In all the speculation about who would take over “The Daily Show” from departing host Jon Stewart, it’s highly unlikely that many viewers had comedian Trevor Noah in their office pool.
But on Monday, Comedy Central announced that Noah — a brand-new “Daily Show” contributor and the first South African comic to appear on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show With David Letterman” — will become the next host of its flagship late-night series later this year.
Noah, 31, may be a surprising choice for the greater viewing public, but he shot to the top of the network’s short list for the job soon after Stewart announced his departure in early February, Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless said.
[Who is Trevor Noah, and how will he do as Jon Stewart’s replacement on ‘The Daily Show’?]
“He is so fascinating,” said Ganeless, who described the process as less of an audition and more of multiple conversations during which Noah shared his vision for the show. “And the more time we spent with him, the more we realized he is going to be incredible at this job.”
When mulling its new host, network executives sat down and made a list of every quality a “Daily Show” host should have, with the top being “outrageously funny,” said Ganeless, who added that Stewart acted as an “adviser” throughout the search process. They found that Noah fit the bill, thanks to years spent honing his comedic chops through live stand-up and TV specials in South Africa in addition to a stint on “The Daily Show” that started last December. In three episodes, Noah has riffed on topics including Ebola and Boko Haram.
Ganeless calls those few appearances “a tiny window into what he’s capable of.” One of the things executives liked best was Noah’s global accessibility, as he can do stand-up comedy everywhere from New York to London to Dubai.
“One of the key things that Jon has done in his time hosting the show is [to] continually innovate and reinvent himself — and Trevor’s done just that in his stand-up,” Ganeless said. “He’s continually mixing it up, trying different things. . . . That is what you need to host a show 160 nights a year.”
[It was time for Jon Stewart to wrap up the joke anyway]
Noah, who has a black African mother and a white Swiss father, occasionally mines his difficult roots for jokes, as he grew up during apartheid where his parents had to hide their relationship. Such topics caught the attention of filmmaker David Paul Meyer, who profiled Noah in his 2011 documentary “You Laugh But It’s True.”
Meyer was interested in exploring South Africa’s comedy scene and was put in touch with Noah by a mutual friend. He first saw Noah perform stand-up at a small jazz club in Johannesburg and was immediately impressed. The documentary, currently streaming on Netflix and likely to see a big viewership boost on Monday, chronicled Noah’s dramatic journey leading up to his first comedy special, “The Daywalker.”
“We’ve only recently come out of a time when everything we could say and everything that we were allowed to hear was censored,” Noah says in the film. “That’s the biggest challenge in this country, is for us to get to the point in this country where people accept the fact that we’re free. Free to say what we feel and really free to express ourselves.”
Meyer thinks this is one of the key aspects of Noah’s appeal, as Noah’s audience steadily grew over the years, particularly after “The Daywalker” and TV appearances.
“Trevor was really the first person in South Africa to do stand-up and bring a diverse audience,” Meyer said. “He connected with so many people who didn’t agree with each other politically . . . but he made them all laugh.”
That could be crucial for “The Daily Show,” which currently attracts around 1.5 million viewers a night and no doubt has Comedy Central nervous about how to keep them in a landscape of endless late-night options.
W. Kamau Bell, the comedian who hosted the late-night show “Totally Biased” on FX networks for two seasons, interviewed Noah in the summer of 2013, when he was well known in other parts of the world but not in the United States. Bell recalls seeing a “success or bust” stare in Noah’s eyes that made him feel like “Oh, I’m sitting with a famous person, I just didn’t know it.”
Bell is pleased with the network’s decision. “I think it’s a bold choice for Comedy Central — I didn’t think they would want to go ‘black to black,’” he said, referring to Larry Wilmore currently hosting “The Nightly Show” in the post-“Daily” time slot.
Noah’s brand of comedy is well suited for this particular late-night gig, Bell said. “It’s not a typical late-night job,” Bell added, saying that he doesn’t think the new host will tweak the show’s format too much. “Whoever steps into the job, the people there will want to take advantage of the success that’s already been there.”
Indeed, though Ganeless says that Noah will certainly have his own spin on the show, loyal viewers can count on the show’s DNA to remain largely familiar.
The show will stay “Comedy Central’s take on the day, helping people understand the world through comedy, and helping people laugh at some of what happened that day,” Ganeless said. “I think, of course, Trevor will bring his own point of view, but at the core, ‘The Daily Show’ will not change.”
Stephanie Merry contributed to this report.