Noah was watching a recent debate among Republican candidates for President, and discovered he agreed with some of the ideas being put forth by Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senator. “He was saying things that were sane at the debates,” Noah recalled.
If that sort of talk sounds unusual coming from the person who is inheriting Jon Stewart’s chair, then so be it. Noah intends to start his tenure on “The Daily Show” this Monday at 11 p.m. with a “clean slate” and without any biases in place. Jon Stewart might have developed a knee-jerk reaction to Fox News Channel. Noah said he has yet to do so. “I want to be in a position where I get to start off fresh,” he told reporters Friday morning. “I don’t have any preconceived notion of how I should feel.”
Is Trevor Noah late-night TV’s Nick Carraway? That character, the fictional protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” had an unusual modus operandi: “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” By trying to stay neutral until evidence compelled him not to be, Carraway kept relationships others might have forsaken. Comedy Central is banking on Noah’s willingness to open lines of communication so audiences keep tuning in to what is arguably not only the flagship program of the cable network, but also its owner, Viacom.
Comedy Central sees Noah as “the next evolution in the franchise that is ‘The Daily Show,’” said Michele Ganeless, the network’s longtime president.
Noah’s guest list for his first week on air might illustrate his efforts. Comedian Kevin Hart will visit, but the roster also includes New Jersey Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Chris Christie and musician Ryan Adams. Viewers of Noah’s “Daily Show” will likely see more musical guests under his aegis than Stewart’s, an effort to end the week in a fun way.
Noah has a “sweet” disposition that has attracted advertisers, said Jeff Lucas, who oversees ad sales for every Viacom-owned outlet except BET. “The show is sold out for weeks” he noted, because sponsors like the idea of “a fresh face in late night with the history of the show.” Even so, the company is not taking any chances. Comedy Central ran original episodes of its popular late-night entry “@midnight” in the “Daily Show” slot for the past few weeks – a good way to draw an audience to see promos for Noah’s new launch. And when Noah debuts, he will do so with a lot of promotional firepower behind him. Viacom will simulcast his launch on MTV, CMT, VH1, Nick at Nite, and several more of its properties.
He isn’t standing alone. Many of the writers and producers from Stewart’s tenure on the program will continue to guide it from behind the scenes. And Viacom has hired a team of digital executives to ensure the program can do more of what it does best – find the most interesting news of the day and interpret it for viewers – in new media as well as old.
“We have to expand our view,” said Noah. “Sometimes, the story is made and breaks on Twitter, and we have to find a way to react to that. We have to find a way to consume and disseminate the information from Twitter, which is not an easy thing to do, because the show is used to presenting video materials back to a video audience.”
He does not intend to wreak havoc on the show’s current structure, but he will offer new perspective. As a South African of mixed-race parentage – Noah’s mother is a black South African and his father a white native of Switzerland – he will likely try to place U.S. news in a broader context. “I’ve always seen myself as a citizen of the world, so for the show, I think we’re going to mirror that,” he said. He may compare and contrast what happens in America to similar events in other parts of the globe. Even so, he cautioned, “it’s not an international show.”
And he has shadows to push aside. For a certain generation, Jon Stewart was a sort of Walter Cronkite, trying to shine a light on the real meaning of events and news coverage. When journalist Judith Miller, often accused of helping the Bush administration push the United States into conflict in Iraq by publishing articles suggesting weapons of mass destruction were available to that country’s leaders, came on his show in 2015 to promote a memoir of her tenure at the New York Times, Stewart didn’t just ask questions. He confronted her in no uncertain terms.
“The pressure is amplified because of the legacy” of Stewart, Noah said Friday. “This is a giant undertaking and we are approaching it as such, but we are also excited about it.”
Stewart isn’t the only late-night figure with whom Noah must contend. Audiences in the time-slot have continued to splinter as a new generation of hosts takes over for David Letterman and Jay Leno. There is a new face behind the desk of nearly every major wee-hours program on American TV, from NBC’s “Tonight Show” to CBS’ “Late Show.” And cable networks are considering new launches with greater frequency. Samantha Bee, a longtime “Daily Show” correspondent, is slated to launch her own late-night program on Time Warner’s TBS early next year. Other networks including National Geographic Channel are testing out bespoke programs like a show hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“People say late night is crowded, and I always say to people, ‘You clearly haven’t seen the comedy scene,’ because that’s the world I live in. Comedy is crowded. There are hundreds of comedians in every place in the world,” Noah said. “If you focus on that, it looks like an impossible undertaking. All I can focus on is doing Trevor to the best of my ability.” A lot of other people will be focused on that as well in the days ahead.