Trevor Noah isn't gone yet, but he'll leave "The Daily Show" better

The Comedy Central host is ready to exit: "I realized that after the 7 years, my time is up"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 30, 2022 8:19AM (EDT)

Trevor Noah attends the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards at L.A. LIVE in 2021. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Trevor Noah attends the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards at L.A. LIVE in 2021. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Trevor Noah hit his seventh anniversary as host of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah." We're all a little lax in keeping track of time these days, so Noah's mention at the top of Thursday night's episode that "Daily Show" correspondent Roy Wood Jr. had to remind him of the milestone didn't seem remarkable.

This forgets how masterful Noah is in wielding a conversational tone before depressing the brake, gently but assuredly, to arrive at punchlines or conclusions that aren't always easy to hear.

After Noah spoke of being full of gratitude for the journey, calling it "absolutely amazing, it's something that I never expected," he dropped another harsh headline on his viewers.  

"I realized that after the seven years, my time is up," he said.

Seven years does not seem long for a late-night talk show host who is young and still very much in his stride — especially compared to the tenure of Noah's predecessor Jon Stewart, who saw 16 trips around the sun during his time with the show. During that time came 9/11, the start of the Iraq War, eight years of George W. Bush's presidency and most of Barack Obama's, as well as the rise of the Fox News misinformation machine.

One might be tempted to write off Noah's decision to step down with less than half that time under his belt as a move typical of job-hopping Millennials. Generation Xers and Boomers, i.e. The Olds, still cling to some notion that company loyalty should mean something in this world. But chalking the decision up to succumbing to an itch or a lack of stamina isn't fair or right.

Noah didn't specify exactly what he plans to do next in his five-minute announcement other than saying that getting back out into the world made him realize he wanted to see more of it. Before the pandemic, he still performed live stand-up sets even while "The Daily Show" was in production, which he confessed he's been missing.

"I spent two years in my apartment, not on the road, and when I got back out there, I realized there's another part of my life out there that I want to carry on exploring," he said on Thursday. "I miss learning other languages. I miss going to other countries and putting on shows."

And that is precisely why this announced departure feels less sorrowful than the farewells from hosts before him when they've gotten the opportunity to deliver them. Thanks to his work on "The Daily Show," Noah has made it plain he's capable of much more than he can achieve by sitting behind a desk four nights a week.

Few late-night talk show hosts hit their stride straight out of the gate. But Noah stepped into the boots of a giant.

He's already defied the expectations many had of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" when he took over in 2015 as a relatively unknown South African comedian on whom Stewart made a gamble. "I sort of felt like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Noah said. "I came in for a tour of what the previous show was. And then the next thing I know I was handed the keys."

Not many were pleased by the change in the product between Stewart and Noah. If you were to have polled many writers back then, nearly all would have placed long odds on Noah lasting more than a couple of years, let alone seven.

Consider this Salon headline from 2016, not even a year into his time on the job: "The Daily Show" is dead to me: Trevor Noah will never, ever be good at his job — also, thanks a lot for Donald Trump."

That writer, Sophia A. McClennen, eventually changed her tune. Many people did. That's part of the journey to which Noah refers, one that Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers all faced when they first slid behind desks we now assume they'll occupy until their domes are as snow-covered as Johnny Carson's used to be.

Few late-night talk show hosts hit their stride straight out of the gate. But Noah stepped into the boots of a giant, figuratively speaking. Never mind that Stewart had the dual luxury and ponderous task of overhauling "The Daily Show" after the self-aggrandizing bro who came before left. It still took some time for him, and the show, to find its raison d'être.

But if Stewart's watch was defined by slicing through the Bush Administration's thick and ever-expanding wall of bull, and serving as a nightly corrective to the right-wing media ecosystem, Noah's quest was even more arduous. He made a point of looking beyond the politics and psychology of the U.S.A. to contextualize America's place in the world.

As it turns out, that international view served him and the audience brilliantly when America elected an authoritarian and would-be dictator.

Noah famously foresaw Donald Trump's presidency when few on the left could conceive of it, not even his writing staff. In a conversation I had with him in 2018, after "The Daily Show" received its first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Talk Series, he remarked that before the 2016 election, "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," he continued, "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."

That is how Noah transformed "The Daily Show" from the media spin and propaganda filter it became during Stewart's watch into the guide through racial and social injustice we needed during a presidency that thrived on bigotry and xenophobia.

To someone in Noah's position and in his skin who was tasked with keeping our spirits up during one of the lowest, darkest periods in American history, seven years probably feels like 20. 

Noah was the host people turned in 2020 when civil rights protests revealed how blinkered white Americans are in matters of racial inequity. To an audience that sought understanding instead of comfortable humor, Noah retained the demeanor of a knowledgeable outsider and observer while dropping truth nukes.

This is why his viral video analysis about George Floyd and society's broken social contract with Black America was at once emotionally pure and gutting in its evenhanded delivery. This is why his pandemic shows, rebranded as "The Daily Social Distancing Show" and produced from his apartment, had a value and urgency others lacked.

The network of late-night hosts pacified us and made us laugh at the government's ineptitude in the face of social injustice and so much death caused by a virus we didn't understand. Noah held our hand through it, and at a time when footage of Black people being shot, beaten and abused became a common viral fodder.

So sure, seven years is not 16, or close to the three decades in late-night that David Letterman clocked in. But to someone in Noah's position and in his skin who was tasked with keeping our spirits up during one of the lowest, darkest periods in American history, seven years probably feels like 20.  

And although Noah staffed "The Daily Show" far more inclusively than Stewart, his departure could make broadcasting and cable's late-night host line-up an all-white guy affair again, only now with 100 percent more "Gutfeld" on Fox News Channel.

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Yes, there's still Ziwe on Showtime and Amber Ruffin on Peacock, but 2022 already saw the end of "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" and the break-up and cancellation of "Desus & Mero." There's also a greater likelihood that Comedy Central will continue what Noah built and replace him with a host who isn't a white guy or the profoundly problematic host of the new show "Hell of a Week," Charlamagne Tha God. (Hasan Minhaj is available – just sayin'.)

But the network and the audience have a long time to think about that since, as Noah assured viewers, his exit plan hasn't been nailed down. That's the same playbook Stewart followed when he suddenly announced he was stepping down from "The Daily Show" in February 2015, months before he left. That news was shocking and yet, given all Stewart had brought the audience through, it was commonly accepted that he'd earned his rest.

The same is true of Noah, and the fact that he has the juice to announce his departure in the same way, and draw similar levels of shock and respect, is an indication of how far he's traveled in a short time. Stewart was 36 and a mid-career comic when he took over "The Daily Show" from Craig Kilborn; Noah, at 38, transformed the show yet again and has many years of his professional life in front of him.

Certainly, late-night talk will be poorer for Noah's departure. Depending on what he decides to do next, the world and our discourse about it could be much richer.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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