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How Trevor Noah Brought ‘The Daily Show’ Into His Home — and the Future

Photographs by Wayne Lawrence

The pullover hoodie has become Trevor Noah’s signature look. In the weeks, then months, that followed the March relaunch of “The Daily Show” from the host’s New York apartment after the coronavirus shut down studio shooting — making it the first late-night talker to switch to an at-home format — Noah settled on an on-camera setup that emphasizes comfort and intimacy: sitting on his couch, leaning toward the camera of an iPhone, wearing whatever hue of hooded sweatshirt catches his eye on a given morning.

But in the days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Noah’s choices became more deliberate.

Trevor Noah Variety Cover

“I wore a black hoodie for a while,” Noah says. “Not to build it up, but I just — I didn’t feel like color, you know? Every day, when I walked into the closet, it didn’t feel like a purple day; it didn’t feel like a green day; it didn’t feel like a red day. It felt like a black day.”

The minutiae that millions of work-from-home Americans now wrestle with — Is it OK to wear a T-shirt to a Zoom meeting? What does the furniture in this room say about me? Does this camera angle make my forehead look weird? — are similar to that which Noah confronts every day. But in his case, the decisions are shaping the present and future of a television franchise that he successfully, and in the face of significant doubt, guided into a new decade. Trevor Noah already saved “The Daily Show” once. Now against a backdrop of pandemic, the slow death of linear television, the Trump administration’s assault on democracy and a historic reckoning with American racism, he’s doing it again.

Noah’s first at-home telecast aired March 23, and sported a look markedly different from the one he eventually adopted. The host sat behind a table and in front of a couple severely potted plants. He wore a casual but fashion-forward sweater, and was positioned far from the iPhone through which the show was shot. It was a baby step into a new world.

Today, Noah does the show from his comfort zone.

“This comes from being a stand-up,” he says in a Zoom interview from New York. “The way I feel onstage is generally the way the audience is going to feel, because I’m imbuing them with that energy. I want you to feel like I feel, so I need to be in the most comfortable space, where I feel the most intimate with this lens.” The spot in his home that he chose is “the little nook where I read books and I play PlayStation and Xbox. This is my Trevor area. So it’s like ‘Welcome to me,’ essentially.”

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Wayne Lawrence for Variety

Like many, Noah’s awareness of COVID-19 evolved from initial dismissiveness to dawning horror. He credits one of his writers, David Angelo, for being the first person in January to put the outbreak in China on his radar and to ask Noah whether he had stocked up yet on N95 masks. “I said, ‘What do I need a mask for?’ and he said, ‘This virus, man. It’s gonna travel all over the world.’ I was like, ‘All right, Angelo. I guess.’”

But Noah’s interest in news of the virus soon deepened — and manifested on “The Daily Show.” “I’m willing to bet money that we covered coronavirus from its inception more than any other show did,” he says. By February, the show had launched a recurring segment devoted to pandemic news; it was titled “Is This How We Die?”

Around the same time, as COVID numbers in New York began to climb, Noah broached with showrunner Jen Flanz the notion that the show might have to be recorded from home. “She looked at me like I looked at David, and was like, ‘You know, you’re a little bit crazy.’ But from very early on, I had the idea in my head that there was a possibility that we might have to do this thing from home. The only caveat is, I thought it was going to be for three weeks.”

It’s been a bit longer. In the five months since “The Daily Social Distancing Show,” as it has been rechristened, first aired from Noah’s home (during which time he has continued to pay, out of pocket, the salaries of 25 furloughed crew members, something he declines to discuss), the program has evolved into a lo-fi but substantive affair. Gone are the trappings of the studio. Graphics packages are bare-bones. Produced segments featuring correspondents such as Roy Wood Jr. and Dulcé Sloan still run most nights, but take up less of the show since Comedy Central expanded it in April to 45 minutes. Now, interviews occupy most of each episode. The top of the show remains devoted to the host talking into camera about the news — yet even this longstanding element, one that predates Noah, has changed dramatically.

“The Daily Show” was conceived as a fake newscast. In its ’90s infancy, it leaned hard into that conceit. Original host Craig Kilborn was a real newscaster, a refugee from ESPN with no comedy writing or performing experience. Jon Stewart, a seasoned comic who would be Johnny Carson to Kilborn’s Jack Paar, would transform “The Daily Show” into a Mirror Universe version of George W. Bush-era cable news, and a massive hit. But the fundamental mechanisms of that show — faux newscast, talk segment, galaxy of correspondents — were ones created for Kilborn. They were inherited by Noah when he took over in 2015. And they were largely sustained by him, until now.

In the studio, Noah, besuited and handsome, with a polished delivery, has a whiff more of the newscaster about him than did Stewart, who spent a lot of time leaning over his desk and waving his hands around. But at home, Noah’s “Daily Show” bears almost no likeness to television news. His talking-to-camera bits resemble nothing so much as what one might find on YouTube (if one were lucky and YouTube generous). The show feels fully his own, and newly essential.

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Wayne Lawrence for Variety

The crystallizing moment for the socially distant “Daily Show” — and perhaps for Noah’s entire tenure at the franchise — was his March 26 interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci. At the time, the coronavirus was less familiar, and the infectious-diseases expert had not yet been played on “Saturday Night Live” by Brad Pitt or photographed poolside for InStyle.

“I’m glad that’s when we got him,” says Noah. After taking the show into his home, Noah set a new rule on guest selection — no one with nothing important to say. His interview with Fauci, a straightforward 13 minutes, is all viewer service and no comedy show. He asks basic questions about how the virus spreads — whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store, pick up a package or walk into an elevator. There is no cute moment. He doesn’t ask Fauci what his favorite movie is or even about his relationship with Trump. There’s no laughing. On YouTube, the interview has been viewed more than 11.7 million times.

Noah read about Fauci and his career spent advising presidents, and pursued the booking. “American news generally is geared more toward entertainment and engagement than information, because information can be very boring,” Noah says. “So unfortunately, experts are sidelined for people with great opinions. And we needed to give this expert a platform.”

But Noah also, when watching White House briefings, spotted before almost anyone else what Fauci was — good television.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “I’m also a consumer, and I’m also a viewer. I was intrigued by Fauci. That’s why I gave him the entire episode.”

Noah’s personal story has been well told. He was born to a Black mother of Xhosa descent and a white European father; his youth, which straddled the apartheid and early post-apartheid eras in South Africa, provided fodder for two Netflix stand-up specials, was detailed in his best-selling memoir “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” and is set to be dramatized in a feature adaptation of that memoir at Paramount starring Lupita Nyong’o as his mother, Patricia. Five years ago, when he was announced as the next host of “The Daily Show” — after the job was turned down by Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock and others — Noah was a virtual unknown in the U.S., a stand-up comic whose American television exposure was limited to a couple late-night talk-show sets and a handful of appearances as a correspondent on Stewart’s show.

“He was going to be a star,” says Doug Herzog, who at the time ran music and entertainment networks, including Comedy Central, for Viacom. “Whether he was on Comedy Central or not, he was going to be a star. He just had it.” Just before Stewart initiated talks about leaving the show, Michele Ganeless, then the network’s president, flagged Noah to Herzog as someone to keep an eye on.

Noah’s was one of three names that came up in Herzog and Ganeless’ first conversation with Stewart about possible successors (the other two being A-listers who would eventually pass on the gig). On one Sunday night Herzog, having never met Noah, drove from L.A. to Irvine to see him perform stand-up. Noah, unbeknownst to Herzog, had spent the day at the hospital due to pain in his abdomen, and been diagnosed with appendicitis. Aware that Herzog would be at his show that night, Noah refused surgery. Doctors instead gave him prescription drugs, and Noah’s manager put him in the back of a car to Irvine. He performed at the venue for an hour. After the set, Herzog went backstage and the two spoke briefly. “He later told me he had no recollection of us meeting that night, that he was in that much pain,” Herzog says.

Later that year, Noah would have his appendectomy — just a few weeks after taking over as host of “The Daily Show.” “You know, a lot of people ask me, ‘Hey Trevor, what’s it going to be like commenting on America if you’re not from America?’” Noah joked when he returned to the show the day after having surgery. “And I was like, Well, I’m going to have to experience America. And what better way than enjoying America’s health care system?’”

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Wayne Lawrence for Variety

Noah was not a success out of the gate. “We hemorrhaged a ton of our audience,” he recalls. But Viacom showed uncommon patience, and he found his footing. In 2016, according to Nielsen and YouTube data provided by Comedy Central, Noah’s “Daily Show” was down 32% in total minutes viewed from 2015, the last year in which Stewart hosted. In 2019, the show was up 35% from 2015.

At the time of Noah’s hire, Comedy Central promoted the idea that he would bring an international perspective to “The Daily Show.” That provided a convenient narrative for those wondering why an unknown should be handed such a franchise. And it served Noah poorly.

“I fell into the trap of listening to what people were saying about what a worldview is,” he says. “When people said, ‘He’s going to bring a global perspective,’ I thought that meant that I had to tell people about what’s going on in Kashmir and what’s going on in Mogadishu. Then I realized no, a global perspective is not talking about what’s happening around the globe. It’s being shaped by the idea that we live together on the globe. And then I realized that I can talk about Donald Trump, and I can explain to you why this man is like so many African dictators we’ve seen.”

Noah’s debut as “Daily Show” host came four months after Trump launched his presidential campaign. From the beginning, what he saw in Trump looked familiar. And the U.S. president has not failed since then to remind Noah again and again of figures such as Robert Mugabe and Moammar Gadhafi.

“I told people five years ago, ‘Wait until he’s telling you that you don’t need to have an election,’” Noah says. “And people were like, ‘This is America. It can’t happen. We got checks and balances.’ Please understand: We all have checks and balances in our countries. Contrary to popular belief, Africa is not made up of savages. We do know how to write laws. But what we have learned is that the right leaders at the right times can step in and use those laws in a very dangerous manner.”

Noah always felt that his country and the wider world were interdependent. Now, at age 36, his job is to deliver satire and commentary to Americans — people not known for thinking globally.

“Trevor is and has always been a kind of outsider-insider, even growing up in South Africa,” says Nyong’o. “He brings his African perspective with him and makes it less esoteric and exotic to an American audience. Sometimes it helps to see yourself from the viewpoint of someone outside of your context. The U.S. does not get a lot of that opportunity because of how dominant U.S. culture is in the rest of the world.”

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Wayne Lawrence for Variety

Noah recalls how, decades ago, unrest in Angola and the economic collapse in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe sent refugees from both countries pouring into South Africa. “Everything doesn’t affect you until it affects you,” he says. When peaceful protests in Minneapolis following the killing of Floyd became violent, Noah recognized it as the response to years of America failing to address racism.

“The Daily Show” had just begun a two-week hiatus when Floyd was killed on May 25. For once, Noah was able to process a significant news event as a human being rather than as a late-night talk-show host. By the time the show returned June 8, Noah, wearing black, was better equipped than he otherwise may have been to make sense of the historic events unfolding.

“I was glad that we weren’t on the air,” he says. “I couldn’t speak. I had to listen.”

Noah begins each day with some light exercise (pushups and jumping jacks, in true quarantine fashion). Then, because he is the host of “The Daily Show,” he reads the news — The New York Times, Al Jazeera, the South African newspaper The Star. At 9:30 a.m. he checks in with his staff. Before COVID, that first meeting of the day consisted of more than 30 people, including the entire writing team. Now it’s Noah and four senior staffers on a videoconference. Ideas are funneled upward, through key people, to Noah.

In the days of colocation, the host prided himself on any staffer being able to pitch him face-to-face. But in the Zoom era, more can be less.

“On Zoom, once you get to pages of people, it’s very difficult to engage with everybody,” he says. “I need to have all the faces on one page so that I can see how everyone is reacting to information, how everyone is responding or chiming in. And then we can move faster as well.”

By 5 p.m., most of the day’s show has been recorded and the footage sent to editors. Then Noah and producers watch the full episode before it’s sent to Comedy Central. Most evenings, he bicycles around the city, sometimes with friends, other times alone. “I ride to Brooklyn, I ride to Harlem, ride to New Jersey — I just get on a bicycle and ride,” he says. “You’re outside; you’re safe; you’re socially distant.”

In 2017, Noah signed a five-year extension that will keep him on “The Daily Show” through 2022. Comedy Central since then has been through enormous transformation. Its corporate parent, Viacom, finally reunited with CBS after one of the most tortuous media merger dances in recent memory. The execs who hired Noah — Herzog, Ganeless and then-Comedy Central head of programming Kent Alterman, one by one left the company.

Chris McCarthy, who now heads the bulk of ViacomCBS’ cable channels as entertainment and youth brands president, has aggressively pursued a new strategy for Comedy Central — leaning into adult animation, striking deals for specials from big-ticket talents such as John Mulaney and shifting away from the scripted live-action half-hour shows that long populated much of the linear schedule.

What he has not done is tinker with “The Daily Show.” Noah praises McCarthy and group programming president Nina Diaz for the swift yes they issued when he sought to expand the show beyond half an hour, and for acknowledging that the show has reestablished itself as the network’s cornerstone.

“Chris is not constrained by old TV,” says Noah. “I appreciated that Chris came in and said, ‘How can we help you to make the show better? Is there anything we can do to support you?’”

McCarthy hopes to tap into Noah’s growing ambitions as a producer. “We have every intention of being in a long-term relationship with Trevor,” he says. “We love him, and we think this is the beginning of so many things to grow with him across the entire ViacomCBS portfolio.”

One possibility being discussed is the franchising of “The Daily Show,” with Noah producing international iterations. Though ViacomCBS hasn’t zeroed in on any particular territories — talks are in a holding pattern, given the pandemic — the plan would be for local versions of the program to appear on the company’s channels in some territories, while other versions might be licensed to outside platforms.

Meanwhile, Noah is growing the slate of his Day Zero Prods., which struck a deal with ViacomCBS in 2018. Among the projects in the works are the “Born a Crime” film — the final revision of the script is nearing completion — and a comedy series with Wood Jr. and “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder.

Haroon Saleem, president of production at Day Zero, lauds Noah for identifying “the seismic shift in perception” in the entertainment industry toward inclusion — and for his instincts as a producer. “His sense of story easily rivals 90% to 95% of the people I’ve met in this business,” Saleem says. “He truly is that good.”

But “The Daily Show” continues to be Noah’s primary focus. And though bringing the show home was the result of a crisis, he’s not in a hurry to return to the old way of doing things. Other hosts, including Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Jimmy Fallon, have already gone back to their studios and desks. Asked if he’ll do the same soon, Noah smiles.

“I’m in no rush,” he says. That’s in part because of concern for his crew and staff. “If I say we’re going back to the studio, who’s gonna say no?” he says. “I don’t want to put them in a position where they feel like they have to say yes, or they might be injured.” He’s also been dismayed by what feels like a peculiar American urgency. “I do not wish to make the same mistake America made, and that is rushing to go back to normal when nothing is normal.”

And the shape that the show has taken in crisis appeals to Noah. The current “Daily Show” — with its host unshaven, sitting on the couch, wearing his hoodie, talking to his phone — is less performative than any previous version. It may never again look exactly as it once did. “There is something wonderful about putting on a suit,” Noah says. “There’s a magic to it, a show-business thing to it. At the same time, sometimes I think maybe the show-business thing can negatively impact your ability to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.”

He seems liberated by not having to play to a studio audience. “When you make the show with a live audience, you are at the mercy of those people,” he says. “Those 200 people determine what is or isn’t funny, what is or isn’t too far.” He feels more at ease talking frankly about subjects such as the police killing of Breonna Taylor than he would were there a live audience in front of him. If and when normal returns, he adds, “maybe I’ll find a hybrid approach.”

“If Trevor Noah has an audience, Trevor Noah will always be a performer,” he says. “If Trevor Noah doesn’t have an audience, then Trevor Noah is only focused on being a human being. And so I think that’s what this iteration of the show has given me. It has forced me to be more honest with not just the audience, but with myself.”

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