Taking over the Daily Show desk in 2015, Trevor Noah saw his show reach its most-watched week ever last month, continuing to build a diverse audience while calling out BS in Washington. For over two years now, Donald Trump has dominated the daily news cycle—initially viewed as a joke, and increasingly, as a bulletproof, imminent threat—and while certain late-night hosts have seemed to take joy in trolling Trump, finding a badge of honor in driving the President to respond to their jibes, this is not the tack Noah takes.
“I’m not trying to be a thorn in his side,” the host says, preferring to build on the information the news provides, offering context and a unique perspective on current events while placing a spotlight on increasingly bizarre happenings in the world of politics. Speaking with Deadline, Noah explains how The Daily Show has evolved since Jon Stewart departed, his thoughts on politics in the age of social media and the perspective his South African upbringing affords him.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has just hit its most-watched week ever. How does that feel, and to what do you attribute this success?
It’s definitely rewarding. It’s nice to know that something we create with love and passion is something that people appreciate; that it’s connecting with audiences and especially growing diverse audiences.
I attribute it to a combination of factors—most importantly, the fact that people now care. Some would say it’s the “Trump effect,” but it’s rather the effect of people really caring about what’s happening in the news, and what’s going on in their politics, now more than ever.
From your perspective, how has the show evolved since you initially took over hosting duties?
I think it’s evolved in its point of view, in the way that it tackles an idea or an issue. We’ve become a show that is less about media criticism, and more a show that, in essence, puts forward an argument, against or in favor of certain issues. In many ways, the show is still evolving. I think to get away completely from the DNA of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in a year and a half would be unrealistic.
The goal is to steadily change the show. We have a lot more sketch-based elements, we do a lot of pre-tapes, we play around with the format. The way we shoot our field pieces has changed. Stylistically, the show has a different approach to telling a story. Those are small changes that happen under the hood that, over time, when you look back, you would see a big change, but I always think the best change is incremental.
What is the responsibility of someone in your position, in terms of balancing entertainment with serious political discussion? Your correspondent, Hasan Minhaj, commented recently on the line between the two, and the damaging effects of snark in the media.
I think the biggest thing that separates us from the news is the fact that we don’t hide our intentions, nor our position, so I tell you how I feel. With Hasan’s piece, what was great is he was talking about if news wishes to portray itself as unbiased, it should act accordingly, and imbuing the news with personality and snark doesn’t really work to that end, unfortunately.
It feeds into the narrative that Trump and his supporters claim about the news—that they are biased against Trump, as opposed to being objective—which I feel the news is, in many ways, but the personality of the host sometimes overrides that objectivity.
People may be getting the news from us, but maybe it’s because we come in with the disclaimer of, “Hey, this is how we feel about things.” This is not a space where we are saying to you, “We don’t have a preconceived notion of the world.” We are giving you an opinion. We are giving you our insights. We’re giving you our dissection of what is happening, so that’s, I think, what separates us.
The responsibility, I think, is different. If I put it this way, the news’ job should be to inform you. Our job is to give context to the information that you now have.
Certain late-night hosts seem to express a joy in being a thorn in Trump’s side, as he repeatedly lashes out at the media. Is this attitude reflective of you or your approach to the job?
No, not necessarily. I don’t define myself by whether or not Donald Trump hates me or loves me, or whether I’m fighting against him or not because I’d like to think I exist beyond him. I’m existing in my world.
My world happens to clash with his on occasion, and that’s part of what I’m doing. That’s an opinion; that’s a point of view. What I would be wary of doing is ever saying, “Oh, now that he’s my enemy, now I have a purpose or an idea of what I’m doing.” I don’t think that’s the case.
I’m not trying to be a thorn in his side. I’m trying to be a host of a show that’s constantly calling out BS and seeking out the facts, and if the facts happen to be a thorn in his side, then that’s a byproduct of what we’re doing.
Having grown up in South Africa—outside of the context of the United States—what perspective does your background bring to your work on the show?
One thing that informs my perspective is that I understand the reality and the possibility of a dictatorship forming from a democracy, which is something most Americans don’t think is possible. Now, I am not an alarmist. I know that American institutions are stronger. I know that there are foundations that have been put in place to prevent this, but that doesn’t mean that all of these ideas are impossible.
Donald Trump is the stress test of America’s democracy right now. Over time, you will come to realize that you have many buttresses in place designed to prevent it, but you also realize that there were some fortifications that could have been improved. For instance, being able to fire the head of the FBI, and then installing your head of the Justice Department, and creating a series of people who seem to have your best interest at heart before the country’s best interest at heart, is a troubling trend.
To see both houses of Congress basically towing the party line before the country line, that causes concern, and America can very quickly get to the place where your only holdout is the courts. That’s how South Africa is to a certain extent now. We rely on our courts to be our final stop, but that gives me perspective because I know it’s possible. I know people say it can’t happen in America, but that’s what they said about Donald Trump.
Responding to the act of terrorism in Manchester several weeks ago, Trump simply called the terrorists involved “losers,” reverting again to his central black-and-white philosophy. In your mind, what are the consequences of this kind of rhetoric?
I think when it comes to international diplomacy, and handling international incidents, a leader has the ability to diffuse anger and tension, ignite passion and empathy, and galvanize a feeling of unity. A leader also has the ability to incite both a hatred and to a certain extent, a sense of misunderstanding or mischaracterization of what is happening. It’s troubling because you won’t win the war on terror from name-calling. I’ll tell you that much. This is not a situation you can bully yourself out of.
What are your thoughts on our age of social media, where the President of the United States is communicating his true intentions primarily via Twitter?
I think the biggest complication becomes, at what point is Twitter policy, and how much of Twitter do we take for granted? The administration will have people believe that Twitter shouldn’t count, and yet those are the direct thoughts of the President. So then, which thoughts count?
He was tweeting about building a wall. He was tweeting about banning all Muslims. He was tweeting about bombing the shit out of the Middle East. Are these things that didn’t happen? I think it’s disingenuous for people to say, “Oh, don’t look at that. It’s just bluster,” and what they’re not doing is looking at it in its entirety.
I think Donald Trump tweeting, one thing I’ve appreciated about it is it makes it a lot harder for people to try and normalize him, which an administration would very quickly try and do, and which a lot of people would seek out, because it’s disconcerting to have a president, like Donald Trump seems to be, flying off at the hinges everyday.
When an administration tells you things are okay, as a populus, we want to feel like everything is okay, but Twitter reminds you that everything’s not okay.
What is the average day like on the set of The Daily Show? How do you and your team keep up with the rapid pace of current events?
The day starts—we get together and talk about the news that has developed overnight. We talk about the biggest stories. We figure out our takes. We think of ideas to expand, and we start getting that into production. We look at the schedule for the day, see if there are any press conferences coming up, prepare for how to react to that.
We work throughout the day to get the show ready, knowing full well that at 5, 6 p.m., something could break that would be big enough to throw off what we’ve planned. At the same time, we’re very careful to not get swept up in the hysteria of what has just happened. It’s about finding that balance between reacting, and at the same time, still putting forward what we feel was important from what we had intended to do on that day.
What have you learned from the guests on your show, who are typically political experts, or experts in their particular arena?
One thing I try and do is book guests who can teach us something, who round out the conversation that we’re having on the show. Because there are things we don’t know, and it’s nice to have an expert opinion, somebody who’s worked in a field, someone who has insight that we maybe don’t.
You also occasionally bring on guests who are more controversial, and there’s no ruffling of the hair. You’re diplomatic, while always pushing back and asking the critical questions. How do you handle these exchanges?
For me to lose my temper when you come to my show, in my opinion, just means that I was not forward thinking enough to know why you were coming to my show. I know your views. I know your opinions. But you’re still a guest on my show, and I believe the most productive conversation we can have is one that is meaningful and thoughtful, as opposed to a shouting match. I’m not trying to have a shouting match, because that’s what most cable news is right now, as well.
If anything, I’m trying to have a dialogue. I’m trying to challenge people’s ideas, and have people who will challenge mine, and come out of that with a slightly better understanding of an issue, or a person, or an idea.
With the Comey memo released, and an active conversation around impeachment developing, are you optimistic about the way in which things are progressing?
Not without Democrats winning the midterms. I don’t see how that would happen. I think it’s very unlikely for Trump to get impeached with Republicans in power. Part of me also doesn’t want Trump to get impeached. I feel like it would be better if he lost the election, because if he were to get impeached, I could see Donald Trump using that as the fuel to drive a new era of conspiracy theories about how he was robbed of the presidency by the mainstream media, and the Democrats, which is something that his fans would latch onto.
It’s already become a new talking point for him, and Roger Stone, and his friends, so I would want Donald Trump to really lose the way he won, at the ballots.