Trevor Noah understands change is hard, especially for fans of beloved TV shows.
"When Aunt Viv changed on 'The Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air],' I was like, 'What the hell is going on?'" Noah recalled last week on the phone from his New York City office. "Then after a while, you're like, 'Oh yeah, there was an old Aunt Viv. I forgot about that.'"
No offense to the actresses who played Will Smith's mother figure, but Noah is living through a more daunting task: taking over “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart, the man who built the brand — and brought sharp, political wit, insight and credibility to Comedy Central — from 1999 to 2015.
Noah — a 32-year-old native of Johannesburg, South Africa — said most fans, even Stewart loyalists, realize a transition like this takes time and patience.
“A lot of the fans that have stayed have gone, ‘Yeah, we completely understand it is difficult because the guy left,'” Noah said. “All I can do is work slowly every day to create my show.”
Before his standup tour stops at the Hippodrome Theatre Saturday, Noah discussed Donald Trump, election season, DeRay Mckesson's run for mayor, Kanye West and more. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let's talk standup first. Given how polarized the country feels right now, politically, what kind of effect is that having on audiences?
It's an interesting one. One thing I've always enjoyed all over the world is my audiences aren't determined by their political affiliation. I have very mixed audiences. I don't have to actively try to maintain it; that's just what I have. So old and young, black and white, whatever the mix is, Hispanic, Indian — I just get mixed audiences at my shows. I think it's because in my comedy, I don't present a fixed standpoint. I like to argue all sides. I like to make jokes about everyone and everything. I think everyone is open to ridicule and general observation.
Due to apartheid, stand-up comedy in South Africa is a relatively new concept. When you were growing up, what was your exposure to stand-up comedy and how accessible was it?
Oh, there was no stand-up because there was no free speech. So that didn’t exist before 1994, and I mean, the standup scene in South Africa really only started around 1998.
So in terms of your exposure, did you have to wait until 1994 and then you were playing catch-up with the greats?
No, not even. I never had exposure to the greats. The first time I saw an international comedian was Eddie Murphy and I was already 22-years-old. But comedy exists beyond professional comedy. People tell jokes all over the world. People are entertaining each other all over the world. It’s just the formalization of that is something that didn’t exist in South Africa.
Donald Trump is still performing extremely well in the race for the Republican nomination. How surprised are you, and is it a delightful surprise given the material he inspires?
That's the funny thing: I'm not surprised. That's the joy of coming into a situation with a different perspective. I've traveled the world. I've seen all different types of leaders winning all different types of elections. When I first took over at “The Daily Show,” people were all like, “Oh wow, does Trump shock you?” I don't find him shocking. I've seen leaders like him before. I've seen his style before. So I understand that this might be shocking to the electorate right now, but I'm going, “Yeah, this is just something that can happen, and I guess something that is happening now.”
I enjoy it to a certain degree but then what happens is Donald Trump almost overdoes it. I always used to complain about this in South Africa, where I said, “Politicians become so funny and there's so much buffoonery that you end up not having anything to talk about.” They give you the jokes, let's be honest. All of us are extremely spoiled to the point it's almost like overindulging in the fact that the guy is doing all the work for everyone. So that's why when I do my standup shows, I don't do anything about that because it's everywhere. I don't like to be doing the thing that everyone's doing.
Let’s take Trump out of the next equation. When the primaries are over, which candidate will you miss most from a comedy perspective?
Oh wow, I think it’s going to be Ben Carson. He’s been comedy gold for me. Ironically because of Trump, I find him nuanced and measured in terms of his comedy delivery. He has gems here and there, and you know, he has a few quirks here and there as well. But I find it’s not all on or all off, so I enjoy that.
DeRay Mckesson was a guest on your show this year. What do you think of his movement and his decision to run for mayor?
Well, I don't think he has a movement — like his movement. He's a person who's an activist, you know? I think he's a very smart guy. He has some really brilliant points of view, and he challenges politicians and the establishment in the right way. I'm not a resident of Baltimore, so I'm not reading everything in terms of voting for him, but he seems like a pretty solid guy. You just hope that he'll take energy into whatever position he may or may not get.
Speaking of Baltimore, what did you think of the news coverage of last year's riots?
It was disparaging. You always see people being labeled or being criticized for what they do, depending on the points of view of the people reporting on them. It's disheartening to see. Let me put it this way: The Oregon militia. It was reported as if, for the most part, they had a valid concern. It was reported as if these guys were organized and there was a purpose. It didn't give off a sense of anarchy. It didn't give off a sense of being militants that were trying to destroy America. It seemed like they had a legitimate argument, so they were voicing their concerns through armed retaliation, taking over a wildlife refuge. Whereas the riots and the protesters who were involved with some of the riots in Baltimore were labeled as a mass-thug movement.
It came across as if there was no legitimacy behind everything. It came across as if the only purpose of [the Baltimore riots] was to instill chaos and madness. It’s just weird how one movement can be framed as progressive and another movement can be framed as anarchistic. And really, you go, “That’s not the truth.”
After Kendrick Lamar performed at the Grammys, you tweeted, "Kendrick is what Kanye would have been if the Kardashians didn't get him." What made you say that?
There was a time, I guess from my side personally, where I thought — and I think a lot of people did as well — that Kanye was going to be a prominent voice in terms of more than just music. He has become that, but I guess he's gone in a slightly different direction. You remember there was a famous George Bush comment and he had this militant vibe to him, challenging the establishment. Kendrick, I feel, has taken that mantle up. He's outspoken. He's an activist and a musician at the same time, whereas Kanye has gone more into the world of fashion. He's more into the world of entertainment and really, the reality world of the Kardashian life. I still think he's an amazing artist. It was just a personal opinion. The funny thing is people like to try and make those kinds of things like it’s a giant big thing. “Ohh, Trevor slams Kanye!” Calm down, man. There’s no slamming here. It was just a comment.
Does it feel like the diehard Jon Stewart fans have come around to the change now?
I think a lot of the real Jon Stewart loyalists — who loved and watched the show and still watch the show now — are people who go, “We understand that Jon's show had its purpose, and the reason Jon left was because he felt he had served his purpose.” … But it's funny. Sometimes I still have to explain to people, “You do realize I did not send him out?” [laughs] He is the person who put me in the chair, not the other way around. I did not kick him out at all. He told me to sit in the chair and make a show that I think needs to be made. That's what I'm working toward every single day.
For "Daily Show" fans coming to see you live, what do you think will surprise them?
What often surprises people is they go, “Oh, we thought we’d come to the show and it’d all be politics.” I go, “No, no, no. You must understand, your assumption is based on what you believe ‘The Daily Show’ to be.” As Trevor Noah, I’ve never come from that place. I come from many different places. I approach arguments and ideas from many different spaces. The show is more than just that. I wouldn’t even call it a politically based show, but my comedy does touch on politics. My comedy touches on everything from relationships to the mundane, so people are often surprised, where they go, “Oh wow, you’re just like a comedian having a good time and you have a great point of view, but we really thought that we could predict what it was going to be.” That’s the thing, I guess: The unpredictability of it all.