Trevor Noah: The calm in the storm

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NEW YORK — Trevor Noah bounds into a bright, skylit conference room at "The Daily Show" offices in Manhattan wearing a black Nike T-shirt and a headset mic, like he's a pop star, or maybe a SoulCycle instructor. It's the first full day of arguments at President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, plus it's Bagel Tuesday, so, big morning all around for everyone here at Comedy Central's flagship fake-news program.

Forty or so writers, producers and correspondents (plus a handful of dogs) fill the room, forming a notably diverse group - though there is still a healthy smattering of white dudes, even a lone conservative. Later, Noah explains that his work to diversify the staff is not "zero-sum." Grinning, he promises: "I'm not going to fire white guys."

Co-executive producer Justin Melkmann queues up news clips and they are met with Alan Dershowitz giving quite the creative explanation for why, in 1998, he asserted that the president did not have to commit a crime to be impeached but now he is arguing the opposite side. "I wasn't wrong then," Dershowitz said on CNN. "I'm just much more correct right now."

It's a classic Trump-era comedy trap: How do you satirize something that is thoroughly absurd upon arrival?

But Noah responds to the clip with glee. "It's a wonderful illumination of how you can interpret the Constitution," he says. "It's like religion. Like, you can hate gay people because the Bible says so, right? Until your son is gay, and then you can say, 'Well, I don't see the word gay anywhere in the Ten Commandments.' " He lifts his hands up, framing an imaginary movie screen above his head. "It's a perfect encapsulation!"

What is Noah looking for in this endless scroll of headlines, which he starts checking on his phone before he gets out of bed? "I'm trying to find the zeitgeist of the day," he says later. He wants "The Daily Show" to "run the gamut of news, from the dumbest, most ridiculous, inconsequential stories that mean nothing in your life, all the way through to the war that may be happening between America and Iran." He also wants to analyze societal issues that aren't necessarily news-pegged or anchored at the White House, reeling off a list of issues such as race inequality, climate change, police shootings and student debt, and exemplified by a recent episode about mental health stigma in the black community.

As Noah sees it, "The Daily Show" is "not just here to make you feel afraid. We're using comedy to help process everything that is happening in the world."

Not too long ago, audiences turned to late night not to process the world but to forget the world; nightmare fodder so close to bedtime was verboten. The hosts - all men, mostly white - put on suits and ties and did their best Johnny Carson, and the format went virtually unexamined and unchanged for years. When Jon Stewart slid behind the "Daily Show" desk in 1999, he wasn't the only guy in the 11 p.m. ET hour to talk politics, but he was certainly the only one prioritizing that over sketches and celebrities.

Executive producer Jill Katz has been with "The Daily Show" for 14 years. Sitting in front of a framed Rally to Restore Sanity poster in her office, she tells me: "I felt like we used to be sort of a big fish in a small pond. People didn't even know that this was an angle to comedy."

Sometime between the night Jimmy Fallon tousled Trump's hair and the night Trump won the election, audiences lost their taste for performatively nonpartisan humor. Engagement, not escapism, became the order of the day. For "Daily Show" alumni - Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj - this was familiar territory. But now even the most ardently apolitical late-night hosts were polishing their Trump impressions, caving to the covfefe of it all.

Almost overnight, it seemed like everyone who had been trying to be the next Johnny Carson was in the business of trying to be the next Jon Stewart. Which left "The Daily Show," and its new young host, fighting for real estate on the very block they built.

* * *

Noah's office is spacious but cozy, all exposed brick and brown leather. A shelf on one wall glimmers with success, including an Emmy and the framed clipping from when his memoir, "Born a Crime," became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

He answers questions in deliberate, unhurried paragraphs, even though he has plenty on his docket for the day, including a photo shoot for this article. (When I ask that afternoon if anybody knows how it went, showrunner Jen Flanz assures me, "It's literally impossible to take a bad picture of Trevor.") Leaning forward in his seat, elbows resting lightly on his knees, Noah considers the way his late-night competitors seemed to be participating in a post-Stewart sweepstakes.

Trevor Noah: The calm in the storm

Trevor Noah was just 31 years old and had been with "The Daily Show" for four months when he was named Jon Stewart's successor in March 2015. 

"The irony is that, when Jon Stewart was leaving, I asked him why he liked me as the next host," Noah says. "And he said, 'I want you to host because I know you're not going to try and be me. So I get to leave with my legacy.' And that means a lot to me, because it freed me. I'm not trying to be Jon, nor do I need to be."

Noah was just 31 years old and had been with "The Daily Show" for four months when he was named Stewart's successor in March 2015. To the uninitiated, and even to longtime fans, Noah might have been a surprising pick to take over for Stewart after his 16 years at the helm. But Neal Brennan, co-creator and co-writer of "Chappelle's Show" and a regular contributor to "The Daily Show," expected to see Noah's name on the shortlist.

"The first time he did the show, it went viral. And that's rare, right?" (That debut segment, "Spot the Africa," has more than 5.7 million views on YouTube.) "He's also an impressive guy. He carries himself like a diplomat. And he's temperamentally capable of doing a show. A lot of that job is like, you have to manage 100 people. ... (You have to be) capable of it beyond just saying the s--- on the teleprompter, because that's the tip of the iceberg," Brennan says.

Born to a black mother and a white father and raised under apartheid in South Africa, Noah was unlike anyone who'd worked at "The Daily Show" before. His speedy ascent seemed to signal that Comedy Central was eager to bring a long-overdue fresh perspective not just to "The Daily Show" but to all of late-night comedy, a genre whose idea of diversity is having a James, a James who goes by Jimmy, and also another James who goes by Jimmy but lives in L.A.

At first, Noah wasn't the only host of color on the network. Larry Wilmore's "The Nightly Show" - a "Daily Show" spinoff that took over the old "Colbert Report" time slot - premiered in January 2015. But Wilmore's show was canceled after only two seasons, officially due to low ratings and tepid social media engagement, though it does not seem incidental that Wilmore's series was reliably home to candid discussions about race, and its replacement was a pop-culture quiz show hosted by a white guy. Also hurting Wilmore was the fact that, nine months after his show premiered, his lead-in was no longer Jon Stewart: As one might expect during a regime change from a beloved host to a relative newcomer, ratings declined when Noah took over. By his 100th episode, he'd lost 37 percent of "The Daily Show's" viewers.

"It wasn't the easiest transition, I'll say that," Brennan says. "Everyone who worked there was a 'Daily Show With Jon Stewart' writer. Getting it to "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" took some figuring out."

Noah's promotion arrived just a year before Trump was elected - which you might think would have been a no-duh boon for the show, comedy-fodder-wise. But whenever possible, a concerted effort is made to resist the pull of the Trump vortex. "I take into account fatigue," Noah says. "Because I've learned audiences, including myself, just get tired because it feels like nothing has changed, nothing has moved."

Noah sees a one major culprit for everyone's exhaustion: cable news. "I think that's what hurts Americans in many ways," he says. "Cable news runs so many stories into the ground that people get bored of them, even if it's major news stories that could affect their lives."

Fair point, though "The Daily Show" could not exist in anything resembling its current form without cable news, whose work is the object of the show's most pointed satire. So while cable news is maybe (probably) poisoning the civic discourse, the truth is cable news is also what gives the "The Daily Show" form and purpose, something to riff on and snark at. The relationship between the two is less Hatfields vs. McCoys, more Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner.

For Noah, it's been interesting to see that viewers tune into "The Daily Show" expecting to find a recognizable political leaning - much like the cable-news channels it parodies have apparent red or blue agendas. "A lot of people think they know what my point of view in a certain area would be, because they have predetermined what 'The Daily Show' is," Noah says. "Many people don't understand that I don't come from a world with just Democrats and Republicans. ... So I don't think along clearly defined lines in that way."

While that partisan ambiguity may have unsettled or even turned off some longtime "Daily Show" fans, Noah's idiosyncratic way of thinking and talking about stories is what ultimately made this new show pop.

"We (learned to) lean into Trevor's voice a lot more," says writer-producer Zhubin Parang. By "voice" Parang meant Noah's distinctive point of view, but the show also shines because of Noah's literal voice: Anytime Noah does impressions, characters or accents, Brennan says, "the audience loses its mind." It doesn't hurt that this is a talent that sets him apart from Stewart. ("Jon could do, like, the Jersey guy, the Jewish guy," Brennan says. "And I've known Jon for 25 years. I'm not telling tales. Jon would probably agree with me.")

After that initial dip, ratings improved, but Noah is especially popular online, where "The Daily Show" logs 74 million views per month.

"When I started at 'The Daily Show,' I played it safe, and that was because I didn't want to destroy an amazing institution," Noah says. "As I've grown more comfortable, I came to realize the best way to create a unique show was just to be myself - because I, myself, am unique, you know?"

You know who else thinks Trevor Noah is unique? Oprah Winfrey. Asked what makes Noah so well equipped for this role, she says: "I think part of it is being an outsider. Not actually being from this country, and everything that shaped who he is ... allows him to see things with a greater, open mind. He has an ability to not be so subjective, but to have some objectivity to it all."

"It also helps that he's as cute as a golden retriever puppy," she adds, "Every time I look at him, I think: There's that golden pup." (Before hanging up, she returned to this thought: " 'Cute as a golden pup.' Be sure to use that! We know there is nothing on Earth cuter than a golden retriever pup.")

It's not just Noah; the format of the show keeps the host flanked by correspondents, whose respective identities and experiences expand the scope of what "The Daily Show" is able to cover.

"I don't know any other show that has as much of a genuinely diverse cast of people giving their opinions straight to camera," says correspondent Ronny Chieng, who, like Noah, is a one-man manifestation of the show's melting-pot vibe: A Chinese stand-up comic, he was born in Malaysia, grew up in Singapore and New Hampshire, attended college in Australia, and met Noah at a comedy festival in Montreal.

Since Noah took over, "The Daily Show" has hired a dozen new writers. Noah feels particularly suited to running a newly diverse staff. "I think it is maybe because I come from a country where we had to do that," he says. "One minute, we were separated as races. And then the next day was like, 'All right, everyone can mix.' But then, as you mix, you start to understand ... the cultural differences."

Noah cites John Oliver as the biggest reason he agreed to do "The Daily Show" and as the person who helped him become comfortable with the idea of someone from another country commenting on what was happening in America. The outsiderness Noah initially feared would be an obstacle soon revealed itself to be an asset.

During Noah's first week as host, Trump kicked off his presidential campaign with the now-infamous speech about how Mexico "isn't sending their best people" to the United States, but instead is shipping over "drugs," "criminals" and "rapists." "Daily Show" viewers were probably expecting their new host, an immigrant himself, to react in apoplectic horror. But as the clip of Trump's speech ended, Noah beamed: "For me, as an African, there's just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home."

The segment, "Trump is an African dictator," spliced a bunch of Trump's xenophobic and bombastic rants with near-identical tirades from the presidents of South Africa, Gambia and Uganda. At the end, Noah declared: "Donald Trump is presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent."

As most comedians (and reporters) struggled to find language that would adequately describe what scanned to many as unprecedented rhetoric from a presidential hopeful, Noah's vantage point gave him the understanding most lacked. "I think, to this day, that is still the best framework to look at Trump through," Parang says.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that (was) his first really good first act," Brennan says. "Seth wasn't going to do that. Kimmel wasn't going to do that."

"Nobody else could do that headline," Flanz says. "Except for Trevor."

* * *

The impeachment trial sputters into nothing. Meanwhile, wildfires blaze across continents, leaving a trail of ash and death in their wake; thousands of migrant children continue to be separated from their parents and housed in cages; and countless Americans are forced to use GoFundMe as their primary medical coverage.

Maybe the biggest challenge of comedy in the Trump era is not that cable news is a relentless infotainment-fest, or that there's a surplus of late-night competitors, or that our new reality is innately absurd. Maybe it's that nothing really feels funny anymore. Sometimes it is hard to imagine things ever feeling funny again.

"We're entertaining in a country that is angrier than it's ever been during the life of political satire," says correspondent Roy Wood Jr. "To make an angry person laugh, you have to come from an extremely specific place. ... And I think that's what Trevor does so well."

"His best quality, as I see it, is his discernment," Oprah says. "He doesn't just see things. He sees the surface, beneath the surface, around the surface, and the wholeness of things. And that is an incredible quality to have: in life, in people, with relationships, in business, (and) it allows him, in my opinion, to create insight through humor."

"That word discernment is big. It's big," she continues. "It's what most people lack, is the ability to see beneath the surface of things. And he's able to do that, to connect a country that is basically enraged and outraged by everything, by using humor to find the common thread for us all."

Whether you think Noah is succeeding at "The Daily Show" probably hinges on your attitude about the worth of that very effort. Is 2020 really about finding the common thread? Or is it about accepting that there is no common thread to find, that we have passed the event horizon for compromise? Brennan described Noah as "the embodiment of reconciliation." For some, that makes Noah sound like the just-right man for the moment; for others, especially those accustomed to seeing late-night hosts "eviscerate" the villains of any given news cycle, it probably has the opposite effect. "I don't think everything's the end of the world," Noah says. "I don't think everything is chaos."

Noah has joked in his standup about daily life under a racist police state, even about the day his mother was shot in the head. (Technically, it's her line that gets the laughs: "Now you're officially the best-looking person in the family," she told him; he replied, through tears, "By default!") He knows from laughing through horror.

"I myself have always used humor to process pain (and) tension in life," Noah says. "So that's what the 'Daily Show' is here for: to inform you, and to just help you remember who you are as a human being, who laughs through some things that may not be funny because you remember what you're trying to get to on the other side."

Trevor Noah: The calm in the storm

Trevor Noah backstage at "The Daily Show."

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