Trevor Noah on anger as a luxury, sharing vulnerability, and the ‘Daily Show’ whirlwind
It’s been a whirlwind three years since Trevor Noah took over as host of “The Daily Show.” Noah stepped into the spotlight when he replaced the incredibly popular Jon Stewart, who had made the show a benchmark for political comedy — and he stepped into a crazy electoral season that ended with a reality television star as president.
Now Noah, who plays the Tsongas Center in Lowell Friday, has become more comfortable with the chaos.
“It feels a lot different, and it always feels like the first day,” says the 34-year-old comedian. “That’s the gift and the curse of doing daily television — you don’t have much time to take a step back and look at what the changes have been.”
In the early days, Noah had to remind himself that Stewart had endorsed him for the gig mainly because Noah wouldn’t be a simple imitator. “A turning point for me is when I realized I get to be me, and I’m trying to create the best show possible in the way that I do it,” he says.
“The Daily Show” has hit a new stride under Noah. Last year, Comedy Central renewed his contract through 2022. And the show was nominated for an Emmy in 2018. “The Emmy nomination is a fantastic validation of the hard work we’ve put into the show as a show,” he says. “I don’t take that for granted. You have more late-night shows than ever before; there’s no spot that’s guaranteed anymore, because everybody is putting on a great show in a different way.”
Noah is not a fire-breathing satirist. He takes a more literary approach. He doesn’t rant in the tradition of Lewis Black or Dennis Miller — something that’s partly a product of being raised in South Africa under apartheid.
“I come from a country where anger wasn’t a luxury that you had if you were a satirist,” he says. “It’s easy to be angry in a society where your government is benign in its actions towards you. So that’s a great tool that you have. But if you come from a country where you grew up in a world where people weren’t free to express themselves, you’re generally a lot more reserved with how you dish out that anger. Because anger will be met with anger.”
Often the formula for satirizing something is to focus on one aspect and blow it up to cartoonish proportions. Noah says he tries to avoid that approach. “Everybody and everything has a part of it that is funny or open to being interpreted through the lens of humor,” he says. “For me, it’s honing in on that thing as opposed to trying to distill a person or an idea or an event down to that one thing.”
On the Sept. 19 show, Noah addressed a story about a high school superintendent in Texas who had criticized the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson on Facebook, writing, “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.” On a local news segment, a correspondent interviewed a man with a deep Southern twang in his voice who called out the superintendent as racist. “I’m going to be honest,” Noah said, reacting to the clip on the show. “I didn’t expect that accent to say something woke. I’m not gonna lie. Like, I watched that clip thinking I was going to see a story about a racist, and it turns out, I’m the racist.”
The message is that people need to shed their fear of condemnation and admit they have prejudices and might be wrong. Noah sees it as a chance to lead by example.
“I’m trying to be a proxy for people to understand that we all contain biases and ideas of what other people are,” he says. “I like to share that vulnerability with an audience and say, ‘I’m not gonna lie, I also have this belief that a Southern accent is going to be tied to some ideas that I don’t agree with. And the truth is, as I’ve learned in South Africa and everywhere else in the world, an accent is just that. It’s just a way somebody speaks a language.”
Noah continues to tour regularly as a stand-up despite his “Daily Show” schedule; he’ll be back in the area to play the Chevalier Theater in Medford in February. He feels it’s a gift to get to meet people from around America and see things from their perspective.
“I never wanted ‘The Daily Show’ to be a show that is only steeped in a coastal idea of what America is,” he says. “I always wanted ‘The Daily Show’ to be my understanding of America as a whole.”
In his 2016 memoir, “Born a Crime,” Noah details his upbringing in South Africa under apartheid. He writes not only about government-sanctioned racism, but divisions based on tribe and language. It has surprised him how helpful that experience has been in parsing the divisions in the American political and social fabric.
“I never would have dreamed that coming from South Africa would give me so much knowledge to draw upon to apply to American politics,” he says. “Once you remove Congress and the way the actual government works, you start to understand that so much of the politics are the same.”
At the Tsongas Center, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Oct. 5, 7 p.m. Tickets $58.