For Trevor Noah, Comedy Is a Tool for Process and Growth

In a virtual event, the Daily Show host covered everything from America’s racial reckoning to what he’d study at GW.

April 15, 2021

By Ruth Steinhardt

When Trevor Noah took over as host of news-comedy juggernaut “The Daily Show” from longtime host Jon Stewart, the pressure was “terrifying.”

“You’re some random guy from Africa—what are you doing?” he remembers asking himself.

But Mr. Noah has always made a point of stretching himself, he told George Washington University Provost M. Brian Blake and an audience of GW students, alumni, faculty and staff on Wednesday evening at a virtual visit sponsored by the GW Program Board. “If you don’t put yourself in a situation where your muscles have to tear, they’re never going to grow.”

Almost six years into his hosting gig, Mr. Noah’s mastery of the form seems comfortable. He recently hosted the 2021 Grammy Awards—a gig where the greatest perk is the opportunity to talk to big-deal artists like Beyoncé and Harry Styles as if they’re your friends, he deadpanned. “But they’re not my friends.”

Mr. Noah is still finding ways to stretch himself. Over the past year, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him and his staff to record the Daily Show from home. Although that has been difficult, it also built a new kind of collaboration among the production team and helped him calibrate his comedy in a new way—as a “more intimate experience,” he said. “I still miss having a studio audience, but I think this has also given me an opportunity to communicate a little more authentically.”

With vaccinations on the rise and many states beginning to reopen, Mr. Noah doesn’t plan to abandon what he’s learned or go on as if nothing happened.

“I don’t want to be the same after the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t want to live as if I didn’t experience a year of existential dread with all my fellow humans around me…but I also don’t want to live as if it’s still happening.”

Tackling controversial topics in a comedy news show is unavoidable, Mr. Noah said, especially during a year when tragedy affected every aspect of life in the United States and globally. But comedy, for him, isn’t something to be superimposed over thorny issues. Rather, it’s a way to process those subjects honestly and find community around them.

“The way some people, when they’re experiencing a lot of pain, they have to scream and curse? I use comedy,” Mr. Noah said. “Oftentimes that helps me deal with the truth of it without feeling like all is lost.”

It’s an attitude he traces to his upbringing in South Africa under apartheid, where formal standup comedy may not have been an option—he didn’t know what a “punchline” was until his teens—and where the people around him used humor and storytelling to process ongoing traumatic events. (Even as an adult, he said, he is “more familiar with the smell of tear gas than the smell of cheese.”)

South Africa is still reckoning with the effects of its colonial history. But Mr. Noah said he sees in conversations with Americans a desire to distance themselves from their own.

“America hasn’t done a bad job of addressing its racist history; I think America has done a bad job understanding how its racist history is affecting its present,” he said. “People don’t seem to understand, especially in America, how racism and hatred, like money, have compound interest.”

“Look how many times Black wealth was eradicated. Black people did the thing they were always told to do—'Pull up your pants! Work for yourself!’ They did that, and then what happened? Angry racist people came in and took that from them.”

Examining this historical continuum isn’t a question of blame, Mr. Noah said. Rather, it’s diagnostic.

“When a doctor says ‘What do you have in your history?’ they’re not blaming you for it,” he said. “They’re trying to understand how to treat you going forward.”

Again, these conversations are part of Mr. Noah’s constructive, rather than adversarial, approach to comedy. “If you’re in a room with me, and you’ve come to listen to me talk, then I will afford you the opportunity to be part of the conversation,” he said. “I’m always trying to be in a space where we’re going ‘Let’s tackle this thing this together.’”

Mr. Noah also held a meet-and-greet with some GW students and took questions from the audience at the end of the conversation, including a question on what he’d major in if he were a GW student.

“I’m inclined to say political science, but to be honest with you, I think I’d go with economics,” he said. “I believe that fundamentally, at the root of all the issues we face in society, money will help you understand what the real problem is—and I don’t mean that you can solve it with money, but you’ll understand where the core of the problem came from. Whether it’s the slave trade, which inherently is driven by money, or whether it’s how policing is enforced around America, which is inherently driven by money and how to extract money out of people to fund cities, you can follow money across everything.”


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