When a veteran American comedian and actor Jon Stewart retired as the anchor of The Daily Show late in 2015, after 16 years at the helm, his producers scrambled to offer the job to everyone from Chris Rock to Amy Schumer. They settled on the fresh face from South Africa, with an unusual accent, to dissect and satirize the complex United States political scene as it heads for this year’s elections.
Months before the first show went to air, on September 28, American journalists were skeptical. They didn’t believe Trevor Noah could fill Stewart’s shoes in a show that once captured 3.57 million viewers when Barack Obama breezed through on the cusp of his 2008 election victory.
Bad reviews followed and Noah’s viewership has fallen compared to the days of Stewart. Seven months on, before a press gathering on set, to mark his 100th show, the 32-year-old from Soweto is unfazed.
“It makes sense to me, if my ratings weren’t down I would be offended on behalf of Jon Stewart. It would make sense that people are going to see the king on his way out, when you’re building a new legacy you need to do exactly that. That means building on a new legacy. Television as a whole is down in America. The biggest thing you have to acknowledge is that there are multiple streams of viewership that are happening now,” says Noah.
Despite the drop in popularity among American viewers – the Nielsen ratings report a 37% decline – it broadcasts to 170 countries, compared to 163 when Noah took over.
“These ratings aren’t disastrous, but considering that politics are the bread and butter of late night television, Noah’s numbers are disappointing. Given this preposterous election season, the material practically writes itself. In Jon Stewart’s 2011-2012 season, his nightly average was 1.7 million viewers,” says Hayley Cuccinello a New York-based TV critic.
The show also generates an average of 67 million monthly streams across digital platforms, in 2016, up 22% against 2015.
Noah says the rise of the web is changing people’s viewing habits as millennials switch from television to the internet. His critics agree that these millennials are supporting Noah.
“I like Trevor’s show, I think his take is unique and he is not necessarily copying Jon Stewart. He is kind of doing his own style, maybe a little bit more humorous and characterizations. He is inspired by Jon but he is not just doing imitation of him. The brand of The Daily Show itself is enough to get people interested, especially online, I think Trevor is doing a good thing with social media. I personally don’t watch it on TV a lot but watch it on Facebook and YouTube clips, so I think social media has helped him reach out to people, not necessarily on TV, he has to branch out on other outlets,” says 24-year-old Nader Salem, from New Jersey.
Indeed, the audience at Noah’s 100th show on April 28, in Manhattan, had many people from afar. There were a number of South Africans, supporting their own, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation correspondent in New York, Sherwin Bryce-Pease, and Sunday Times’ entertainment writer Azizzar Mosupi, who flew in for the show.
“We are SAA (South African Airways) employees. It is mandatory for every African in New York to make time for the show. We love Trevor. He is an inspiration to every African child. He is the living proof anything is possible,” says Zanda Setlaleleng.
“I watched Jon Stewart and I have been watching Trevor Noah as well, I didn’t realize today is the 100th show, I am glad I am here tonight. Trevor is very different from Jon but pretty great too. He has a very different view of things that I think people can learn from. I appreciate his sense of humor. Hundredth show on my birthday, there you go,” says Fiona Charlton, a visitor to New York from Britain.
On the night of the show, Noah ran to the stage, fired up, in a black tailored suit and tie. He made the house rules clear to the cheering audience: “This thing is like a sex tape – people watch to get off on seeing both people having a good time… So, you have to give me your all because I am going to give you mine.”
Noah prides himself in a diverse team of scriptwriters who advise him on issues of religion, nationality and gender.
“There’s nothing off limits, it’s just what are you trying to do with a joke. Even before The Daily Show I always liked jokes that bring people together, and jokes that build the nation. In South Africa I made jokes about the president, to his face, for many years. He knows me, people in Parliament know me. That never stopped me from engaging with them and them engaging with me. There’s an implicit understanding. The worst thing that can happen is when somebody takes your joke to hurt another person or group when you didn’t intend to do that.”
Noah stepped into the comedy scene through a dare. In the early 2000s, he was a regular at the comedy clubs in Johannesburg. One night the host called for newcomers to take the microphone, his drunk friends pushed Noah on stage.
That night, Noah slayed them in the aisles and never looked back. In a few years, he would become the country’s favorite comedian, playing to packed houses, and the host of Tonight With Trevor Noah on M-Net across Africa.
Noah says South Africa will always be home and he keeps tabs on the political scene. He is not eligible to vote in the US elections he comments on nightly, but on August 3 he will be one of many South Africans casting their vote at the embassy in New York for in the municipal elections back home.
“Over the years travelling, performing comedy all over the world and now doing The Daily Show, I have learned if you stay true to yourself and if you are proud of who you are and where you come from, that in itself becomes the mantle. I love telling jokes about South Africa and Africa, I will go for the disparaging comments that people think are stereotypes of the continent. I myself, in many ways, a complete juxtapose of what people think of the continent. I am a South African, you can smell it on me,” he says.
Noah grew up crammed into a small house in Soweto, where he shared a room with his stepbrothers and cousins where he peed in a bucket in the mornings. His mother, a Xhosa woman, had a child with his father, a Swiss-German, which was against the law in apartheid days. Noah recalls his mother had to dress like a domestic worker and his father had to walk on the other side of the street to avoid the attention of police on family outings.
“I was born a crime,” Noah often joked.
Whatever the ratings say, it is clear Noah intends to joke through the storm. As a fellow African in New York I put my money on him having the last laugh at the expense of his detractors.