Trevor Noah is fast approaching his one-year anniversary as the host of The Daily Show, and he’s not reticent to admit that it’s been a dicey run at best. Since assuming his new role in September, Noah has been eclipsed by Jon Stewart’s 16-year legacy. His night-to-night viewership has failed to consistently hit the million mark as Stewart’s tenure was wont to do. Critics have been universal in giving praise for Noah’s charm but docking him for not having Stewart’s level of political authority.
But it was an impossible situation from the start.
Stewart’s hand in shaping the current landscape of satirical news is unquestionable. That custom mold he created for himself obviously wouldn’t fit anyone else to a T, and Noah is finally feeling some pliability in making The Daily Show his own.
"I wouldn’t choose to be a part of [The Daily Show] at any other time. It’s been great because it hasn’t given me much time to focus on how difficult the job is or how scary it is to be in this position," Noah says. "One of the most important things I’ve learned is to trust my own opinion."
And there’s no better time to find one’s voice in satirical news than the current election year farce and the firestorm of racial injustice and gun violence sweeping the country.
Donald Trump’s ascension to the Republican nomination has been the bonanza that fantasies are made of for comedians. It hasn’t been so much an effort in writing sketches and monologues around his latest vitriolic soundbite, rather than just letting them to play out. As easy as it is to take potshots at a candidate like Trump, what Noah is aiming for in the run-up to the presidential election is to start an honest conversation between both sides in an attempt to close the ever-widening chasm that’s separating them.
"There’s a lot of dishonesty in America right now from both sides and all it’s contributing to is divisiveness," Noah says. "For me success for the show would be to get to a place where we’re genuinely having a conversation. I do not exist in this space of lambasting. I do not exist in this space of chastising or pointing the finger—that is what’s gotten America to where it is. Both sides think they’re correct according to their points of view. That’s where I’m lucky as an outsider. I come in and I see the points of view from both sides."
From where Noah stands, both the Democratic and Republican parties are both in a drought of inclusiveness.
"Republicans realize if they continue to be the party of the wealthy white man, then they will not get the votes. They will continue to diminish over time," Noah says. "The Democrats have to acknowledge that there is a certain sense of elitism within the party. There’s a sense of ‘we are superior to those stupid Republicans and their supporters.’ That’s not the way you get people on your side. That’s not the way you get people feeling like they’re a part of your movement."
Failing to understand, or at the very least consider, the opposition’s stance has also deepened the line between the black community and police. During a recent episode of The Daily Show following the back-to-back shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, Noah delivered one of his more somber opening monologues asking why being pro-black lives means anti-police and being pro-police means anti-black lives?
"I’m shocked at how they’ve made this a sides thing as opposed to an issue. Now people are trapped between choosing between police and its citizen—that is not a choice. Something has gone wrong if that is your choice," Noah says. "That is the purpose of why I’m here, is to try and get us to an honest place where we are seeing the other side—even if the other side is incorrect, just seeing their point of view and how they got to be there. It’s like what you learn in debate: When you debate something you disagree against, you have to be for it to understand why it exists and how to speak to it."
Taking over for Stewart during the era of the Black Lives Matter movement has put Noah in a unique position as the first Daily Show host of color. It’s not to suggest Noah speaks for all black people, rather that what he says may carry more weight than his contemporaries.
"I see it as a blessing. If you have an opportunity to help people or a movement or an idea, why wouldn’t you? I always feel as a person, you gain the most when you give to others," Noah says. "I do know that the show can help many other people in many different walks of life. Whether it be to provide them a refuge, whether it be catharsis, whether it be just a voice that amplifies what they’re going through—these are all things that I see as privileges rather than pressures. And so I create the show accordingly. That is something that I learned from Jon Stewart. Jon had his passions and he shaped the show accordingly, and so I’ve learned that I need to do the same thing. People will tell me what they think the passion of the show should be, but the truth is those passions are not my passions. I have to make the show coincide with the world that I wish for the show to be a part of, and that’s what I’m growing into more and more every day."
Targeting your passion is only part of the job description of hosting The Daily Show—what matters most is how that passion is packaged in comedy, which, nowadays, can seem like a minefield. Recent headlines like black men continually dying at the hands of police or a gunman in Dallas killing five officers or the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at the Orlando nightclub Pulse take a certain finesse in order to frame them within a comedic context. For Noah, that context is rooted in intention.
"I don’t find there’s a line. It’s more like what am I trying to do? Am I trying to say something funny just because it’s a funny show? That’s where I’m going to land myself in trouble or I won’t connect. But if there’s something particularly ludicrous about what is happening, then immediately I go, ‘this is what satire is designed for—to point out those idiosyncratic things in a punchy way,’" Noah says. "Any joke can be seen as offensive. It’s always too soon until it’s not. So intention for me is always going to supersede anything else because if it’s the right joke at the right time, it can pierce any sadness or any moment of despair—that’s what comedy is for."
Considering intention might sound slightly ironic to anyone still harboring a grudge against Noah for the series of old and un-P.C.tweets that were unearthed shortly after it was announced that he would be Stewart’s successor. Amid the backlash at the time, Noah tweeted, "To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian." And, oh, what an evolution it’s been over the past 10 months.
"Having to put out a show every single day within a very short amount of time is no easy thing. You don’t have the opportunity to be precious. So you have to learn to be as efficient as possible and find your funny as quickly as possible," Noah says. "It’s also made me a more conscious comedian in terms of what is the purpose of my joke? What am I trying to say? How can people interpret this?"
Noah’s learning curve has been a steep one. Picking up such a high-profile torch during one of America’s most culturally and politically tumultuous times in recent memory reduces any margin for error. Not to mention that those who used to be Stewart's supporting cast—Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver—are now Noah's direct competition. But Noah is looking to get by on more than his affable charm.
"An effective tone I’m starting to learn is an honest one, which seems obvious but it really isn’t. It’s not playing a character. It’s not trying to be what the people think you should be. It’s actually being genuine. I know we will stand apart once we get into the groove, which takes a while and it’s not easy," Noah says. "The most important thing I do is set out to create the most honest show every single day and inform myself, inform the viewers, learn, be willing to change, be willing to adapt. Just like if you’re working out at the gym, if you’re focusing on your form, then your results will come to fruition. But if you’re thinking of your muscles before the form, you may be doing it incorrectly. If I just do it right every single day, the legacy will become apparent on its own."