Trevor Noah is an almost completely unknown South African comic with dimples who has just stepped into one of the most coveted comedy posts in America—Jon Stewart’s seat at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” As I’ve written before, Stewart leaves behind a very difficult legacy to step into—over the course of 16 years, he turned the show into America’s most trusted voice. Now he’s turning it over to a man who is, up till now, not an American at all.
Noah is also a man of color—a literal product of apartheid, as his mother was black and his father was white, an illegal union at the time in South Africa. It’s this, ultimately, that is going to get the most attention. Praise, from those of us excited to see any club of all-white all-men rendered extinct, whether that’s late-night television or, you know, the presidency. But criticism, too: The tenor of conservative criticism of “The Daily Show” is about to get very, very ugly. This country spent years embroiled in a debate over whether an American citizen who became the president was “really” American; what are we going to do to Trevor Noah? Conservative critics have a practiced, doublespeaking method of piling on the heat on figures who stand out because of their race or gender or sexuality, while protesting that they are doing no such thing—whether their refrain is “ethics in game journalism” or “long-form birth certificate.”
Look: Prove me wrong. I hope I’m wrong. Because I am so excited about Trevor Noah. He’s new to me, but his repertoire online is very promising, including this killer Hitler impression. He’s going to bring the perspective of a whole other hemisphere to the American conversation, and he’s ushering late-night into an era where it’s not an oddity or a fluke to have a host that isn’t a white man. Noah joins Larry Willmore on Comedy Central to make a daily late-night bloc of two hosts of color; this, while network late-night continues to be all-white, even with new hires James Corden and Stephen Colbert on CBS. But as Noah told the New York Times about his early experiences with comedy, in between anecdotes and laughs: “Speaking freely about anything, as a person of color, was considered treason.” And: “I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa,” he said with a smile. “It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days, back home.” I hope we can prove to Noah that we deserve him—and that we’ll stand for him, too, when it’s necessary. Because though it’s clear that he’s used to backlash, I’m not sure that we are.