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.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.