Trevor Noah on Kanye, Will Smith and How Social Media Poisons the Well of Civil Discourse

Awards Circuit Podcast: Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show" seven Emmy nominations. Also: The Roundtable on this year's wide open Emmy races.

Trevor Noah
Comedy Central

Trevor Noah admits that he didn’t think his exchange with Kanye West on social media earlier this year would blow up the way it did.

After Noah discussed, on “The Daily Show,” West’s behavior toward ex-wife Kim Kardashian, West responded by directing a racial slur at him on Instagram, which led to West being banned on the platform for a day. At the time, Noah responded on Instagram by noting that “the biggest trick racists ever played on black people was teaching us to strip each other of our blackness whenever we disagree,” and also that “I don’t care if you support Trump and I don’t care if you roast Pete. I do however care when I see you on a path that’s dangerously close to peril and pain.”

The Grammys, which Noah hosted, canceled West’s appearance on the show, in a move that Noah criticized. In speaking with Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast, Noah explained why he responded in the way that he did.

“I’ve just become more comfortable speaking my mind in situations where I feel like the mob forgets that we’re dealing with human beings,” he says. “It’s easy to stand on the sidelines, see a train crash coming and say nothing about it. And then after the train crashes off the tracks, we say, ‘Oh, I saw that coming!’ Well, then why didn’t you say anything? Especially if you have some sort of platform, you have some sort of obligation to speak a truth. You know, see something and say some thing.

“And I also understand that human beings are a paradox. We can love people who we hate, we can hate people who we love. Human beings as a whole are complicated paradox. And so, I don’t like to live in a world where we constantly discard human beings like pieces of trash. Kanye West is somebody who has an indelible impression on my life. His music has literally taken me through different periods of my journey, But then there are also moments where I go, like, ‘man, Kanye, you, you’re going off the rails here.’ But I can still say that, ‘I care for you as a human being, that’s, that’s why I’m speaking out. I’m not going to not care for you, I’m not going to hate you all of a sudden.’ That’s how I try and see the world, that’s how I would hope people would see me.

“If I’ve engaged you as a human being, and if you like me, or if you like anyone in your life, I hope you’d have the ability to say to that person, ‘hey, I think what you’re doing here is wrong. I think you may be headed in the dangerous direction. And I’m saying that you because I like you. I don’t discard you as a person.’ And I think we have gotten very comfortable discarding human beings, immediately tossing them away and making them irredeemable characters. When in fact, I think all of us should be afforded the opportunity to redeem ourselves. All of us should have an opportunity at redemption.”

On this edition of Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast, we talk to “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” host about a wide range of topics, including doing a topical late night show when the news is so incessantly grim. Also, the success of his correspondents, the fact that he may be the only weeknight talk show host who hasn’t gotten COVID, how he got his audience groove back and also the show’s multiple Emmy nominations — seven across “The Daily Show” and its companion series, the most for the franchise since Noah took over as host in 2015. Listen below!

Noah has many interesting thoughts about how society, in this social media age, is so quick to render verdicts on the behavior of people — both celebrity and not. When he hosted the Grammys, it was just days after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on the Oscars stage. And it was still one of the biggest news stories of the moment, something Noah addressed briefly on his awards show. But he says he also was troubled by the idea that it was “another instance where people were so quick to throw a human being away.

“I find it fascinating,” he says. “If we look at it through the scales of justice, or even if you just think of it through the lens of humanity… How many rights are worth a wrong and what wrong erases all the rights? When is a person now vile? I was shocked at how many people immediately just went, ‘Will Smith is a trash human being and he’s the worst human, he should be in jail.’ I was like, ‘whoa, wow. Okay.’ That was really interesting for me. As opposed to saying, this person who we’ve loved for so long, who has put not a foot wrong anywhere. Something went wrong here. Something really went wrong, what went wrong? Should we get in that? Should we delve into the humanity of it? Should we ask, should we question? Should we care? Nope, nope, that’s not the world we live in anymore.

“People instantly get defined,” he adds. “And you cannot exist in a gray space. You cannot be a good person who’s done a bad thing. And you cannot be a bad person who does a good thing. You’re either a good person or a bad person. And that is it. And then society flip flops with you, depending on your last action. I try not to allow myself to get sucked into that too much.”

Social media, of course, is so much to blame for this quick, loud, overbearing reaction now in the world to virtually anything.

“I think one of the worst things social media has done to us is, it has rewarded the hot take,” Noah says. “It has rewarded the most extreme version of any opinion that is out there. If you put out a nuanced opinion, in a tweet, unfortunately, the algorithm is not going to push that as far because it doesn’t engage as many people and engagements is what social media is trying to achieve. The problem is, the best way to get the most engagements is by inflaming tensions. And while that’s great for the bottom line of a social media company, it’s terrible for us as human beings.

“If I wanted to get everybody’s attention on the freeway, the best way to do it, is to cause a giant accident. Everyone’s going to stop and everyone’s going to look, but that’s terrible for the freeway. I like to think of us as society, we’re on the freeway, we’re all trying to get somewhere. On social media, that algorithm knows, if I can turn this into a giant catastrophe, a huge pileup, then I’ll get everybody to stop and chime in. And I don’t think that’s the best thing for us as people.”

As for “The Daily Show,” it returned to its old studios this spring, with the Comedy Central late night series finally bringing back an in-studio audience after two years.

“I must admit, I think I took it for granted,” Noah says. “When the pandemic started, because it was such a novelty, I don’t think I really thought about what a difference it would make to have people that I was speaking to as the proxies for the viewer at home. And initially, it was fun, it was a novelty, it was different. It was interesting. And I actually enjoyed elements of doing the show without an audience. But what happens over time, you forget that you’re not smiling as much, you forget that you’re not making eye contact with another human being. You forget how much our moods as people are affected by other people’s moods. That’s probably one of the biggest things that I’ve really appreciated coming back to a studio with an audience, how much the audience lifts me. I have fun with them. We we share conversations, we discuss what’s happening in the news. And it becomes less about what’s happening in my head and more about the conversation I’m having with people that we’re all experiencing.”

This year, “The Daily Show’s” multiple Emmy nominations include outstanding variety talk show and writing for a variety series. In the ever-expanding “The Daily Show” universe, “The Daily Show Presents: Jordan Klepper Fingers the Globe – Hungary for Democracy” received a nomination for outstanding writing for a variety special.

“The thing with Jordan is it often seems like magic, it often seems like he is some sort of mentalist,” Noah says. “But a somebody who has had the pleasure of being in an office with Jordan Klepper, having every type of conversation with him, what makes Jordan Klepper so good at what he does, is that he listens. He really listens to people when they speak. I guess it’s probably his improv background. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal improv. So he listens. And it is interesting how many contradictions you will pick up from people in American politics.”

Also earning nods, “Between the Scenes” received its fourth nomination for outstanding short form nonfiction or reality series. And Desi Lydic earned a nom for outstanding actress in a short form comedy or drama series (for “Desi Lydic Foxsplains”), which is also her first individual Emmy nomination.

“I do not take any of this for granted,” Noah says. “I know that it can all go away tomorrow. And so, every day, I do the best I can. I always tell my team, don’t forget, we’re lucky to be on on TV. We’re lucky that people still watch what we create. So for the nominations, I mean, that’s that’s insane. It’s a testament to the team. My executive producer Jen Flanz marshaling the troops and growing our staff from I think it was like 90something people when I took over, to now 140, 150. It’s a testament to how hard everybody has worked.”

Also on this episode of the Variety Awards Circuit Podcast, as Emmy voting draws to a close on Monday, our Awards Circuit Roundtable discusses this year’s wide open races.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.