AUSTIN — Trevor Noah didn’t understand what there was to be angry about. To a son of South Africa, the U.S. seemed to be in a good place when he took over “The Daily Show” in 2015, he said, with its thriving economy and black president. Yet, Noah’s critics wanted him to immediately become a finished product the same way that Jon Stewart, his “Jewish Yoda,” was after 16 years at the desk.
“Imagine if you met someone and they were already raging at something,” Noah told The Washington Post in an interview at South by Southwest. “You just meet someone at a cocktail party and they’re like, ‘You know what I hate?’ You’d be like, ‘Who are you?’ ”
But anger wasn’t the feeling he was struggling with in Austin. It was jet-lag, even if he insisted it hadn’t hit him just yet. Before his jaunt to Texas, Noah, 35, had returned to his native South Africa to meet with President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose giddy joy upon reuniting with one of the country’s most prominent exports soon went viral. After Noah and his correspondents from “The Daily Show” concluded their sold-out session at South by Southwest, he had a photo shoot before heading back to New York to catch up on all the headlines he’d missed.
As Noah took a 20-minute break in a nondescript room, his focus inevitably turned to the president, whom he credited with giving “The Daily Show” fresh life.
“With Trump came a sharpened focus, because he very actively has gone after almost every issue, to the point where it’s almost like he’s the cliched villain,” Noah said. “I think he’s given us a target to aim at, which has been great for the show and for us as human beings. I read more. I engage more. I try and inform myself as much as possible, because when you’re living in a world where there is no reality, you have to try and create one for yourself.”
In the third year of the Trump presidency, Noah has seemingly found his voice among late-night hosts, not dissimilar to that of his predecessor, Stewart, under the administration of George W. Bush. With an onstage interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Noah’s weekend in Austin offered a window into the show’s push toward the 2020 elections. He’ll have to cover an improbable president’s tireless reelection bid, while figuring out who among a wide field of Democratic candidates is worth his time and attention.
Throughout their session with Tapper, Noah and the show’s correspondents touted their overwhelming social-media presence, outpacing their competitors with millions of followers and shares on multiple platforms. The show’s newest feature, “Between The Scenes,” which features unscripted riffs from Noah on important stories of the moment, regularly gets millions of views. A few blocks away from the session, hordes of fans flocked to the show’s traveling exhibit, The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library, a monument to some of the president’s most memorable tweets, for better or for worse.
Noah’s conversation with The Post stayed focused on Trump, a man Noah has repeatedly compared to an African dictator. Noah argued that one of Trump’s great strengths is homing in on grievances.
“That’s one thing that people don’t realize makes him a really good politician. He is fantastic at identifying problems,” he said. “A lot of politicians avoid and act like the problems don’t exist. He knows what it is. But his solutions are bats--- crazy.”
He also gave the president props for his outsize personality.
“I always have to separate how I personally feel about Trump because I love him as a cartoon character,” Noah said. “If you took the stakes out of it, I think he’s one of the best TV characters ever written. He is devious and charismatic; at the same time, he’s a buffoon who’s also smart. He’s every paradox that you can possibly think of.”
Noah suggested that Trump misspellings and gaffes hide a deeper ability to connect with his true believers.
“You’re laughing at the fact he can’t spell ‘counsel,’ but the people who are getting his message are listening to what he’s saying about a special counsel,” Noah said, referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “They’re listening to what he’s saying about a witch hunt, listening to what he’s saying about men being the real victims in the world we live in today. I think that’s something we have to be careful of as people, is focusing on what he means and how that message resonates with people, as opposed to focusing on just the surface haha-ness of him messing up.”
Trump also dominated the thoughts of the “Daily Show” correspondents who made the trip to Austin. Earlier in the day at the Driskill Hotel, correspondent Roy Wood Jr. joked that he’s already committed to following in Trump’s footsteps and start signing Bibles after each episode. He said that Noah’s success in the oversaturated field of late-night comedy sets him apart from the earlier incarnation of the show. It doesn’t hurt to have Trump as a target, he said.
“I think that for sure Trump is to Trevor as Bush was to Jon Stewart,” Wood said. “The thing that’s dynamically different, I think for Trevor’s tenure versus Jon’s rise is just how deeper the playing field is in terms of competition. There are a lot of shows that are out there that are thankfully shining a light on a lot of the bulls--- that’s going on in the world. I know that Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ had whatever their sets of challenges were in the early aughts, but I just think what we’re facing now is something that’s definitely unique to the landscape as it is now.”
Correspondent Ronny Chieng added that doing the show under Trump is like doing a 100-meter sprint except the finish line gets moved halfway through the race. He jokes that he’s made a lot of money off Trump, quipping that he hopes the Trump administration will continue for the indefinite future.
“I’m hoping that he destroys term limits and keeps going. I’m trying to buy a beach house” Chieng remarked. “Also, as an immigrant from a Muslim-majority country, in Malaysia, there’s been some real concerns. I could be visiting my parents and then not be able to come back in, you know?”
Trump’s presidency has motivated correspondent Dulcé Sloan in a different way. In fact, she said she was told her whole life that this moment was coming.
“They would literally tell us as kids, ‘Listen, I’m telling you today, there’s going to be one of these presidents and he’s not going to care about none of these folks,’ " Sloan recalled. “And then, he showed up and I was like, ‘Damn, my momma and my grandma were right. He finally showed up.’ ”
The correspondents also credited Noah for emphasizing stories that don’t involve Trump, whether it’s Wood’s time with Ceasefire in Chicago (in which one of the subjects was gunned down shortly after filming), Chieng meeting up with Mark Gonzalez the most unlikely district attorney in America or Sloan’s commentary on the black women who saved Alabama from electing Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate.
“We’re not here to follow Trump every day,” Wood said. “Trump does a lot of stuff that’s worth talking about, but you still need to talk about a lot of the other things that are going on.”
But not all of Noah’s own work has landed. From the time he was hired, he’s had to answer for past controversial jokes about women. He told GQ in 2015 that he was an “idiot” for making those comments. Last year, a 2013 joke from Noah about aboriginal women’s appearance resurfaced on social media. He responded on Twitter by saying he had learned about aboriginal history and vowed he would never say or promote that joke. More recently, Noah joked that a possible war between India and Pakistan would be “the most entertaining,” before busting out a Bollywood-style dance number from his desk. After the social-media backlash, Noah apologized, while also noting he had made jokes about his mother being shot in the head.
“I learned that it’s just remembering your laser focus when it comes to writing a joke and figuring out where the target is, and trying to minimize collateral damage,” Noah said. “I know it seems like a big statement, but that’s really what I’ve had to learn about jokes throughout my career, if you’re not careful you can hurt somebody on the perimeter of a joke that you’re not trying to get at in any way, shape or form.”
However, the response on social media to his joke compared to the reaction to the rising tension between the two nations left him flummoxed. “For me, I found it interesting that my joke about Pakistan and India trended higher on Twitter than the conflict between India and Pakistan,” he said, echoing an earlier tweet. “That always says something to me about where society is.”
Earlier in the day when he was onstage, Noah said his show plans to accurately cover the 2020 election, even if there’s doubt as to how much access they’ll get on the Republican side. His goal, he said, is to help the country figure out what’s unfolding.
“Our plans are trying to recalibrate the telling of the story that is America,” Noah told Tapper. “When you watch ‘The Daily Show,’ I’d like you to know when you go to your voting place that you know what your candidate stands for. A lot of the time, it’s easy to talk about what offends people instead of what affects them.”
He concluded to the SXSW crowd, “If you’re not laughing at what’s happening right now, you will go crazy and will be crying every single day.”