Trevor Noah grew The Daily Show
His departure after seven years shows that late night has shrunk.
Trevor Noah was met with a resounding “Who?” when he replaced Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” in 2015.
He wasn’t unknown. He was a new correspondent for the comedy-news show. He was also a popular stand-up comedian outside of South Africa.
Despite the world maps in the show’s graphics, he hadn’t topped the list of top candidates to host. Comedy Central gambled on “this random comedian nobody knew — on this side of the world,” Noah said in September.
America has many blind spots, after all. As he took late night in his own direction, Noah exposed them and widened its field of vision.
Noah, whose last “Daily Show” airs Thursday, was a rare Black host in a white-dominated field, taking over a show that had been criticized for its treatment of race. (He joined Larry Wilmore, whose “The Nightly Show” was canceled in 2016)
He was also African, a part of the world often neglected by American news, much less comedic news about the news.
Many of late night’s most famous hosts have performed some form of Americanness as part of their act. Johnny Carson’s Midwest-meets-Burbank cool made him popular, while David Letterman played up the Indiana weatherman gone twisted. On “The Daily Show,” Stewart surveyed the media circus with befuddled exasperation.
Noah was an exception in late night, so he made sure his show reflected that. Everyone must know about America, but not everyone is like us or sees us as we do.
He gave his audience his perspective. One of his early bits compared Donald J. Trump’s glitzy aesthetic, boastfulness, and outrageous claims to an African dictator. Noah: “Trump is president.” “He’s on the wrong continent.”
Noah was an outsider, but not dumb. He was cool, smart, and had a versatile voice. He was as comfortable hosting the Grammys as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
When the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted live studio productions, he shot “The Daily Social Distancing Show” in his apartment wearing a rainbow of hoodies.
He spoke most passionately about George Floyd’s murder and police brutality against Black people. The host who made “The Daily Show” global found his moment when the world shrank to our living rooms.
Noah, like others returning from remote work to the office, said the pandemic made him question his career path. After visiting India, he said, “I realized how much I’d missed.”
Noah, 38, will leave late night after just over seven years, unlike Stewart (16 years), Carson (30 years), or Letterman (11 years with NBC, 22 with CBS). Late night is less important than it used to be (and the story of its continuing decline is nearly as old as Noah). Maybe his tenure marked the start of an era in which hosts don’t stick to late-night posts for their entire careers.
Noah’s departure may reflect a fluid, fast-changing media environment, like his comedy. His biggest statement may be that he stayed at his job long enough to make a mark, then moved on. The world’s big.