Noah says he has been looking at some of Singh’s YouTube videos as he’s been hosting Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” from home, and “A Little Late’s” Singh keeps tabs on how Noah handles talk about politics and national affairs.
Here, they get to compare notes as Variety brought them together for a conversation about how to produce a late-night show during a pandemic and balance comedy with commentary on tough issues that face the nation these days.
Lilly, you just finished your first season on your show, and Trevor, not too long ago, you were the freshman late-night host. What was it like for both of you to be under so much new scrutiny?
Trevor Noah: So my first year was horrible. I will say the first two years were horrible — and it was horrible because I had taken over one of America’s most beloved institutions. And even though Jon Stewart had passed over the reins to me, it was essentially a year of people telling me I shouldn’t be doing the job and I was unworthy of being in that seat. And I continued to believe that. You step into this new role and you’re doing a new job and most of the first year was just trying to stay afloat, just trying not to get canceled and trying to find my footing. And the analogy I use is trying to learn how to fly a plane while the plane is flying. That’s what it felt like every single day.
What I’ve come to realize in hindsight is I was up against so many obstacles that I never thought of before. I was taking over a show and was a different person, which is hard enough. Any show that changes hosts is going to struggle. A new host is going to rattle people. Then you have extra factors: You come from another country. You sound different and one of the biggest things that I took for granted was you look different. A lot of people had been used to getting their late-night news from a face that looks a certain way. I see now that must have been jarring for viewers — to go from having the face that you know to having someone like, “What are you doing on my screen?” Sometimes, it’s not even something that people are consciously thinking of [but they’re] not used to having a person like you. So, yeah, the first year was just me desperately trying not to drown. It probably wasn’t the happiest year of my life, and I think the only reason I appreciate it is because my mom always says, “You don’t get stronger unless you struggle.”
Lilly Singh: To hear you had a hard time honestly, selfishly, makes me feel a little better. It’s really hard and the analogy of trying to figure out how to fly a plane is absolutely correct. Before I started my first year, in a previous interview, you told me, “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not going to consume your life, because it’s going to consume your life.” And you were the only person bold enough to say it to me like that. I had anticipated obstacles: Yeah, it will be a lot of work, maybe there will be some scrutiny — but there were so many obstacles I never even thought about, because I just didn’t have the knowledge to know they would be obstacles. Just looking different and being different has been challenging. You’re talking about your skin color too much. You’re talking about your sexuality too much. And it’s really trying to navigate how to be authentically you when people are not used to authentically you. It really is super challenging.
For decades, late-night hosts were largely cut from the same cloth, namely white men. In recent years, that has started to change. How do you see representation evolving over time?
Noah: I don’t get angry that it’s only been white men. I also think about how American society was shaped, what people perceived a comedian to be, who people perceived a comedian to be. As audiences change, you’ll start to see diversity and as networks become more open, their audiences will adjust over time. As audiences change, you’ll start to see diversity and as networks become more open, their audiences will adjust over time. There will be a domino effect that just keeps on going. I don’t want to live in a world where there are no white late-night hosts — I’m not looking for erasure — I’m looking for a world where there are more late-night hosts.
Singh: I can only say that not every story has to be about everyone, but there should be stories for everyone. I think it’s not, “Let’s get rid of all the white late-night hosts, and let’s get rid of all the shows,” but “Let’s have shows that represent other people.” If I had this great story about this Indian girl in high school, I don’t want to hear, “Oh, but we already have Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever,’ so we can’t do this.” I think that part of the problem is that just because there’s a show about someone who’s brown on Netflix, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be another story.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed all of late night; Lilly, you taped many of your episodes before things spread, and Trevor, you are doing all your shows from your apartment. What do you think audiences want to see from late night?
Noah: I think audiences are less concerned by what they see on TV and more concerned by the world they are living in. I always think that entertainment is oftentimes a welcome release from the world that is real, but when the world that is, really is almost too real and happening all the time, then people and audiences are in a very different space. For me, it’s different, because I’ve said from the beginning, the one thing I’ve said about working on ‘The Daily Show,’ and I was lucky enough to join when Jon was still working, I grew up in a very political country. I grew up as a very political comedian, even though I don’t consider myself that. If you watch my earliest stand up, I’m talking about American politics, I’m talking about South African politics. That’s just been me, So that’s what ‘The Daily Show’ does. I haven’t been so stressed in terms of thinking about content during this moment, because I live in the world of the news. I try to provide context; I try to distill it. If I think people are looking for anything from my show, they are looking for a clarification — what everything means. That’s what people want because that’s what I want. We are living in a world where nobody agrees on a fact. People are allowed to live in completely different realities, and what that creates is uncertainty that I think it’s already uncomfortable for human beings, because you don’t get to establish what your base level really is.
Singh: Comedy is such a good vehicle to talk about things that are difficult to talk about. People put down their defense mechanisms a little bit more. Right now is such a challenging, difficult and unique time. Usually, when people want to escape from their day they want to dive into comedy. I just think the desire to escape is not there anymore. I think people don’t want to escape. They want to acknowledge the real world and they want to help change it and they want to address what is happening. I think a lot of other comedians have just been providing space, honestly.
Where do you think things go from here?
Singh: The good news about what I do, if there is any good news during COVID, [is] when you see late-night hosts doing things from home. I say, “Baby, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.” I’ve been an advocate for “story comes first.” You don’t have the high production values, but you have people saying things that matter. What I’m looking forward to is working on things that are just that — something people really care about, that I feel really good about. It’s been a little challenging, I won’t lie, not being on the air during this time, because it’s strange to see my [older] episodes that are out there, where no one is wearing a mask and sometimes I am hugging my guest. I’m literally cringing watching myself doing this.
Noah: When I chose to do the show from home, one of the interesting things I looked to was people like Lilly. People like Lilly Singh are now the veterans and I am now the amateur. How do you make this thing? How do you create something with nothing? It’s frustrating but it’s liberating. I hope that now people like Lilly will have more leeway to be more Lilly as opposed to the TV world telling Lilly to be more TV. Now we’ve all become more YouTube.
Singh: I got my start on YouTube, but I grew up with TV and I grew up with stars. When I got my late-night show of course, TV is a big crew. When I went in, there was definitely a struggle. There was a crew, so many people behind the script and so many people telling me what punchline was funniest. It definitely challenged me to kind of mesh these two worlds together. The first season really reminded me of “first video on YouTube Lilly,” like someone just trying to figure it out, not really sure. I want to bring more me. In season one, I was not completely sure how to navigate that, because I was in a world where everyone has a desk and everyone does things a certain way and everyone does a monologue, and I did not know how to do anything else. As this show progresses, It’s going to become more me and it’s not going to be easy but I am looking forward to bringing that.
Noah: I think a lot of people have allowed the studio audience to dictate the feeling of the show, when the viewing audience is infinitely larger. You have 50 or 200 people in a room versus millions of people who are watching the thing, and that smaller group of people gets to dictate the feeling of what’s happening and how it’s happening. They get to shift your mood. They get to define how a thing is or how a joke is landing or isn’t landing.
Singh: One of the things that has come up on my show is the marks you have, ‘this is the camera you are using.’ There might be some moment where I would not follow the mark or follow what we had planned out, go into the audience, crack some joke, but of course the cameras aren’t set up that way. Things are a little bit tricky. That’s something I want to bring to Season 2 — to get away from the production that puts you in such a narrow range.
How do you think your shows will tackle the 2020 election?
Noah: People spit out soundbites, but no one likes to provide context. No one thinks why things are happening, why people are saying what they are saying, why, why why? And so, for me, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve tried to provide a platform to as many organizers and activists on the ground, not pundits, not people who think they know what is happening, but actual people who are actually moving things forward. When I am talking to a farmer from Oklahoma, I want to talk to an actual farmer who may or may not support Trump, but tells me his perspective, as opposed to someone who is a pundit who tells me the perspective of a farmer.
Singh: Am I the most savvy with politics? I can try, but will I be Trevor? Absolutely not. What I think I can offer is how I talk about these issues. Maybe, especially with my show being a successful YouTube player, I can talk about when a politician talks about how they want to deal with women’s rights, or how they want to deal with the LGBTQ+ community. And I will do that through comedy, like I have in the past so many times.
Is being funny tougher in these times?
Noah: We are looking for a balanced diet. If you have too much sugar in your system, your body is going to tell you. If you have too much fiber, your body is going to tell you. What I think audiences are going to be looking for is content that connects, whether it is funny or whether it is informative.
Singh: Me and my roommate were feeling quite heavy and we’ve been going to the protests and doing whatever stuff we can do, but I can tell you we came home and I watched a video of a puppy farting. That’s why there has to be an array of content.