Nearly two years ago, most Americans had never heard of South African comedian Trevor Noah.
But after taking over the reins of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart in September 2015, Noah has impressed viewers with his wit, intelligence and poise — not to mention his dimples. His show, which saw a significant boost in viewership earlier this year, has surpassed “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as the top late-night talk show among millenials under 25.
Noah, 33, has supplemented that success with a best-selling memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” and a handful of hit standup specials including “Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark.”
“Being in this position, having “The Daily Show” as a platform, I see as a privilege,” Noah said. “It’s a show where we come together, young and old viewers alike. We get to live in this world together and realize we’re not the only ones who think we are crazy in experiencing what we are.”
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The Tribune recently talked to Noah, who brings his standup act to Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles on Saturday. (Comedian Angelo Lozada will open the show.)
Q: What kind of pressure do you feel as the face of Comedy Central’s flagship show?
A: I can’t worry about ratings because I don’t really understand how ratings work. (chuckles) It’s something I’ve always been honest about from the very beginning. …
All I can worry about is creating the best show possible. I try to keep growing. I try to make sure that the show is honest and funny. ...
With that comes pressure, definitely, but it’s a welcome pressure. It’s a pressure that has a certain sense of purpose attached to it and I embrace that.
Q: What do you see as the legacy that you’re carrying on?
A: The biggest legacy for me is really creating an honest space where the right questions are asked of the environment that we’re in. That’s something I loved about Jon Stewart and that’s a legacy I want to continue — is being in a space where we can honestly dissect many of the issues we deal with in society.
A: What was your reaction when Donald Trump won the presidential election? As a comedian, were you excited about the prospect of having him in office?
Q: I said before the election came (that) I wouldn’t be shocked if Donald Trump won the election, but I would still be surprised that it happened. That’s how I felt on (election) night. ...
The idea that a Donald Trump presidency would be exciting is one that doesn’t take into account the fact that he has the ability to be all encompassing. He engulfs the news.
The downside of Donald Trump is you cannot deny that he has the ability to, in many ways, be the conversation …
Q: Are you concerned that Trump is dominating the news cycle?
A: Donald Trump is doing to the news what he is also going to do the Republicans’ agenda in Congress, and that is slow it down to the point where nothing is getting done. ...
Because of the side shows, (Republican lawmakers) can’t focus on trying to repeal Obamacare. Because of the side shows, they can’t focus on tax cuts. Because of the side shows, they can’t do most of what they’d like to do.
Essentially, it’s the gift and the curse. Donald Trump is so insane that he eclipses the news, but because he’s so insane it also means that he, in many ways, eclipses what people want to try and do that may be detrimental to many Americans’ health and well-being.
Q: What do you see as the role of comedy in these challenging times?
A: Good satire ... is a tool to really probe at what is happening around you in regards to those in power. It’s specifically what it’s designed for.
If you dealt with (the situation) almost on the surface you would be in a place where you would spend most of your time speechless and shouting at a TV screen.
Essentially that’s what great comedy is. It’s finding a way to call out the B.S. you see around you …
Q: Is there an educational component to your comedy?
A: I think so, in as much as I, myself, get educated. … That’s what great about “The Daily Show.” I spend every day embarking on a journey of trying to learn, embarking on a journey of trying to discover the answers to questions that we hold here on the show. In doing that, we hopefully get to a place where we answer questions that you yourself may have at home …
Q: You’re a big fan of President Barack Obama and late South African president Nelson Mandela. How have they shaped the way you’ve approached your life and your career?
A: Nelson Mandela really shaped the way I view the world. He was not a perfect man, nor did he ever pretend to be. But one thing he did was to inspire a sense of willingness to try and build in a space where building never ever seemed possible.
In (the case of) Barack Obama, I identified with a lot of his story growing up. We’re both of mixed-race descent, growing up in a world where (that) identity played a big part in how we defined ourselves and how (others) defined us. …
There are many parallels I’ve drawn between my life and theirs — and obviously the trials and tribulations may not be the same, but I’ve looked to them for inspiration in different ways, whether (it’s been) to garner wisdom from their experiences or to learn from some of their mistakes.
That’s something that I’ve always admired about both of them. With Nelson Mandela, specifically, it’s always been his insane ability to forgive and at the same time not forget. (His) ability to see people as just that, but at the same time still holding them accountable for their actions. That’s something that really stuck with me in my comedy and my life.