only pointing it out in Trump, but in ourselves, and saying what can we do better, what are our shortcomings, how can we tackle ideas, and then we as a show can pass that journey together.
Since The Daily Show is, at its core a critique of the media, do you find yourself aligning with Donald Trump on that front, in terms of calling the media out on their bullshit?
[Laughs] Sometimes when I look at Trump I see a lot in common. It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort. We both came out of nowhere, we were both the crazy outsider choice who people said wouldn’t succeed, we both did it in a different way that people weren’t so happy with, we’ve both done way better than people anticipated, and now inevitably it means our destinies are linked. Maybe the moment will come when both of us go head to head and one of us comes out alive.
Of all his attacks on his critics, why do you think he’s ignored you thus far?
Because Trump is an old-school guy who only goes for old-school things that he knows. Trump knows SNL because it’s an institution. I don’t even think SNL gets to him; I think Alec Baldwin gets to him, because Alec Baldwin is a big time New York actor and that whole idea really gets to Trump.
So if Jon Stewart was still the host, The Daily Show might be on his radar?
Yes. That’s very possible. If you look at SNL before they had Alec Baldwin playing Trump and it was someone else, Trump never tweeted about SNL. And that’s why he only tweets about the New York Times and not The Washington Post—because it’s not his world. The New York Times is his world, CNN is his world. He has a very narrow field of vision.
Would you have him as a guest on your show?
The invitation is eternally open. In the end, he’s the President of the United States and we have to treat him with respect. That’s what people don’t understand. Even though he’s become this character who has bumbled through conversations and ideas and has been extreme, he’s still the President, and I would afford him the same respect as any other President. But I would also ask him genuine questions as I would any other President.
Because you’re not from this country, do you think that gives you a unique position from which to comment?
I think it’s a balance. I’ve realized Donald Trump has made everyone an insider and an outsider at the same time, because every single one of us is experiencing this madness for the first time. Granted, I grew up on a continent where there were many leaders like Donald Trump, but we’ve never seen someone like this, who has the economic and military might that Donald Trump does, so in many ways we are all outsiders to this reality. And that’s what comedians are. We are outsiders to the madness that we’re experiencing.
Because you’re not a real news show, does that give you the authority to be biased when you want to be?
Yeah, I think so. If the news were just more honest about that, I think it would be better. I’m not ashamed to say, "Hey, I’m a progressive. This is what I’m working towards. I have nuanced ideas. I do not think I have all the answers. There are certain things I believe more than others.” And so I’m unashamedly pursuing that, but I’m not going to be tricked into this world of a false equivalency, where people are like, “You gotta see both sides!” If someone is shooting you, it’s hard to see both sides of the bullet. If someone is being hurt, I tend to look on the side of the person being hurt, as opposed to the person who is hurting.