On CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello, Dr. Jason Johnson of The Root and John Avlon of The Daily Beast discuss Lindsey Graham’s Comedy Central appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and his backhanded endorsement of Ted Cruz.
On MSNBC Weekends with Alex Witt, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson and Washington Post reporter Elahe Izadi discuss the controversy surrounding the Twitter feed of comedian Trevor Noah and whether the controversy will prevent him from hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Given the speed at which modern news operates, it’s a miracle that anybody ever gets to have any fun.
No sooner had Comedy Central announced that biracial South African standup comedian Trevor Noah would be taking over The Daily Show after Jon Stewart than the social media vetting began. First with the ubiquitous “Who is Trevor Noah?” tweets, since he had appeared on the show only three times since signing on in December. Then, on Tuesday, came an explosion of old tweets from Noah’s past, featuring jokes that were deemed sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic. He’s even facing charges over whether his “black” is the right kind of “black” as critics parse his past jokes about African Americans.
The countdown to Noah’s demise has already begun before he’s even had a chance to start.
But in all of this Sturm und Drang, no one seems to realize why the young comic was picked to begin with. But their ignorance about Noah is the very reason that Viacom and Comedy Central saw the comic as a contender.
First, did Trevor Noah tweet some racist, sexist and anti-Semitic jokes? In the minds of some, yes, he did. Just because Noah will be following the Jewish-born Jon Stewart, who gave tacit approval by already having Noah on the show, doesn’t mean some people aren’t legitimately offended. But that’s not the point, despite what social media activists and some pundits would like.
Long before Stewart announced that he was leaving The Daily Show, Comedy Central and contrarian media observers started looking at the numbers. While The Daily Show has a cyclical viewership (higher during election seasons, lower during lulls), Stewart’s numbers were slowly, but noticeably, drifting down. His average audience aged from 35 to 40 over the last few years, and competition from the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) had started to erode some of his late-night power. Despite Stewart’s influence extending far beyond his actual audience, Comedy Central realized that a replacement couldn’t be more of the same.
In walks Trevor Noah.
The truth is that taking over the desk from Stewart is a sucker’s bet for most entertainers. If you are anything like Stewart, you’re excoriated for not being as good as he is. If you’re an established comic, why would you sully your brand following a legend? (Thus, why Amy Poehler or Tina Fey wouldn’t want the job.) So you have to find someone incredibly talented but without anything to lose, who would be radically different from Stewart and the rest of the late-night slate.
And then there’s that whole demographics thing. Deadline be damned, but clearly Comedy Central looked across the late-night TV landscape and saw nary a black face except on its network. Before Larry Wilmore took over The Colbert Report slot, there had been only a handful of late-night TV shows hosted by African Americans in television history: BET Live; Don’t Sleep! Hosted by T.J. Holmes,on BET; The MoNique Show … also on BET. (Notice the trend?) Without BET’s forays into late night, all you had were two versions of The Arsenio Hall Show and the often lampooned Magic Hour. If Viacom could find a breakthrough talent and bring in an underserved, but highly lucrative minority audience, it would hit the jackpot.
Noah fits all the right categories, along with one other piece that has been overlooked in the stampede of journalistic Columbusing that occurred after the announcement.
The Daily Show, despite the downward creep of its domestic ratings, remains popular in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. There is literally a Daily Show: Global Edition edited just for foreign audiences with a unique monologue by Stewart every week. Just like in the world of blockbuster films, Viacom and Comedy Central made a bet on the foreign markets shoring up whatever weaknesses exist domestically—and who better to fill that gap than an almost satirically global comedian?
Foreign talk show hosts are hot right now. Graham Norton’s BBC America show is a domestic hit. John Oliver’s HBO series has been renewed, and Craig Ferguson’s surly U.K. shtick was so popular that he was replaced with another Englishman, James Corden, last fall. However, unlike these other foreign hosts, Trevor Noah already has a huge global fan base and multiple, record-breaking comedy specials (including one in the U.S.); has been on the cover of Rolling Stone; and hosted his own talk show on South African television before being hired as a Daily Show contributor in December.
Throw in Noah’s racially ambiguous heritage and Obama-esque backstory, and Comedy Central has a prototype host for the new millennium. Which is why, despite the current controversy, Noah isn’t going anywhere.
Comedy Central knew what it was doing when it picked Noah out of (American) obscurity to host the most popular nonscripted TV show in cable history. It was internationalizing Comedy Central, stealthily diversifying late-night television, and bypassing the complications of finding an American talent who hadn’t been chewed over or passed up 8 million times by every other network. The network knew there would be heat for this selection, but there’s too much at stake to back out on Noah now.
If it abandons him, Comedy Central is essentially abdicating its brand, turning the search to find the next Daily Show host into American Idol, sticking with the safe and dull instead of its edgier fare. So for now we should expect Trevor Noah to take over the hosting job, and if that means his doing a Levi Pettit-type apology surrounded by offended parties this week, then so be it. The larger point is that he was the right pick for our current media environment and Comedy Central’s future. It’ll be months before we know whether Noah pays off.
This article originally appeared online at TheRoot.com.
I am what I affectionately refer to as an “early adopter” of foreign actors and performers.
As a kid I was watching poorly dubbed grainy VHS tapes of Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” movies long before American audiences were introduced to him in ’90s action flicks with Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson. I was a fan of David Oyelowo’s work as a British spy on MI-5 on BBC long before the rest of America saw him in “The Butler” and “Selma.”
I was first introduced to Trevor Noah’s comedy in 2013 with the documentary “You Laugh But It’s True.” I use the term “introduced” because I want to avoid “Columbusing” his talent, since much of the rest of the world has been laughing to his comedy for the last half decade. “You Laugh…” is the story of Trevor’s early career and the growing influence of Stand Up comedy amongst South Africa’s still growing middle class from 2008 to about 2011. The documentary was so moving, so funny and so accessible that I reached out to the director David Paul Meyer, got a free unfinished copy of the movie and have been using the film and Trevor’s comedy to teach my students about South African Politics for years.
When Noah was picked up as a Daily Show contributor a few months ago I was shocked, and when the news broke this morning that he would be John Stewart’s replacement I had to reach out to Meyer, to see if he ever imagined this happening when he first met Trevor years ago.
“I was in South Africa doing research for my movie and I saw Trevor performing in this small Jazz club [In Johannesburg] around 2008 and I thought – this guy is gonna be a star,” Meyer said. “I didn’t expect The Daily Show, but his stage presence, his work with the audience – he’s always blowing me away.”
If you want to get an idea what kind of take Trevor Noah is going to have on “The Daily Show,” you should go back and hit his highlights. Besides “You Laugh But It’s True,” he’s done various comedy specials, he has a Pandora comedy channel, and a short lived talk show on SABC (South African Broadcasting). Born of a South African mother and a Swiss father, (an illegal union under apartheid), bouncing between suburbs and townships, along with seeing the fall, rise and then fall again of functional democracy in South Africa, Noah brings a fresh and entertaining view of American politics that is seldom heard from any corner.
“It’s hard to put him in a box,” Meyer says. “He appeals to a lot of different people, from many backgrounds. He’s passionate about so many things”
In 2012 I was giving a lecture tour on American politics in Germany and I had tons of audience members ask me about the influence of “Super Pacs.” When I asked how your average German knew about such an obscure piece of American political strategy I was consistently told that most Germans watch “The Daily Show,” and that it (along with “The Simpsons”) was a common program to show students who are learning English. If everyone all over the world is already watching “The Daily Show,” why not give them a host who views America with the same wild eyed curiosity, who can also touch American audiences.
“The Daily Show” under Trevor Noah will not be nearly as acerbic as “The Colbert Report” or outraged as John Oliver or even as fiercely political as John Stewart, at least not at first. Noah’s comedy is usually more bemused by America’s “First World Problems” and obliviousness to the rest of the world than disgusted. His interviews will likely fall somewhere between the ironic humor of Sacha Baron Cohen and the shoulder shrugging political riffs of W. Kamau Bell.
But that’s just the beginning, he will grow and evolve during the political season into an incredibly unique voice on the TV landscape. Americans showed 6 years ago that they were comfortable having a relatively inexperienced biracial guy with African heritage showing up on their televisions every night and talk politics. I think they’ll be fine with Trevor Noah. Just remember that you heard it here first. It’s not often we early adopters latch on a star that makes it this big.
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.
On Politics Nation with Al Sharpton on MSNBC, Jason Johnson discusses Trevor Noah as the new host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.