Final goodnight: Trevor Noah bids farewell to The Daily Show

<span>Photograph: Jae C Hong/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Jae C Hong/Invision/AP

It’s easy to forget, on the day of Trevor Noah’s final episode of The Daily Show, how difficult the road ahead of him was when he assumed the anchor chair more than seven years ago.

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The South African comedian took on a near impossible task in September 2015: succeed Jon Stewart. Over the course of 16 years, Stewart helmed The Daily Show through its transformation from scrappy, fratty Comedy Central outsider to arguably the defining political comedy series of the 2000s, one that turned its satirical correspondents into stars (Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Ed Helms, among others) and its host into a world-weary moral authority. Or, as Noah put it on his first night as host, a collective “political dad”. (“And it’s weird, because dad has left,” he added. “And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad, and he’s Black.”)

Taking over from Stewart was never going to be easy, especially for a show crafted and streamlined to fit his sensibilities for so long. The two had vastly different perspectives: Stewart was a 52-year-old Jewish man from New Jersey; 31-year-old Noah, the son of a white Swiss father and Black Xhosa mother, had immigrated to the US from South Africa only four years prior. Noah has said that his first exposure to The Daily Show was through watching CNN, which broadcast it in foreign countries; he assumed Stewart was just an especially loose news anchor.

But over seven years, Noah managed to make The Daily Show his own, one that appealed to younger audiences with short online clips, digital culture-heavy jokes and references rooted in Noah’s experience as a (sometimes) single millennial attached to his phone. Noah and his writers capitalized on his perspective as an outsider, both as an immigrant to the US and as one of the few late-night hosts of color (and the only one on a show prominent enough to be included in nightly recaps, including at this outlet.) The show he leaves behind is one of the most dynamic and actually insightful in a genre that has long felt stymied, stale and in a perpetual identity crisis over how to handle Donald Trump. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah was never going to be appointment TV – that age for late-night or political comedy passed before Stewart left – but he turned it into informative, irreverent, at times essential viewing.

When Stewart announced his retirement back in February 2015, Noah was, from the outside, nobody’s top choice for the job. Though an internationally successful standup comedian, he was still largely unknown to American television audiences, having appeared as a correspondent only a handful of times before the promotion to host. Fans of the show preferred any of the long-running correspondents, such as Jessica Williams. Comedy Central reportedly ran the job by such high-profile names as Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Louis CK, all of whom turned it down. Noah acknowledged the scrutinized talent search in his first monologue: “Once more, a job that Americans rejected is now being done by an immigrant,” he said with a slight relishing smile.

Then, less than a day after Noah was announced as Stewart’s successor in March 2015, controversy erupted over old tweets viewed as sexist and antisemitic, or at least immature and in bad taste. Urged by friends and advisors to apologize, he stood firm, viewing it as hollow and unproductive. “Social media and comedy are time stamps of who we were, and if you’re not disgusted by what you did when you look back five, 10 years ago, then I’d argue you haven’t grown,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “But we live in a society where people are more concerned with the platitudes of apologies than they are with the actual change in human beings.” Comedy Central stood by him and he began the show, in the eyes of some, with a deficit of good will.

The comment on platitudes is indicative of Noah’s approach – less prone to anger than Stewart, endeavoring to see multiple perspectives, more thoughtful than spiky but still keen to needle a predominantly white liberal audience. Noah pledged, and largely succeeded, in continuing Stewart’s “war on bullshit,” but also promised to take the show in a new direction. Unlike Stewart or any of the white late-night hosts, he could, for example, compare Trump’s gassy showboating as a 2016 candidate to the behavior of former African dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in a segment called “America’s African President.”

The Trump presidency challenged all late-night shows: how do you make fun of a president who ran on jokes? How do you satirize someone who’s never sincere and only cares about attention? Of the hosts, Noah endeavored most frequently to find a new angle into Trump jokes and impressions; a frequent bit was to laugh at the former president’s abject weirdness, outside all the other sinister and terrible qualities. The Daily Show under Noah became a hub for more intellectual, critical thinking outside the trap of white liberal outrage – the interview bookings at his Daily Show included more women, more people of color, more experts and authors who could inject a sly radicalism (on, say, prison abolition) that no network late-night show reached for. (There were movie stars, too.)

Trevor Noah in 2015
Trevor Noah in 2015 Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Noah’s Between The Scenes features, in which he chatted with his studio audience, became a recurring online series which at times showed off his talent as an articulator, and his capacity for nuance, better than the actual show segments. A strong slate of diverse correspondents – including Roy Wood Jr, Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, Jaboukie Young-White, Dulcé Sloan, Michelle Wolf, and Stewart-era holdovers Jordan Klepper and Hasan Minhaj – stepped up to the level of co-collaborators. As a whole, Noah’s Daily Show avoided the self-satisfying ruts of typical American partisanship without straying into equivocation or that worst of Daily Show bugaboos, bullshit.

But it was in 2020, hosting The Daily Show remotely from his New York apartment, when Noah emerged as the late-night host best prepared to process a changing, overwhelming world and address racism in America. A master code-switcher (and polyglot), Noah deftly translated his experience as a targeted person – growing up biracial in apartheid South Africa – into analyses of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that were accurate, searing and still amenable to potentially defensive white audiences. In one widely circulated 18-minute video, a hoodie-clad Noah countered white fixations on “looting” by explaining the compounding effects of systemic violations of society’s social contract. “That unease that you felt watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for Black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day,” he said. “Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America: police in America are looting Black bodies.”

Noah’s video was cited by Kimberly Jones, a Black activist in Minneapolis, in a viscerally emotional two-minute clip that served as the backbone for a later John Oliver segment (another show which succeeded through an outsider’s perspective on America). For a time and occasionally since, Noah was a participant in the conversation, processing not only what happened but what should be done, rather than just a comic interlocutor. For much of the latter half of his tenure, Noah’s Daily Show has come closest to what I’ve called the most promising function of late-night: shows that are not so much comedies as processors, offering candor and context over laughs.

Noah exits The Daily Show during a time of contraction for late-night television, following TBS’s cancellation of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and the implosion of Showtime’s Desus & Mero. James Corden will leave The Late Late Show next summer, and CBS plans to “experiment” with his time slot afterward. The field post-Noah is as white, straight and male as when he arrived. When the Daily Show returns in January, it will be with a slate of celebrity guest hosts including Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman and Kal Penn; a full-time successor has yet to be announced. The state of late-night is in flux, perhaps the most since Noah entered the fray seven years ago. The field will feel less spirited without him, for he is leaving a Daily Show that, for the most part and against many bets, succeeded as his own.