Ultimate outsider Trevor Noah fits 'Daily Show' mold

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Trevor Noah in the documentary about him "You'll Laugh But It's True." (Day 1 Films)

Since Jon Stewart announced in February that he would depart The Daily Show anchor chair, names of possible successors to take over Comedy Central's keystone show had been bandied about.

Who would be the new voice of fake news?

Yesterday, Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah - a 31-year-old South African stand-up comic who has contributed to The Daily Show a scant three times since his December debut - would be the newest name in late-night.

And a collective "Huh?" reverberated.

Who is this guy? And why does he get to take the seat that, since 1999, Stewart has elevated beyond its beginnings as an expanded version of a "Weekend Update"? But the answer to the question of "That guy?" is very much in the vein of The Daily Show.

Noah and Stewart are ostensibly quite different. Noah is young, biracial (he's the product of a Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother), foreign, and new to the large majority of American TV watchers. Stewart is 52, white, very much rooted in his New Jersey/New York origins, and while he wasn't a household name when he started anchoring, he at least had TV-hosting experience with The Jon Stewart Show and as a regular guest host for Tom Snyder's The Late Late Show.

But Noah makes sense as the man to take on Stewart's mantle, because The Daily Show seat, as we know it today, has always been occupied by an outsider.

Since the beginning of his tenure, Stewart has positioned himself as a comedian who happens to make jokes about current events, rather than a journalist who happens to be (really) funny. Time and time again, Stewart has reiterated that he is not a journalist, despite the many polls that have come out touting how many people, especially young people, get their news from The Daily Show, using his nontitle as both a badge of honor and a defense against critics.

Stewart's strength as a commentator was his ability to say, "Look, I'm not one of them. Let's make fun of them together." He's not part of the trad-news media so he can mock them and the topics they cover. He's a comedian, lesser than, so in that way, he's always punching up.

Stewart could make fun of anyone and everyone because he was no part of any type of establishment.

When Stewart took a sabbatical to direct the movie Rosewater, John Oliver one-upped Stewart's outsider status, a tactic he has expanded on since making the leap to HBO and the brilliant Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Oliver was not only a media outsider, but he also was a Brit looking at American politics and saying, "For real, guys? How did you crazies become a world superpower?"

Noah's outsider status is multiplied tenfold. Not only did he not grow up entrenched in the news that he will cover, but also he can comment on race in ways Stewart could not as a white man, the ultimate American majority.

In Noah's first appearance on The Daily Show, Stewart asked how his flight went. "Yeah, I flew in yesterday and, boy, are my arms tired," Noah said.

"All right, an oldie but a goody," Stewart responded.

The camera then cut back to Noah, who had his hands up, as if being held up by the cops. "No, seriously, I've been holding my hands up since I got here. . . . I never thought I'd be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa. Kinda makes me nostalgic for the old days back home."

Noah deals a lot with his identity in his stand-up and in the biographical documentary You Laugh But It's True (check it out on Netflix and Vimeo for a full-on Noah primer).

Then again, Noah himself is part of a majority: He's a man. When Stewart announced he was leaving, the Internet collectively threw its weight behind Daily Show contributor Jessica Williams (who contended that she was underqualified for the job), longtime Daily Show vet Samantha Bee (who is leaving to create a comedy for TBS), and Upper Darby's Tina Fey (who would be selling herself short by hosting a nightly talk show, even one as respected as The Daily Show). No matter how out-of-left-field Noah seems, he's still very much a part of the fabric of the testosterone-filled late-night landscape.

Either way, Comedy Central has anointed the outsider to captain their flagship. And like any good outsider, he will have his work cut out for him to prove himself worthy of the title.

 


meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909

 

@mollyeichel