Trevor Noah's Eventful First Year

A conversation with The Daily Show host about his first cycle of American politics

Comedy Central / Evan Agostini / Invision / AP/ Katie Martin / The Atlantic

How do you lampoon an election that already routinely veers into absurd territory? That’s the challenge that Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, faces nightly, as he discusses an election cycle of scandals, leaks, bigotry, and fear-mongering—a cycle where even the most unprecedented happenings have become mundane.

Noah has barely hosted the show for a year now, but it’s been as eventful a year at the intersection of politics, commentary, and humor as there’s ever been. When Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show after 16 years as its host—during which time many Americans came to accept it as a legitimate institution of political news and commentary—Noah was abruptly thrust into the lead role on the show, kicking off a well-publicized adjustment period in the late-night commentary landscape. But since then—and perhaps aided by the wellspring of Donald Trump—Noah’s vision of The Daily Show has found its footing as an incredulous outsider’s look at the 2016 political meltdown.

I sat down with Noah to discuss his first book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood; what he’s learned in his first year from his unique perch at the show about Trumpism; race; the connection between South Africa and America; and writing jokes in interesting times. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Vann R. Newkirk II: So, how does it feel for your first election with The Daily Show to be the worst election ever?

Trevor Noah: I think it was meant to happen. Obama had to be in a place where America had gotten to a point where they were like, “Alright, we’ll give you a chance.” Bush was the only way Obama could win. And Trump is the only way Hillary could win. Who is she gonna beat? There are people who go, “I hate Hillary so much, I wish she were in prison.” And the only reason people aren’t voting for Trump is they think, “I don't want the world to end, but I would have voted for Jeb.”

Newkirk: The end of the world? What’s it like for you when those are the kinds of stakes people are talking about?

Noah: It's fun. Essentially, I've always felt like that with comedy. I always felt like comedians would be the people making the jokes until the end of the world. If they said the world was ending in a week, I'm willing to bet that comedy shows would be sold out. Because it's like, “Well, it's done. Might as well go and hear this person make me laugh.” So, if anything, this time feels more normal than most days would in my life. Being in a place where people are coming to hear what you have to say about the possible end of the world as we know it feels natural. It feels like this is where I'm supposed to be.

Newkirk: We’ve been talking so much over the past couple of years about how comedy and especially The Daily Show have become actual legitimate news source for lots of people. Do you feel a special burden now?

Noah: I used to see it as a burden. I now see it as an opportunity. I realize that I'm in a place where I can speak to issues that maybe not everyone is speaking about, and to share a point of view that maybe isn't the most common point of view. And more than ever I realized how crucial a show like this is, not for speaking truth to power or anything like that, but having a place where ironically we are more newsy than the news sometimes.

Newkirk: How’s that work for you? Trump might be a windfall for news. But that impacts what you do, too, right? Because he naturally brings the absurdity of things closer to the front. Do you even have to write jokes about Trump?

Noah: Trump is probably the hardest thing to write jokes about. When he started, he wasn't, but now what's happened with Trump is he does the joke escalations that we think of doing. A couple days ago with the scandals, I said as a joke, “Billy Bush made Trump do it.” And then we laughed. And then two days later, the Trump camp comes out and says, “Trump was not the person, Billy Bush put him up to it.” And I'm like, are you serious? And then once we said as a joke about people getting punched at his rallies, we said, “Yeah at this rate, Trump's gonna start fighting with a baby at one of his rallies.” And within that week, Trump said “Get that baby out of here!”

Now what do you write? What do you write as a joke? It's like trying to write jokes about a comedian. The comedian already told the joke, so what is your joke gonna be?

Newkirk: You often talk about your perspective as an outsider from South Africa. Does this all shock you from that perspective?

Noah: Well to me, everything is normal. That's probably my greatest gift. I thought it was a curse when I first came, but then I realized everything is normal. I actually wasted time listening to people when I first started the show, because when I got here I said, “Oh, that Trump guy is gonna go far.” And everyone in the office said “Oh, what are you talking about? Oh man, we gotta explain American politics to you.” They said “There's a little thing that happens to us in the summer. We go a little bit crazy. And then what happens is by the autumn it calms down, and then by the primaries the people fall out.”

But I saw that the guy's charismatic, he's funny, and he's crazy. I want to watch that person. And because it seems like a reality show, I'd vote for him to stay. For me, because I didn't have the experience of the Sarah Palins and the Herman Cains, I was only operating from that view. That is still how I operate, and I realize that that's my advantage now. And I lean into that and talk about how I see things, because I'm seeing things for the first time. So I will speak to them from that point of view because a lot of the time, people have accepted things as being normal. I'll ask the question, and then people will say, “That's just how we've done it.” And I ask, “Why? Why do you do it like that?”

Newkirk: As a person who’s seen all this as an outsider, what does 2017 look like?

Noah: I've given up predicting anything. What I do know is, it all depends on the American election. I do think Trump losing will send a huge message to the world. Germany has that story now of right-wingers succeeding. Australia has that rising story. Austria has that story. Britain has that story. For America to say, “Oh no, that story failed here,” that just adjusts the course of everything. It's like winning a key battle against ISIS. All the sudden things shift and actually not all is lost. The one thing I do know is the West can't continue the way it's going. One thing I envy about Africa is there's all the room to grow. It's not an easy road, it's a very rocky path. We still have the ills that have been left behind for us by our colonizers, but there's all that room to grow. And once that starts, the sky's the limit.

Newkirk: You've got your first book coming out. How's the rollout on that feel?

Noah: Man, it's cathartic. It's a tough experience, but it's one where if you open up and if you're honest and you live within it, I found it really liberating. Sharing fears, ideas, past, and present. Going back sometimes helps me understand why I am here. Realizing that everything in my life is something that has brought me to this point. Even realizing how hard I've worked to be here, which sometimes I forget and people even make you forget. We live in the world of the now, and people will tell you, “Oh, you're a bad writer, or a bad comedian,” or whatever, but you forget how much you've gone through to get to that point. So writing the book was really special for me. It was also special because it made me appreciate the people in my life. Having to go back and remember good stories and moments and lessons that I've lived, I was like, “Wow.” I've lived quite a life and there are some amazing people in it.

Newkirk: I saw the title [Born a Crime], and I thought it was a James Baldwin quote. I saw it and was looking for the reference in some of the black lit I read. Where'd that come from?

Noah: Just from my mind. It came from my stand-up, I said that line, which was just telling people a true story. Born of an African woman and a European father during apartheid, and it wasn't even a joke. I was born a crime.

Newkirk: The reason why that got my mind working is because it sounds like the same kinds of things people are saying about the black youth experience here, and how that's connected with the experience in South Africa interests me. It seems like that's something that's stuck with you as well.

Noah: When it came to how the connection between Americans and South Africans affected my work, I realized very quickly how similarly our struggles have been, and how similar our struggles are. The only difference is the fork in the road, in that South Africa is now black-owned and black run, but you still have these talks about reparations and these conversations about the value of a black life, you still have the same feelings and ideas that people struggle and grapple with. Young black people saying, “We see no future for ourselves.” Self identity. Hair. You connect it on so many levels. We're separated by so much distance, yet our stories are almost exactly the same. We've been cooked in the same pressure cooker that was racism, and so even though the dishes were prepared on different continents, the end product ended up being the same thing.

Newkirk: What are some of the differences you see between the African American experience and the South African experience?

Noah: I think the biggest difference has been that there's a difference in the type of hope that I see. There's a difference in the type of future that that hope envisions. That is, in South Africa, people hope to be more, people hope to be at a place where they feel they rightly deserve to be, and people hope to reclaim what was once theirs. In America, it seems like the hope is at a different level. Black people hope to be seen as people, and that still blows my mind. African Americans are just asking to be treated as people.

Don't shoot us, policeman. Give us jobs, don't see us as a threat in the streets. It's crazy to see how different that part of it is. Whereas South Africans are in a place where we're saying, “I want to own that company, and we want the stock exchange. How can the stock exchange be 95 percent white when the country is 90 percent black?” It's crazy to see how much further that hope has gone on the other side, whereas here people still have to hope for what shouldn't even be a thing you need to hope for. That should be a basic human right. That should be base-level. We're all equal, we're all treated the same. Alright, cool. What do we hope for now?

Newkirk: Well what’s it like to be playing a pretty big role in that dream? People are looking for black anchors and hosts of late-night shows. And The Daily Show, damn.

Noah: I'm honestly glad I didn't realize how important the position was until I was in it, because had I known I don't think I would have taken it. Because my fear would have consumed me, and the burden would've been too much to bear. After taking the job, I realized that it's not a burden, it's a platform. It's an opportunity. And that's when I thought, “Oh, this is fantastic.” This is not something that's on my shoulders. I am on its shoulders.

Every time I meet a guest who’s of color, it’s someone saying, “We're rooting for you.” I see people in America who sometimes make it seem like it’s a “reverse racism” thing. They ask, “So you want your black things, why can't we have our things?” And I say it's because in America the norm is white. People take that for granted. America was the first time where I heard someone say “black jokes.” I'd never heard that before. “Oh yeah, you tell a lot more black jokes than used to be on The Daily Show.” Well, what does that mean? And then I said, “Did Jon [Stewart] tell white jokes?” So there's jokes, and then there's black jokes, but there's no white jokes.

Newkirk: There's history and black history, but no “white history.”

Noah: There's just “history,” because the white part is the default. That was the biggest mind-shift for me in America where I realized that here the norm is white. Why is there no white history month? Because it's all white history month. Why don't we get a white museum opened up in Washington? Because all of them are. Why don't we get a white show? Because everyone already is. Now I see why there is so much pride and hope from black people, and I'm honored to be a part of that because when you are in a world where you are told that you are not normal, you will always seek out some validation of yourself.

Newkirk: Over your first year at The Daily Show, what's changed most for you? What's the biggest adjustment?

Noah: I think the biggest adjustment was letting go of fear. I was so afraid, man. I was afraid to crash the white man's car. A friend said to me, “I was afraid to watch your show for the first month because I was just waiting for it to crash. And I was like, man if this guy crashes, we crash with him.” I felt that with a lot of people, where it was just, “Jesus, don't crash.” Because you crash, and now black people have crashed with you. They say, “Well, we gave it to a black guy, and you saw what happened so we're going back to white guys and it's safer that way.”

That pressure was huge from Americans, and that pressure's huge from Africa. I enjoy it, but that's also a scary thing where they say, “That's our guy. And that's our guy unapologetically. He's not in America doing an American accent and faking it. No, that's our guy. He still talks the way he talked when he left here. That is our guy in your world.” So that fear was just like, oh Lord. It was like driving the white man's car and I was shit-scared. Just don't crash, just don't crash. I didn't want to adjust the seat, I didn't want to adjust the steering wheel, I didn't want to adjust any of the mirrors. I just thought, “Just drive this car from point A to point B and don't scratch it.” And then you're driving and you've got journalists honking at you saying “Why don't you drive faster? Why don't you drive like this?” And you're still just trying not to crash right now.

But then you get to a point where you just can't drive like that forever. I needed to either crash or get where I'm going, but I couldn't drive like that forever. And over time I got more and more comfortable. I also connected more with the country. I couldn't fake that. I wasn't gonna be angry when I just got here. What am I angry about? That's all artificial. Now I see this as an opportunity to do something more, and I feel that fulfillment when I do it right.

Newkirk: So what happens after the election and we have to reset? What's the Daily Show hangover from all of this?

Noah: Oh, I don't think there'll be a hangover. That's when I breathe. I'm excited for that. I was just thinking about that last week. I was thinking, man, are we still talking about this guy? Is there a thing that he can say now that will change your mind? Is there a thing that he can do that can all of a sudden erase an entire campaign? On Hillary's side, what would she have to do to surpass this level of rhetoric?

So, as a person I'm done. Now I'm interested in why America's bombing Yemen. I want to know why they're launching Tomahawk missiles when they don't even know who struck at them. So there's a chance we can go into another war? This world cannot carry on like this. I'm looking at schools in America. We cannot continue teaching children like they've just come out of the industrial revolution; there's got to be a better way. I'm looking at mass incarceration and asking how is this still a thing? How is America's system so penal? Are you not trying to rehabilitate people, or is it really just a ruse for you to keep the black man enslaved?

I'm looking at police shootings. Yes, black men are being shot, but also these police are being trained to become these things and are trapped in a system that they cannot escape. It was President Obama who said it so eloquently at Mandela's funeral, he said, “Nelson Mandela showed me that you can free not only the prisoner, but also the guard.” That's what I think about with police shootings. Sometimes you forget that when they see a black person, they see a threat. How do we free that mind? This person's mind is broken, how do we fix that? There are so many other things that I feel like we can begin to explore. Right now though, Trump fever is the only thing. It's like an Ebola epidemic and now people can’t stop talking about the flu.

But after, I look at that as room to breathe. Let's try and move forward. And don't get me wrong; we're still going to be dealing with the after-effects of Trump. Trump is gone, but the Trump phenomenon is not going anywhere. It's on. Those people who've had a taste of blood in racism and misogyny, they're not gonna go away now. Their xenophobia has been ignited. Look at what happened with Brexit. After Brexit, homophobic and xenophobic attacks went up by hundreds of percentage points in England. Why? Because it ignited what was inside of people. So we're gonna deal with that in America. It’s gonna be a slog.