Today is the day. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah begins its first new chapter under the South African comedian, who is about to sit in a chair occupied for 16 years by a man many Americans came to love and cherish as a custodian of critical thinking and on-the-mark jokes.
It was only December last year when Trevor Noah joined The Daily Show, sending a wave of positive news through a weary South Africa, drained from the drawn-out coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial. Still a few months into the joy of that good news, the following February, Jon Stewart, after making his first feature film Rosewater, announced he’d be leaving the show and making way for someone new. The unlikely and surprising news that Noah would be taking over from him came a few weeks later. Then, it took some time before we knew when Stewart’s last show would be, and conversely, Trevor’s first. And now here we are, the day has come.
An audience-full of TV fans will line up outside The Daily Show studio for the taping at 6pm on Monday that goes out on air on Comedy Central at 11pm. For South Africans and those European fans Noah has gathered along his many international tours, the episode will air on Tuesday.
I visited the studio on Friday afternoon – along with a host of other international and US journalists. We had some time to talk to Trevor and he seemed cool and calm and in control of how things were playing out. Except he isn’t. And he knows this.
Trevor has likened this experience to sky-diving. “You can do all your preparations on the ground, train, practice, know as much as you can, but then you get into the plane and reach the height you are going to jump and stand at the door, ready, and at that point you have lost control. You control none of the elements, not the direction of the wind, not the bird that may fly into the plane. All you know is the ground is coming towards you and you have to rely on what you’ve done up until now.”
I’ve spoken to friends here about the switchover. One told me he doesn’t think it will work because “The Daily Show is American so The Daily Show host needs to be American.” He doesn’t believe someone from the outside will understand the nuances of being from here and won’t be able to play off of those during the show. Salon, too, believes this and goes further to say the outlook looks “grim.” Indeed I spoke to other journalists from the UK and we shared concerns over whether America will give him a chance to make his own name and way, under the Jon Stewart shadow.
But others I’ve spoken to have welcomed the fresh approach. Comedy Central has said it’s looking to reach a younger, “millennial” audience, but even friends who are a little older than that have told me they like his humour and playing on jokes about things from outside America. Trevor says he intends to use his being an outsider as a way to question many things about politics that Americans take for granted. At Friday’s press event, the news of John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, resigning just broke. Trevor was asked about his reaction, and he brought the team of writers who are working with him and were sitting with him into the answer. He says he will miss Boehner because he used to cry so freely (as evidenced in him meeting the Pope) but what they would do in a situation like that is talk about their favourite John Boehner moments, and he would learn from the writers about things that happened in the past, before he lived in the US, and use that as a springboard to perhaps raise a few questions about a man Americans have become very familiar with. In essence, as he is learning, he wants the audience to re-think those things they take for granted that they know about US politics.
Or so it seems that will be the approach. Trevor assuredly said on Friday the style of the show will change (he wanted more music guests) but it will retain being political, because he still wants to play a part in keeping politicians, no matter where they come from, accountable. “We’ve created this thing, all over the world, where politics is somehow exclusive, politics is show reserved for the political elite,” he says. ” ‘I’ve very smart and so I’m involved in politics,’ whereas the very origins of the word, in Greek, is ‘for the people’, and that’s exactly what it should be: for the people and by the people, and in some ways, many politicians have successfully convinced people it’s not by them or for them, but that it’s the politician’s job to dictate, and that’s not the angle that I come from.”
Trevor has brought with him David Kibuuka from South Africa, who was part of the Late Nite News show nominated for an International Emmy, and Joseph Opio, who ran the Daily Show in Uganda, to New York to join the team of Emmy-winning writers that drives the show. He says that is a continuation of something Jon started, an aim to try and get as many broad voices, different perspectives, into the show as possible.
We’ll see if it works. I for one, as a South African who has reported on Trevor’s career from the start and can’t help but be proud, hope American TV fans at least give him a fighting chance to show them what we’ve been privy to all this time.