Trevor Noah talks to Salon about worrying less about Trump's spelling and more about democracy

"The Daily Show" host opens up about the luxury of rage, how democracy erodes and working through epic news cycles

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 17, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Trevor Noah (AP/Danny Moloshok)
Trevor Noah (AP/Danny Moloshok)

Trevor Noah had an inkling of where this was all headed three years ago. Back when the 2016 presidential campaign was still in its early stages, relatively speaking, nobody was taking Donald Trump seriously.

Except, that is, for host of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah." In 2015, few were taking Noah seriously either. He had just taken over "The Daily Show" from Jon Stewart, and the reviews of its early performances as host were tepid. The ratings were far lower than they'd been for his widely-loved predecessor, and the general criticism was that Noah did not have a feel for American politics.

One of his earliest segments that landed with the audience drew parallels between Trump and a series of famous African dictators. Noah was only halfway kidding, but the audience got a hardy laugh out of it.

Nowadays, that clip seems Cassandra-esque. That's because Noah is in his stride. Nobody questions Noah's command of "The Daily Show" these days — certainly not Comedy Central, which has signed Noah through 2022. His 2016 autobiography "Born a Crime" is a New York Times bestseller and is being adapted for a theatrical release starring Lupita Nyong'o, who plays his mother. He sells out his stand-up appearances and has been featured in a number of profiles, both in print and on TV.

"I spent so much time listening to people tell me that I had no idea of how American elections worked, or I wasn't the right person to be doing 'The Daily Show' because I was not connected to politics in America in any way, shape or form," Noah told Salon in a recent phone interview.  "And then after Trump won, I realized: No, I, I had been connected to Trump's politics for a very long time because of where I come from. It's many Americans who had no familiarity with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. "

He hasn't wasted any time in getting us up to speed. Under Noah's watch, "The Daily Show" received a 2018 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Talk Series, cementing its status as a must-see late-night destination because of its host's global perspective, not in spite of it. Noah also has cultivated the most inclusive team of correspondents in the show's history, bringing on up-and-coming comedians including Dulcé Sloan and Jaboukie Young-White, who made his debut last week.

In the same way Stewart was thought of by "Daily Show" fans as the sanity-keeper of the George W. Bush era, the South African-born comedian is one of the Trump era's most incisive truth tellers. But even he gets thrown for a loop occasionally, including on the day this interview took place, which happened to coincide with Kanye West's stunning recent visit to the White House.

In a wide-ranging conversation Noah spoke to us about that day's lunacy as well as discussing the ways that his internationalist perspective informs the show's approach to the midterms — and his ability to remain consistently sanguine in the face of dangerous levels of absurdity.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

"The Daily Show" under your tenure features a much more inclusive lineup in front of the camera and behind. So, and admittedly, this is a bit of a softball to open with, but how has this increased inclusion impacted the subjects and issues the show covers — especially leading up to an election like the upcoming midterms?

Someone asked me once, "Hey, do you think first about the inclusivity of the show, do you think first about representation, or does it happen organically?" The truth is I think it's a combination of both. On the one hand I'm very actively thinking to myself, how can I improve the voice of the show and what we can speak about? But the larger idea behind it is, who can give us a great point of view into certain subjects?

And the second part of it is I'm just constantly engaged by people who have different experiences to me. So if I meet or watch or am told about a comedian or a great voice who is funny but also has a really authentic point of view and just a different idea of the world, I'm always intrigued by that.

I like engaging with those people because I think it opens "The Daily Show" up different ideas and points of view that are authentic as opposed to, like, a contrived idea of what that person or "those people" may be thinking. I think it just makes a difference.

Sure. As I recall, I think Jon Stewart got a lot of mileage out of having Larry Wilmore as the "senior black correspondent." But at the same time it also became a situation where Larry Wilmore was the "Daily Show" guy who talked about black issues. On your show Roy Wood, Jr. fills that role quite a bit, but you're also able to spread the love around, which must be kind of refreshing for everybody involved.

Right. But you know, what I appreciated about Jon is he was very open about saying he realized after a while that he had blinders on when they were making "The Daily Show" initially. That's one of the things that's tough, I think, for all of us to acknowledge in life. I mean, I know I struggled with it and I always have to think about it is, am I noticing what I'm noticing?

Which is a strange conundrum, you know? So what's great is on the show is realizing that the more people you have and the more points of view you have, the more angles you have to tell a story. And so yes, I have Roy on the show.

But then, you know, blackness is not homogeneous. Black people have more than one identity that they live within. The same thing goes for white people. The same thing goes for everyone. We're not limited to one archetype of who we are.

And for a long time, whites have had the opportunity to occupy many spaces. So you could be a white man who's a nerd, or a jock, a billionaire, good looking guy, a bully, whatever you want to be. You could be anything. And yet many people were confined to certain groups. So it was like, oh, we have one gay person, we have one black person. Well, you represent the entire group. I mean, that's not how life is, you know?

So what I enjoy on the show is really trying to get as many people as I can on who just, I think, add nuance to our points of view and in different ways.

I'm going to back up a little bit because I've been opening these interviews with the same question, because the answer changes with each person and each day: How are you feeling today? You know, based on everything that's going on?

(Laughs.) Oh, man. Today was one of those days. I don't know whether to be afraid or amazed or bemused. I mean it's, it's, it's just. . . it's a moment where you have to step back and go, this is our reality.

I spent the day watching Kanye West, and I didn't know if he was berating Trump with, or . . . I didn't know what was happening. And I think a lot of people in the country were watching a spectacle that they have never seen before. And that, in many ways, was one of the highlights. When you think back and you go, that would have been the highlight of any presidency, prior to Trump, and yet in this presidency, in a week's time, that will long be forgotten. That's how I feel about everything.

Strange that you would refer to it as a highlight.


Because I'm not sure that's how I'd describe it.

No, that's what it is for him. I mean, that's one of those things where Trump sees as, in many ways, it is a highlight of the reality show that he's creating. That's how he always refers to this spectacle. He loves anything that creates talking and moments and highlights, in his point of view.

True. So let's switch gears. I had the great pleasure of talking to ["Daily Show" executive producer] Steve Bodow right after Trump's election, and I spoke with [head writer] Zhubin Parang about a year ago. And since then, you've also been profiled in a number of outlets. In each of those cases, the people who work with you have said the same thing, which is that your internationalist perspective has given the people who work with you a lot of clarity and comfort. Zhubin specifically referred to the famous eight-minute bit you created during Trump's campaign which listed all of his similarities to an African dictator.

Now that we're almost two years into this presidency, how do think your internationalist perspective is informing how "The Daily Show" is shaped and written?

I only noticed it as a benefit after Trump had won. Because before that I spent so much time listening to people tell me that I had no idea of how American elections worked, or I wasn't the right person to be doing "The Daily Show" because I was not connected to politics in America in any way, shape or form. And then after Trump won, I realized: No, I, I had been connected to Trump's politics for a very long time because of where I come from. It's many Americans who had no familiarity with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

If you come from a developing nation, his style of leadership is all too familiar. And so what's really been great for ourselves in the building is being able to operate from a place where we say, look, I know it feels like the world is ending every day. But it really isn't. You know, I don't like to exist in hyperbole. I'll play with it as a joke, but I try and tell people like, "Hey, you can't exist in a state of perpetual panic."

As somebody who has come from a country where it always feels like it's over with regard to certain things, you come to realize that you have to redefine what you expect and what the reality is. You can't spend all your time being devastated. You can't spend all your time being shocked.

Now, that doesn't mean that apathy sets in, but it means that you start to realize that there is a new normal. Then what you have to do is decipher, I think, between what you expect in terms of the rhetoric of a person or the style in which they deliver their words, and the actual actions and the impact behind them.

That, I think, has helped us a lot. Because we're not going to lose our minds over Trump's spelling in a tweet. We're not going to get angry because of his grammar in a speech. I'm like, guys, just imagine that Trump is a leader who doesn't speak English as his first language. Throw that out of your world, and immediately your life becomes a little less stressful. Because so many people will stress about that, you know? "How can we have a president who can't even spell? He can't even string a sentence together!" Yeah, but that's not really a big problem. The problem is what he's trying say to versus the mistake that he's making in saying it.

As you just pointed out, many developing nations have gone through phases similar to what we're going through. Are you noticing any similar patterns forming within this administration as we approach the midterms? Because parliamentary elections in other nations have been crazy too.

Right. I think in many ways what surprises me, constantly, is how Americans truly, truly, truly have 100 percent confidence in their system. You know, many Americans just take democracy as a whole for granted. Maybe it's because the country has, you know, the oldest democracy that we, that we know of in terms of just sheer time. . . . But the truth is, democracy is really fragile. At any moment, it can kind of come crumbling down.

I come from a place, and I've been in countries in Africa, where it doesn't happen instantly. No one rolls up in a tank and says, "I'm the new leader who's taking away your rights." It's a gradual chipping away. It's a gradual process that people aren't alarmed by until you wake up one day and you realize, "Oh, we don't live in the country that once we lived in before."

And what the extent of that is varies from place to place. But I am always shocked at how much people don't believe any of that could happen in the United States. This is a testament to the American story, but it's also, in many ways, a frightening idea when you [realize] people are not wary enough.

How much are you able to game plan the show's strategy these days? Because, as you pointed out with today's press conference, and as I've discussed with Steve and Zhubin, plans for an episode can just be shredded by an unexpected press conference.

What we do everyday is, we've now come to accept the news cycle. We've come to accept the unpredictable nature of the day. And so we create the show accordingly. We have a show that's created in case nothing happens, and we have a show that's ready to evolve in case everything happens.

The key for us is figuring out what's superfluous, what we should speak about and what we feel speaks to a larger narrative or an idea. What is the narrative that Fox News and Republicans are creating? What is the trap Democrats are falling into, or failing in their strategy? What is a culture war that's culminating in social media, or even on the news? We constantly try and vary the show and speak to issues and ideas that affect how people think and why they may or may not vote.

I know that Fox News gives you quite a bit of fodder to work with, but all of media does. And "The Daily Show" has a very long tradition of critiquing media coverage through comedy. So I'm curious to get your take on the media's shortcomings, especially lately. Certainly some keep on repeating.

Well, one of the key things that doesn't help most of the news is the general snarkiness and apparent dislike for Trump — which I know is harsh to level on anybody, because we're all human beings.

But at the same time, I think a lot of people don't realize that many people have always watched national news in America and viewed it was as this impartial institution. And, you know, when [Walter] Cronkite would read the news in you would go, "I don't know how this person leans [politically], and so the information they give me generally dictates that."

But what happens is, as news anchors become more and more apparent in how they feel about a story, although they may enjoy sharing their point of view, I do think one failing of that becomes like, they cross the line between fact based and emotion/snark based.

If you're not careful, you then undermine the very message that you're giving me. Because the facts are the facts, and sometimes the fact can be overshadowed by your opinion of the fact. And Trump really does a great job of using that to his advantage.

So that's one of the issues that I see on the news. I also think sometimes that people work hard to make Trump seem bad or make it seem like it's a Trump story when it's so easy to poke holes into that. The guy does so many real things, you don't need to stretch anything to be about him.

Because as we've learned, if you have one instance where he can use it as fodder for his "fake news" cannon, he will do just that. And so some people seem so desperately eager to get him, but all they end up doing is creating this vicious cycle where people go, "See? The media is out to get him."

It's tough, I get it. It's being caught between a rock and a hard place. But I think that's it.

And then, covering his conspiracy theories in the same way they did before, and you know, following him around. I was actually surprised that recently he conducted a rally that even Fox News didn't cover, because people realized he just repeats the same things and, they're not gonna cover that. That was an interesting turn for the news. Because one thing I noticed before the previous election was the news spent less time talking about the facts on the ground and more time speaking about how people were reacting to each other and what people were saying as opposed to what was affecting the American public.

Honestly, even going back to the whole Kanye West press event today [Thursday]  — after a point a person has to ask, why are they still covering this nonsense?

Right. And my thing is that people say to me, "But why do you cover it?" And I'm like, I'm a comedy show! I'm always going to look for the most ridiculous thing possible. I'm always going to look for the blooper. I'm trying to create a show that catches you up on the news, but is specifically designed to find the funny and the absurd. So it is a difficult game the news plays. Do you go for the ratings, or do you find that balance and tell us what happened with the Saudi journalist as much as you're going to tell us about Kanye West and the conversation he's having with Donald Trump?

Here's one thing I wanted to ask you about. I know you spoke to [South Carolina] Sen. Lindsey Graham leading up to the election (note: Graham visited "The Daily Show" in March 2016) and he made that joke that amounted to a veiled threat, saying that if Trump gets elected, you'd better get your papers in order or you're going to be deported, ha ha ha!

Right. "Ha ha."

It must be very interesting for you to have witnessed everything that's happened since then, not only in terms of how immigration is viewed now in America, but in the context of what happened over recent weeks with the hearings surrounding Brett Kavanaugh. Seeing this very same person now yelling at his political rivals and saying, "I hope you never get power."

What has that been like for you? And I mean that not only in terms of what it's been like for Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but Trevor Noah, a human being and a South African citizen who is working in the United States?

You know, I won't lie. I've never been plagued by a fear of what will happen to me. I think I'm really lucky in that, you know, I come from a country that is, in my opinion, still thriving and growing and although it has a beleaguered history, I think, has a really promising future. So I've never been afraid of being deported because of what I say or what I do.

I worry more for people who don't have the luxury that I do. I worry more for people who are living in a country where they don't know what their tomorrow is. I worried more for people who are worried about their rights being taken away.

I'll never deny that I'm in a place of privilege for many different reasons. So for me, what I worry more about is how it seems like America is getting to a place of no return in terms of rhetoric. You know, it's become harder and harder to have a discussion between two opposing sides. It's been harder to have a discussion between two people and try and find some common thread of an agreed reality.

That's something I've always been a fan of. Maybe it's because of Nelson Mandela. Maybe it's because of my country and how I was raised. But I've noticed that in everybody. I mean, I remember when Tomi Lahren came to the show. There were those moments where you're like, OK, we don't completely agree, but we agree on a certain vibe. And maybe you know, maybe there's a thing you could find in the person that becomes a thread of humanity that you can tug on that connects them to you.

But . . . I genuinely think because of Trump's prodding, he doesn't allow that. He was the catalyst that sparks division in a way that few people have ever seen. He does not try to become a reconciling force. And we saw it with the Kavanaugh hearings and Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford. He could have easily, as president, said, "Hey, let's respect this woman. Let's support her whilst at the same time acknowledging that, hey, I believe Brett Kavanaugh and I'm in a tough position." Which many Republicans did try to do. But he decided to go in and divide people in the best way that he could. And for me, it's very difficult for people to reconcile when someone who's in the biggest position of power is continuing to stoke the flames.

With all the hosts in this talk variety space, everybody has their different styles in terms of comedy and stage presence. What distinguishes you is that even when you are talking about very serious subjects, you seem to maintain a note of evenness and a kind of optimism. That's something that not every host can claim.


Of course, there was that famous viral video made in light of the string of police shootings of couple of years ago in which you were very passionate, and understandably so. But I guess what I'm asking is how are you able to maintain such visible optimism in spite of everything that's going on in our culture, in America and even globally?

You know, I was lucky in that I didn't grow up as an as an adult in apartheid. I was lucky that apartheid ended when I was still a young child. But you still experience the effects of that.

And one of those effects is, you do not have the luxury of rage. You have to find your moments and you have to process information through different prisms. You have to find ways to preserve, I think, the idea of who you are as a human being. Because you cannot exist perpetually enraged.

For many people who are minorities, for many people who are oppressed, if you constantly allowed rage to dictate how you felt about things, you would live in a state of perpetual rage. And so rage is sometimes a luxury you don't have as a person.

So for myself, I've always used comedy as a tool. A tool to process things that normally would make me angry, and as a tool to process the pain that myself and people around me may be feeling. It's a reminder of who I want to be and how I'm trying to feel. And so for me, laughter is never about diminishing the reality of the world I live in, but rather about using that laughter to not give the world I live in the power over me to dictate who I am as a human being.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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