“Only an idiot would take over from Jon Stewart as the host of ‘The Daily Show.’ And luckily, I was that idiot,” Trevor Noah told The Times when he stopped by our video studio a few weeks back.
Noah says he had doubts, but he managed to find his own voice on “The Daily Show,” guiding Comedy Central’s late-night institution to its first series Emmy nomination with him as host in 2017.
Did Trump’s election give “The Daily Show” its focus?
Definitely. Satire works best when it has targets. And it’s very difficult to fake that target. So, when you’re living in a world where everything seems to be going right, it’s difficult to be in a space where you are feigning anger, because there really is no need for any. It seems like a vestige of a previous time.
But once Trump came into office, the show immediately had its relationship with the White House, not dissimilar to how “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” really started its tenure with George Bush. So, in many ways, that’s the journey that the show has with the White House. It’s an interesting relationship, like Harry Potter has with Voldemort.
Have you imagined what “The Daily Show” would be like if that relationship were to come to an end in November 2020?
I’ve always been somebody who thinks in the now, and I think my belief in that idea was made concrete when the election took place in 2016. Because before that, I was swayed back and forth on how well I thought Trump was doing. But oftentimes, I was put in my place by people who had observed so many different American elections, that told me, “Hey, you’re not from here. This is not permanent. Relax. Trump won’t make it to the White House.”
And I would watch him at debates … like, the one debate where Pence disavowed him, and then after the debate, Pence sent a tweet saying, “Great performance and great display from our future president, and well done.” And I was like, “Wow, this seems like a turning moment for Donald Trump.”
And so I’ve realized, the campaign is not one single story. It’s a journey of little stories that get you to the final ending. And so what I’m doing right now is focusing on what story we’re telling our audience every week. What is in the news [and] how does it apply to you? Which parts offend you, and which parts affect you? Because I’ve realized there’s a difference between the two. And I’m just slowly working toward that mountaintop that is the 2020 presidential election.
You’ve interviewed a number of presidential candidates. What’s your strategy in talking to people who avoid questions they don’t like?
Every politician’s going to come in with their talking points. They’re selling who they are. They’re trying to get the job. And so what I’m trying to do is ask the questions that the employer, aka the voter, should be asking. And what I try to do is just steadily chip away at the talking points and try to get to the human being behind them.
I think a lot of politicians focus too much on how much they can remember, how many facts they can regurgitate, and not enough on the message. What are they actually saying? And that’s where, hate him or love him, Donald Trump is really good at delivering a message. He may not be good with his words. He may not be good with the English language. But his message is always crystal clear to those who are listening to him.
Not being good with words and language is part of the appeal, it seems.
Oh, yeah, definitely. He plays into it. And he plows through any foibles that the rest of us would be stuck up on. He just goes with it, creates a new reality. And that’s part of his strength, and that’s what people like in him, a leader who goes, “No, there is no wrong, there is no mistake, we just make this a new path.”
Yes, it is. He had a moment where he believed he had it, and he came back, and he didn’t have it. Those are fun moments. And that’s what I try to focus on in “The Daily Show,” reminding the audience that those are fun moments, not moments to get outraged over. If you think your president mispronouncing a word is a scandal, then you have way too many issues in your life. That’s something we can laugh about, and [then] move on. I don’t think that’s anything that now disqualifies a person to be president. Some people read too much into it. This is another reminder that you can look at just what the person is doing in the office and how the administration is conducting themselves, and that gives you enough ammunition to make your decision.