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Trevor Noah was a late-night comedy unicorn

As host of ‘The Daily Show,’ the comedian, whose last episode is Thursday, reflected America back to itself the way no other late-night host could

Trevor Noah on set during a taping of "The Daily Show" in 2015. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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Trevor Noah will host “The Daily Show” one last time Thursday, seven years after he first sat in the chair previously occupied by Jon Stewart and said what everyone was thinking: “I can only assume this is as strange for you as it is for me.”

By that point in 2015, “The Daily Show” had turned into a cultural and political institution synonymous with its longtime host. Over 16 years, Stewart had helped remake the Comedy Central show and cemented himself as the foremost critic of news media, a household name, a topic for research institutions and, depending on your view, either a voice of reason amid the insanity or an insufferable comedian who took himself too seriously.

Then came 31-year-old Noah. While a successful comedian abroad, and particularly in his native South Africa, Noah was relatively unknown in the United States; he had been a “Daily Show” correspondent for only four months. Before he even started the job, a mini-scandal erupted over a few old, bad jokes he had tweeted. Stewart and the network supported him regardless, and on his first night as host, Noah promised to try to make sure Stewart didn’t “look like the crazy old dude who left his inheritance to some random kid from Africa.” From the outside, it did feel kind of random.

But no one could predict how the next few years would go, not just for Noah but for life itself, when unprecedented times became exhaustingly very precedented. There was a reality-TV-star president and subsequent norm-busting presidency. The largest civil rights protests in a generation. An insurrection. The pandemic.

One could only imagine how Stewart would have handled all the twists and turns every night: outraged, sarcastic, bemused, flabbergasted. But Noah could bring something Stewart and his once-rumored possible replacements couldn’t: a comedic view that could be given only by an outsider, who offered it while a part of the inside.

Trevor Noah is the calm in the storm

Noah’s global sensibility primed him for this unique positioning. He was a biracial kid born in apartheid South Africa, living through the paradox and complexity of race and racism in both a highly specific but also universal way. He speaks seven languages. He is well-traveled and has friends and family from all over the globe.

An early example of his comedic perspective came during the 2016 presidential campaign with a segment about Donald Trump’s rhetoric not being “presidential.” Noah compared Trump’s campaign comments with that of several African leaders and dictators — and found them strikingly similar. “Donald Trump is presidential,” Noah declared. “He just happens to be running on the wrong continent.”

It was a view his competitors couldn’t deliver. (And yes, there’s at least one other daily late-night host from abroad — the British James Corden — but he’s known more for “Carpool Karaoke” than incisive comedy about U.S. politics and race). As Americans, we sometimes can be so steeped in our reality that we fail to see ourselves as we truly are. Noah, on the other hand, wasn’t fully of this place and could therefore sometimes see it, and us, more clearly. He also didn’t do it with the kind of harshness often associated with the genre (Late-night host DESTROYS, goes the common headline construction).

Noah often showed a sense of amusement, a twinkle in the eye and a grin. As a masterful performer with an easy manner — someone who can inhabit accents and characters seamlessly — even the most devastating takedowns felt charming. He wasn’t laughing at us. He was here, too, after all, and by choice. He was laughing alongside us.

But he also didn’t separate himself from being affected by the country’s problems, like in a popular compilation of stories about White people calling the police on Black people doing mundane things, such as waiting to meet someone in a Starbucks. “You see this here, this is why Black people should always show up late,” Noah quipped. “If you’re early, it’s loitering. For our safety, Black people, we show up late everywhere we go.”

He often searched for some sense of shared understanding, even with those he knew his audience vehemently disregarded. His approach earned him both praise and criticism, such as the response to his most-watched interview on YouTube, with conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren.

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He became well-known for his ability to deliver takes that weren’t jokey rants as much as thoughtful soliloquies, explaining in a Variety podcast this year, “I just become more comfortable speaking my mind in situations where I feel like the mob forgets that we’re dealing with human beings.” He spoke about why the domestic troubles between Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Pete Davidson were actually much more serious than a celebrity tabloid sideshow, tying it to his own childhood and watching his mother be harassed and abused.

In another clip, filmed from home during the pandemic, Noah laid out the connective tissue between Amy Cooper, the White woman who called the police on a Black man birdwatching in Central Park, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which had occurred that same week. People, stuck at home but building toward a collective outpouring of outrage and grief, circulated the YouTube clip as a way of making sense of the moment; it amassed nearly 6 million views within two days.

What “The Daily Show” became under Noah wasn’t his work alone. The trick of late-night comedy is to make it look effortless, and as if every joke, graphic and funny little headline is the spontaneous creation of the host. The reality is these sorts of programs are massive group endeavors, an amalgam of a shared and collective sensibility. Some of your favorite laugh-lines may have been written by a person whose name you don’t know at all.

But there is no denying how much the program did change during his tenure. “The Daily Show” evolved and adapted, not necessarily into an entirely new thing but something unlike what came before. It had a younger and more international vibe. Correspondents such as Ronny Chieng, born and raised abroad, and Hasan Minhaj, a South-Asian American, anchored viral segments that explored American stereotypes.

The Trump years were a struggle for late-night comedy, as shows grappled with how to parody something that already seemed so unbelievable. Watching habits also changed; no longer did people need to wait until 11 or 11:30 p.m. to hear jokes when they could just catch up on YouTube the next day. Late-night ratings plummeted, and so did revenue. The most-watched late-night comedy show is no longer always an institution such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show” but often a political comedy show on Fox News.

“The Daily Show” wasn’t immune to this. The show over the past several months averaged about 1 million fewer viewers than it did during Stewart’s last season. At the same time, the program has become a social media powerhouse, with 44 million followers across platforms, according to Comedy Central. Some of the most beloved elements of the program include segments such as the “Between the Scenes” features on YouTube, in which Noah talks to audience members, riffs on accents or talks about other issues of the day.

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The industry has changed in other ways, too. There was a time when the pinnacle of success for a stand-up comedian was to anchor a late-night show. But those shows can be a grind, and they also anchor their hosts to one location. (Noah’s replacement hasn’t been named, and after a small hiatus, the show will return in January, helmed by rotating “Daily Show” correspondents and a slate of guest hosts, including Al Franken, Chelsea Handler, D.L. Hughley and Leslie Jones.)

But it doesn’t seem to be burnout prompting Noah out the door. Although he reportedly wants to tackle other ventures, stand-up comedy itself is calling to him. He wants to get back onstage, but just as much, back out into the world.

He’s also no longer an unknown entity in the United States; he was a go-to host for the Grammy Awards and considered a big get for the annual White House correspondents’ dinner.

When Stewart left “The Daily Show,” Noah asked why he was picked as a replacement. Stewart told him he knew Noah wouldn’t try to be him, and therefore the weathered late-night host could leave with his legacy.

“And that means a lot to me, because it freed me,” Noah told The Washington Post two years ago. “I’m not trying to be Jon, nor do I need to be.”

Noah, now 38, can walk away Thursday knowing he wasn’t anyone else, and he didn’t need to be. He established his own comedic legacy and gave American late-night audiences something they rarely experienced before: someone like him, telling them exactly how he saw it.