“Trevor? Is that you?” It’s the last night of September in New York City, and a homeless man is calling out to Trevor Noah.
A smiling Noah had just ridden his electric bike through the entrance of a park near the Daily Show studio in Hell’s Kitchen, for a socially distanced conversation with me. Minutes before, a homeless white man had set up a blanket and pillows on a nearby bench. Noah dislodged his kickstand and stepped toward him for a few moments of small talk. As Noah would soon explain, the man has lived for four years on a sidewalk in the area, and the two have developed a bit of a relationship. Noah and his staff have attempted to help the man, but so far he’s refused.
“I remember once, when I first got here, I felt guilty. I was like, ‘Hey, man, can we do anything?’ He said, ‘No…I’m fine living the way I live.’ And I thought, Well, this is a very weird experience,” Noah says, adding that he came to realize the man wasn’t as laid-back as he appeared. “He’s homeless, but he’ll say super-racist or sexist shit to my employees, like the women. Sometimes I have to check him. Never says anything to the white guys who are with us. And it’s that weird power dynamic where you go, ‘So wait, let me get this straight: You’re homeless, but in your head, you’re like, Yeah, I’m still white.’ And I’m like, ‘But you’re homeless,’ ” Noah explained. “It’s a really interesting dynamic. In the rules of wokeness, I don’t know how it works. I don’t know what the rules are.”
This was all very Trevor Noah. Relentlessly kind—of course he’s friendly with the neighborhood homeless man—and infuriatingly earnest. He’s the sort of guy who asks questions and then actually listens for the answers. A person who is just as analytical about racism as he is outraged by it. Growing up as a biracial child in apartheid-era South Africa, he floated among the nation’s racial castes, often serving as a literal translator between countrymen who spoke different languages. Now he’s positioned himself similarly in America. In a moment of political absolutism and polarization—of good guys and bad guys, of different partisan realities—Noah stares through the television and tries to coax us toward something approximating common ground.
It’s a Barack Obama style of thinking that can feel jarring in a Donald Trump world. And there’s an argument that it’s dangerously naive, that the liberal desire to compromise with and befriend bad-faith actors—to coddle fascists instead of punching them in the face—has a lot to do with our current peril. But I have to admit, in this moment of shared cynicism and despair, it can be refreshing to speak with a self-described optimist like Noah.
We’d met up the night after a first presidential debate so disastrous that many were openly calling for the remaining ones to be canceled—and Trump would test positive for COVID-19 later that week. But even now, Noah found hope in the calamity. He had been watching the debate on Fox News, marveling as the hosts admitted—at least briefly, just after the debate ended, before pivoting to spin—that the president’s performance had been rude and unhinged.
“The debates are one of the few times where all of America is watching the same thing,” Noah remarked. “Realities have become so fractured that the debates are the one moment where we are all coming together. We’re not watching Fox. We’re not watching MSNBC. We’re watching the same thing.”
In a year of chaos and confusion, it’s often been Noah’s own show that we’ve all found ourselves watching. While we were struggling to Zoom into meetings back in March, Noah made a seamless transition to shooting The Daily Show in his apartment. As the nation convulsed over the latest viral videos of police killing Black people, Noah looked squarely into his cell phone camera and found what felt like the right words to say about George Floyd. If 2020 was a year that most Americans would like to forget, Noah’s work is one thing we’ll remember about it.
“For me, this has been one of the most liberating years mentally and emotionally, because it freed me from a lot of the paradigms and anchors that I had created for myself,” Noah told me. “For me, the coronavirus, if you look at it objectively, has stripped away a lot of the bullshit.”
The first thing stripped away was the format of the show itself. The Daily Show faced the same conundrum as most offices: Do we treat the coronavirus as a temporary aberration? Or as a new reality? The show quickly chose the latter, pivoting to The Daily Social Distancing Show, on which Noah and the correspondents filed nightly dispatches from their apartments. At first, the segments were being posted directly to YouTube. But before long, they were airing in place of the studio broadcast.
Gone were the tightly tailored news-anchor suits. Noah grew his hair out into an Afro and began wearing hoodies on air. He felt free to be more experimental. “The first part of the show was trying to just provide a moment of respite,” Noah told me. “The second thing I’m trying to do is keep myself and my audience informed of what is happening so that you don’t have to live on social media, so that you don’t have to do 24 hours of cable news, so that you don’t have to watch people fighting the whole time.”
At a time when CNN repeatedly used a key prime-time slot for the governor of New York to be playfully interviewed by his younger brother, Noah persuaded Dr. Anthony Fauci to do one of his first in-depth interviews anywhere. When the nation’s attention again turned to police killings of Black Americans, Noah—one of the few Black television hosts currently on American airwaves—turned directly to the camera, delivering monologues that would be viewed millions of times online.
After the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, Noah uploaded an 18-minute cell phone video to YouTube in which he walked through the series of events that had sparked national outrage and pain: Amy Cooper calling the police on a bird-watching Black man in Central Park, the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged in Georgia, and now a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes.
“I don’t know what made that video more painful for people to watch. The fact that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes? The fact that we were watching someone be murdered by someone whose job is to protect and serve? Or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it, you know?” pondered Noah, his face unshaven and his hair ungroomed. “One ray of sunshine for me in that moment was seeing how many people instantly condemned what they saw. And maybe it’s because I’m an optimistic person, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, especially not in America.”
In August he was back again, now further enraged by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “People don’t want to be marching through the streets, clashing with police, getting tear-gassed, getting beaten, getting arrested. They would much rather be living their lives,” Noah declared after the announcement that only one of the three officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death would face criminal charges. “But they protest because other people can’t live their lives.”
The at-home version of the show worked so well that Comedy Central executives expanded it from half an hour to 45 minutes in April. “In a way, we can be a little bit more personal, we can speak a little more honestly,” notes correspondent Desi Lydic. “And Trevor is completely unafraid to have an honest conversation.” As a global pandemic and the legacy of American racism dominated newscasts, Noah seemed almost predestined for the moment, as correspondent Ronny Chieng put it, “like a cyborg constructed for the times.”
This was not always the case. Noah got off to a rough start when it was announced in 2015 that he would become host and controversy erupted around old tweets that many deemed sexist, and the show lost nearly 700,000 viewers a night, compared with Jon Stewart’s final year. Back then, “goal number one was to survive,” remembers David Kibuuka, Noah’s longtime friend, Daily Show colleague, and roommate at the time. Noah obsessed over critiques of his accent and pronunciation (“Sometimes I’ll just sit by myself and say, Con-tro-versy? Con-tra-versy? Add-id-das? A-di-das?”) and nasty tweets, prompting his friend and Daily Show writer Joseph Opio to scold him. “He said, ‘Basically [you’re] complaining that birds are shitting on your Ferrari,’ ” Noah recalled, “ ‘but you’ve got a Ferrari!’ ”
On the park bench, as we sit beneath a billboard that features a building-size picture of his smiling face, it’s clear that Noah has let go of those insecurities. The ratings eventually rebounded as the show expanded its online reach, he settled into the job, and he was no longer the Black kid permanently guest-hosting for Stewart. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Donald Trump is a better foil than Barack Obama. Five years after he was given one of the most powerful platforms in America, Noah is not just here to stay—as this year has underscored, he’s at the center of the conversation.
Comedy has always been a source of social and political commentary, “particularly at times of social turbulence,” according to Caty Borum Chattoo, an American University researcher who studies the impact of comedy on social change. For the bulk of the Bush and Obama years, Jon Stewart’s scathing critiques of politics and the media transformed The Daily Show into appointment viewing. Yet while Stewart openly bristled at the suggestion he was a newsman, famously sniping at Tucker Carlson that “the show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls,” his Daily Show progeny have been at the forefront of a generation that often veers eagerly into a sort of activist journalism with a comedic streak.
John Oliver’s weekly segments make explicit public policy arguments. Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj are best understood as newspaper columnists in stand-up-comic form. Jordan Klepper and Michelle Wolf deploy open mockery to say the things the establishment media are too polite or professionally compromised to say themselves.
And then there’s Noah, who has always talked more about his Daily Show as a global newscast than as a comedy series. “I grew up in a world where we would watch the news,” he says. “They would tell us about an earthquake. Then they would tell us about something happening in Burundi. Then they would tell us about something in South Africa. Then they would tell us about something in America. And that would be the news,” he added. “And I still love that for the show.”
Noah thinks that most political media presents news as a game in which conflict draws eyeballs, incentivizing networks to focus on nursing those conflicts. “My instinct as a person has always been to try to translate what people are saying to each other,” he told me. “What I’m trying to do on the show is say, ‘Look, man. I don’t have 24 hours. So I don’t profit from keeping you here for 24 hours.’ ” As a result, Noah’s segments often serve as vital news reports. In late October, as thousands took to the streets of Nigeria to protest an abusive police force, Noah’s nine-minute piece on the demonstrations was as informative as anything that appeared on cable news networks.
Like Stewart, Noah hosts political figures and celebrities, but his interview choices have also included a who’s who of Black writers and thinkers, from Eve Ewing to Mychal Denzel Smith to Nikole Hannah-Jones to Tressie McMillan Cottom. When I appeared on the show in 2016 to discuss my book about the Black Lives Matter movement, Noah had both read and highlighted it. “What I’ve learned in America is people don’t like the complexity and the messiness of nuance,” Noah told me. “What I’m doing on the show is I’m just gonna speak my truth and appeal to fellow human beings and say, ‘Yo, man. A lot of things that we’re gonna deal with in the world are messy and complicated.’ ”
One of his first ventures into that messiness occurred in late 2016, when Noah invited Tomi Lahren, the conservative media personality then known for viral videos in which she scornfully screamed right-wing talking points, to appear on the show. It was one of the few times in the Trump era that two media figures on diametrically opposed sides of the culture war sat for an extended conversation on television, as opposed to trading shouty sound bites. For Noah, who told me he’d grown up admiring the way Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin would eagerly debate their ideological enemies, it was all part of the work of translation.
As I watched the segment again four years later, I found it to be a revealing, if frustrating, exchange. Noah asked Lahren for factual explanations of her most incendiary statements—that Black Lives Matter was “the new KKK,” for instance—and she responded, in most cases, with more talking points. After the segment aired, Lahren was inundated with death and rape threats. Noah was furious and invited Lahren and her producer to get together for a drink with him and his producer. “I thought to myself, Maybe we can have a further discussion about things like the intersection of misogyny and sexism,” he says. Instead, a photo from the meeting—with the producers cropped out—went viral. Online commenters alleged that Noah had Lahren on the show only so he could take her on a date.
“The thing with Tomi Lahren taught me that a lot of the time, things may not be what they seem,” Noah said of the breathless coverage of their meeting, “and that changed my perspective on a lot of things.” For the next few minutes, he lamented that journalists, whether they’re covering the White House or police departments, too often parrot what those in power tell them. News outlets are so eager to move quickly on a viral story that they don’t stop to get the facts right. These currents opened the door for Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news,” Noah said. Trump’s broadsides were overblown and politicized, but they also spoke to a real failing of the press.“I don’t want to be the hardest-working man in Hollywood. I don’t want to be on the Forbes list. Forbes Happiest List—put me there if there’s such a thing.”
Noah’s analysis felt astute, admittedly in part because it echoed arguments I’ve made myself. “There is a problem in America where the media isn’t held accountable to anything,” Noah told me. “I’m saying this broadly, obviously, but I come from a world where if you write a false story, your retraction should be in the same place [as the error]. So if you had a front-page fuckup, you should have a front-page retraction.”
It did not surprise me that Noah was so affected by the Lahren controversy: There are few things that bother the earnest more than the perception that they’ve been treated inequitably. Noah urges his Daily Show staff to be fair to the politicians they cover, even as they mock them; of course he couldn’t stand the thought of his words or actions being knowingly mischaracterized.
Such moments were the only times any of Noah’s friends and coworkers could recall him losing his cool. Once, in Johannesburg, he’d calmly negotiated with a mugger who was attempting to rob his friend. “ ‘Hey, Dave,’ ” the friend recalled Noah instructing nonchalantly, “ ‘give this guy some money.’ ” But when he felt his years-old tweets were taken out of context after he got The Daily Show job, Noah was beside himself. He hasn’t invited anyone as polarizing as Lahren on the show since, but he does continue to debate conservatives via private messages on Twitter. “It’s really interesting how much more conversation you can have with people when the peanut gallery isn’t watching,” Noah told me. “When no one’s goading you on.”
Yet even Noah admits that there are limitations to his style of discussion. As it turns out, it’s impossible, even irresponsible, to have polite conversations with tiki-torch-wielding neo-Nazis. It’s hard to have a high-minded dialogue about reopening the economy with people who insist the pandemic is a hoax. “For many countries around the world, I think the idea has been ‘This thing is real, but how do we deal with it?’ In America, from the get-go, it was “Either it’s bullshit or it’s very real,” Noah said. “Wait, what? It’s been very interesting to live through this in America.… The fact that we can’t even agree that there is a problem is very strange.”
Noah added, “Here’s the perfect example. Herman Cain’s Twitter account is still tweeting about the coronavirus being a hoax and being blown out of proportion. Herman Cain‘s Twitter account. Herman Cain is no longer with us as a human being because of the coronavirus.”ADVERTISEMENT
When Noah took the Daily Show anchor chair five years ago, the narrative in America was that he’d been plucked from obscurity. In fact he was a massively successful international comedian living semi-retired in Cape Town. Once, he was in the same South African airport terminal as a young Justin Bieber. The throng of teenagers rushed right past Bieber and mobbed Noah.
His origin story is out of a movie: He stumbled into stand-up after a cousin’s dare and quickly became the most famous man in South Africa. Before long he was touring internationally, and after becoming a global star, he self-financed a two-year American tour playing small-town gigs. Noah often says he really learned how America works during those years.
His very first professional show in America was a three-minute set at the Laugh Factory in L.A. The audience didn’t quite know what to make of this tall light-skinned foreigner. “These people were silent; they didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Noah recalled. “And then, midway through the set, I told one joke and nobody laughed. But then one person laughed so hard that everyone turned and looked into the balcony. It was Katt Williams.”
“Don’t change,” Williams implored Noah after the show. “People are going to try to change your comedy. Don’t change.”
While American audiences tried to figure him out, Noah was quickly embraced by his fellow Black comedians. Arsenio Hall told me he was first turned on to Noah years ago by Eddie Murphy, who insisted they watch one of Noah’s Johannesburg stand-up specials. “This kid is the truth!” Hall recalled exclaiming. To this day, Chris Rock texts him out of the blue to offer advice. Dave Chappelle has become both a friend and a mentor. Soon the love spread to Black audiences.
“I would get referrals, one Black club to the next, one Black comedian to the next,” Noah recalled. “I came to realize that although we grew up a continent apart, goddamn, so many of our stories are similar. You would think Black Americans grew up in South Africa or in parts of Africa with how similar we are.” Back home in South Africa, schoolmates and neighbors had assumed Noah was “coloured” (the term used to describe the country’s mixed-race caste); in England he was identified first as a South African and secondarily as biracial. America is more binary. “In America they’re just like, ‘Black.’ I guess that’s a vestige of the one-drop rule. ‘Yeah. Black. Let’s keep it moving,’ ” he told me.
Noah and I joked about the fascination with which white Americans view biracial people. There is often an assumption that having one Black parent and one white parent must prompt some sort of an identity crisis, that the decision to identify as Black was a monumental choice, as opposed to an obvious conclusion reached after a childhood glance at pigment. A white therapist once asked me if I’d ever thought to consider myself white, and I broke out in laughter.
Much is made of the supposed pressure to “act Black,” but American Black communities are generally as accepting as they are diverse. Among people whose lineages have been muddied for centuries, being mixed doesn’t make you special—you’re just part of the family. If anything, the most noteworthy aspects of being biracial are the odd benefits that colorism bequeaths you with white people. While biracial people unquestionably face racism, no one crosses the street in suspicion when they see Barack Obama coming; no one is scared of Drake—or for that matter, Trevor Noah.
“White folks ain’t afraid of him,” observed Hall, the most successful Black comic in the history of American late-night television until Noah. “If you’re intimidating and you can’t cross over demographically, you can’t win. Trevor is one of those guys that Black people can be proud of and white people can rock with.”
The accent, the fact that he’s not from here, and the otherness also work to Noah’s advantage. Darryl Littleton, a historian of Black comedy and himself a stand-up, said that the fact that Noah is Black, but not American Black, puts him at an advantage when analyzing race in the U.S. because “he can look at something from the outside.” Noah believes his foreignness makes white audiences more receptive to his critiques than they would be if the same words came from another Black comic.
As he explained it: “Sometimes I find some white people are more comfortable with me explaining what’s happening in America because maybe they feel like they don’t owe me anything. They’re not guilty when they talk to me. I’m not going to jump out and be like, ‘Reparations!’ So, I can explain reparations to them.”
When we met up at the park, I asked Noah if he could possibly be as calm and collected as his friends and coworkers had told me. Correspondents shared stories of his on-set cool and generosity: He’d insisted Roy Wood Jr. fly to Chicago to watch his beloved Cubs win the World Series and invited Dulcé Sloan to be his opening act when he played her hometown of Atlanta. Daily Show executive producer Jen Flanz told me she could remember Noah getting frustrated only when he had a throat injury that limited his work. It has been reported that he’s paying the salaries of the entire Daily Show staff during the pandemic.
“A lot of the time, people know you as you may be but not as you are. What I mean by that is, I’m all of those things because I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for so long,” Noah said. “It will be random, like common things. Sometimes you wake up and you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this today.’ That’s one of the greatest blessings that The Daily Show has given me. One of the best things for depression is routine and goal-oriented tasks. Every day I have to make a show. Every day I have to finish the show. Every day I have to let go of the show.”
The depression had always been there, some of it no doubt rooted in the traumas and dramas of his childhood. It manifested the same way it does for so many of us: days spent desperate to stay in bed, nights stolen by bouts of anxiety and insecurity. About four years ago, Noah began seeing a therapist.
“When you’re a stand-up comedian, you don’t even realize the signs of depression because you don’t have a 9-to-5. So some days you wake up at 4 p.m. and you sleep the whole day, some days you can’t sleep until 4 a.m., and you think this is just the life of a comedian,” Noah said. “And then you realize that it’s not normal—it has control over you.”
The subject of his depression was one of only two that caused Noah to fall silent during our conversations. The second was the question of what comes next for his adopted country. After all, for all the insanity that Donald Trump and the coronavirus have visited upon America, Noah has lived through worse. And as with his home country, our multicultural populace is no accident of history. “Every time people talk about melting pots, America’s a melting pot, South Africa’s a melting pot, melting pot, melting pot. What you forget is that what’s making the things in the pot melt is the fire,” Noah said. He ticks off the historical similarities between South Africa and America—native peoples slaughtered and oppressed, foreigners imported and put to work, immigrants systematically demonized: “There are no diverse places in the world where people just came there for good times.”
Eventually, though, South African apartheid fell and the government commenced a national reconciliation process. I asked Noah if he could imagine a similar process playing out here. He is an optimist, after all. The answer came quickly: No.
First of all, Noah explained, in America white people have been the majority for hundreds of years. They’ve never, collectively, had to truly surrender power to a system of equality. The Civil War did not result in a conversation about why the South lost. Instead, “It was: ‘Ah, we lost the war. But we’re gonna carry on doing our thing,’ ” Noah said. Besides that, he noted, so many years have passed since the worst of American racialized oppression. “It’s very difficult to get people to express remorse for something that they themselves weren’t a part of,” he said.
Then I asked Noah how America has changed him. Surely something has rubbed off. Had he become more cynical? More materialistic? More vain? He took a long pause.
“The one trapping of America that I realized I started to slip into was that America makes you believe that you are perpetually poor,” Noah explained. “America’s the only country in the world where the news will say, ‘Mark Zuckerberg lost $50 billion today!’ He didn’t lose $50 billion. The worth of his stocks dropped, and they’re going to go up. It’s like an imaginary game that people are playing. And it’s a weird game. It tricks people into thinking that they don’t have [enough]. When in fact, we have what we need.
“And so that’s what I don’t want to go back to. I don’t want to be the hardest-working man in Hollywood. I don’t want to be on the Forbes list [which ranked Noah as the fourth-highest-earning comedian in the world in 2019]. I don’t want to be part of any of that. Forbes Happiest List—put me there if there’s such a thing.”
To be clear, Noah is still working extremely hard. He’s got a production company and eventually plans a follow-up to his best-selling book, Born a Crime. His agent dreams he’ll end up on the big screen. Noah himself aspires to double the number of languages he speaks, from 5 to 10.
“Trevor is going to be able to do whatever he wants to do because of his wisdom,” Hasan Minhaj told me. Minhaj recalled showing up to his first Met gala, in 2017, and quickly attaching himself to Noah. “You’re being really nervous, and you have to be more normal,” Noah told him. It didn’t work, so later on, Noah pulled Minhaj aside for a pep talk. “Treat this moment of fame kind of like a rental car,” Noah lectured. “Take it out for a spin, enjoy it, and then give it back at the end of the night.”
A few moments later, the pair spotted Nicki Minaj. Noah shouted out, “Hey, Nicki, it’s your brother!” and pointed at Hasan. “What?” the confused rapper replied.
“He cracked up, and she marched off into the night being Nicki Minaj,” Minhaj recalled. “Trevor was like, ‘Let’s just have fun with all of this.’ ”
By Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covers race and justice.