What was Comedy Central thinking?
In tapping Trevor Noah as the next host of "The Daily Show," the cable network will turn over its most valuable franchise to a relative unknown who has made just a handful of appearances on the program.
With rare exceptions, late-night TV has been a bastion of older white men who paid their dues on the comedy club circuit. To replace Jon Stewart, Comedy Central chose a 31-year-old South African biracial comic who speaks six languages.
Analysts say it's all about recognizing television's new frontier — reaching audiences that are more diverse, on TV and online.
"It's fresh talent coming from nontraditional sources," said Robert Morton, a veteran late-night producer who has made shows for Comedy Central. "They are going outside the system."
Noah is part of the TV industry's aggressive move toward presenting diversity on screen. His perspective could also appeal to viewers beyond American borders, perhaps creating value for "The Daily Show" around the world through online viewing.
"He's a global personality and that's something that you don't have in late night," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president for the ad-buying firm Horizon Media.
Noah is entering the late-night arena at a pivotal time. These shows have to be provocative enough to inspire viewers to share the experience in real time via social media, and get those who missed the initial telecast to watch and share excerpts online the next day.
Clips of "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" received 333 million views on YouTube in February.
Noah, who hosted his own program "Tonight with Trevor Noah" in his native country, is known for his biting social and racial commentary. His debut as a "Daily Show" correspondent provided hints of what his version of the show might look like.
"I never thought I'd be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa," he told Stewart in a segment that played on the idea that, despite American stereotypes about a continent "full of AIDS huts and starving children," circumstances for blacks in the United States are nothing to brag about.
"Africa's worried about you guys," Noah told Stewart. "You know what African mothers tell their children every day? 'Be grateful for what you have, because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.'"
Noah is taking over a program that has been a force in American public discourse. Politicians on both sides of the ideological aisle have used "The Daily Show" to appeal to young, hard-to-reach viewers, many of whom depend on the program as their chief source of TV news.
Steve Kornacki, a political commentator and weekend host for MSNBC, said Noah's status as a new face makes it less likely that the program will be a must-stop in the 2016 presidential campaign.
"It's a wild card," he said. "What direction does he want to take it on? So much of what Jon Stewart did was about political media itself. He gave it an awful lot of attention. He was the political media critic-in-chief."
Some observers wondered if Americans could warm to a foreign comedian skewering U.S. culture and politics four nights a week. But Kornacki pointed out that John Oliver has had little trouble drawing strong ratings on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," or even two years ago when the Cambridge-educated satirist temporarily stepped in so that Stewart could take a leave of absence to direct the film "Rosewater."
In contrast to Oliver, who'd been on "The Daily Show" as a regular contributor for years before he filled in as host, Noah has had much less time to acclimate to American culture. He made his U.S. television debut on "The Tonight Show" in 2012. He joined "The Daily Show" as a contributor in December and has only appeared on the show a handful of times since then.
Stewart was not a political comedian when he started at "The Daily Show," Morton said. The role evolved over time. But, he added, Noah would be better off not trying to replicate what "The Daily Show" is now.
"This guy would be wise to branch out into other areas, which it seems he has the ability to do," Morton said. "Nobody knows him and everybody's going to give him a chance. From what I've seen, he's very likable."
Although Comedy Central executives might regret having let Oliver slip away, they have a good track record of launching new talent and franchises. They also may have had little choice but to turn to an unknown quantity in the U.S.
The big names rumored to have been possible replacements for Stewart — Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler — would have had to give up their other work, including movie roles, to take on the grinding demands of late-night comedy.
"If you want to have a career other than doing a show every day then you can't do it," said one longtime late-night TV producer.
Former "Daily Show" correspondents Samantha Bee and Jason Jones also were potential candidates to succeed Stewart, but both took deals at TBS this year.
"When you think about the qualifications that are needed in that host seat, the list [of potential replacements] becomes very short," Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless said Monday. "The more time we spent with [Noah], the more we saw how special he is and how extraordinary his mind is and how layered his approach to comedy is, because he's a student of the world."
Noah, who grew up in Johannesburg's Soweto township, was a surprise pick. His name had not been among those floated in the media as a possible successor to Stewart until recently.
"It's an honor to follow Jon Stewart. He and the team at 'The Daily Show' have created an incredible show whose impact is felt all over the world," Noah said in a statement from Comedy Central. "In my brief time with the show they've made me feel so welcome. I'm excited to get started and work with such a fantastic group of people."
Comedy Central did not provide any further details about the timing of "The Daily Show" transition, but did confirm that the show will remain in New York.
The network also has "The Nightly Show," hosted by African American comedian Larry Wilmore, which premiered in January in the 11:30 slot vacated by "The Colbert Report." In its brief run, Wilmore's show has tackled some thorny subjects, such as a recent episode that featured a frank discussion of black fatherhood.
In a tweet Monday, comedian Chris Rock — who some had hoped might step in as Stewart's replacement — thanked President Obama for Noah's hiring, presumably because both men are biracial and have compelling biographies. Noah's background will give him a unique perspective on American news at a time when race relations are at the forefront of the national conversation.
Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, a relationship that was illegal under apartheid. "I was born a crime," he has joked in his stand-up act.
"He's good at puncturing absurdities and challenging stereotypes," said Rebecca Davis, a TV columnist for South Africa's Sunday Times. "His mixed-race identity also allows him to play around with race particularly freely."
Noah is the subject of a documentary, "You Laugh But It's True," available on Netflix, and rose to international attention in 2012 after a sold-out show, "The Racist," at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a famed launching pad for comedy talent.
Noah also joins a growing list of internationally born late-night hosts that includes "The Daily Show" alumnus John Oliver, and James Corden, who made his debut as host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS last week. Both are British.
Stewart, 52, announced in February that he would be leaving the show after 16 years at its host. The show premiered in 1996 under then-host Craig Kilborn. Stewart acted as a "sounding board" and "consigliere" throughout the selection process, Ganeless said.
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