/ 28 December 2022

Where to now, Trevor Noah?

Matt Wilson/comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Trevor Noah

There was a time when Trevor Noah would look up into the audience from his host desk at The Daily Show and see empty seats. You wouldn’t have known this two weeks ago when queues to get into his studio in Midtown Manhattan snaked around the block, with throngs of people from around the world eager to be part of the tapings of his last episodes as host of the popular late-night show.

“I remember when we started the show, we couldn’t get enough people to fill an audience … and when I look at this now, I don’t take it for granted ever. Every seat that has ever been filled to watch something that I’m doing, I always appreciate cos I know the empty seat that sits behind it,” Trevor told the audience at his final episode on Thursday, 8 December.

News that Trevor was leaving his hosting desk after just seven years at The Daily Show was met with shock and sadness not only from fans but from all the influential people he has interviewed on his show over the years. He was still going strong. He held us down during the crazy four years of Donald Trump’s presidency and got us through the pain and trauma of the pandemic. 

We were still expecting more of his hard truth through comedy as Trump runs for another term in the 2024 presidential elections, and Kanye West attempts to do the same. 

“I know a lot of people are sad, but please don’t be sad. You should be happy that an African leader is peacefully leaving power. That’s never a guarantee,” Trevor joked to the audience.

I have been fortunate to attend a number of Trevor’s stand-up comedy shows in New York. Back when he was a little-known comedian in the US, he would come outside after every performance to chit-chat with the group of South Africans waiting to say howzit to him. He would be mobbed if he did that now that he’s a megastar, but he is still one of us and showed up at our Saffas in NYC Heritage Day Braai in Brooklyn in September.

While it is magical to be part of the audience at Trevor’s stand-ups here, being in the studio and watching live as one of our own masterfully commands America’s attention from behind the hosting desk at The Daily Show, a hugely powerful platform, evokes a different kind of surrealism. 

I have attended the tapings of The Daily Show twice. 

Even though I was already living in New York when Trevor took over the show from the venerable Jon Stewart in 2015, I didn’t go to any of his studio tapings until 2019 when a friend was visiting from home and wanted to go to the show. Living here, there is so much to see and do, you always think “I will get to it soon”. 

Looking back now, I am glad that we went when we did because little did we know that three years later he would be moving on. That first time was exciting and fun – it was a moment of pride.

The second time, on Wednesday, 7 December, for Trevor’s penultimate episode, being in the studio was more bittersweet. I felt privileged to be there because so many people wanted to experience Trevor behind that desk one last time, but the free tickets had been snapped up as soon as they became available. 

Laughing all the way: Trever Noah hosted ‘The Daily Show’ from 2015. For his final show, throngs of fans lined up to see the megastar. Yolanda Sangweni, Trevor Noah, Xolisa Dyeshana and Lihle Z Mtshali at the Saffas in NYC Heritage Day event in New York in September this year (above). Photos: Matt Wilson and Lihle Z Mtshali

This time the experience was also made all the more different because I had a VIP ticket, I didn’t have to stand in the long queue outside on the cold Manhattan sidewalk for check-in. I was the envy of everyone as I waltzed to the front and was immediately let inside and ushered into the VIP lounge for snacks and drinks. When they let us into the studio for the taping, I was excited to be seated in the front row. 

The comedian who came on before Trevor to warm up the audience went around the room asking people where they were from and when I told him I was from South Africa, he gestured to the host desk, made a sad face and said, “That’s your boo. Isn’t it so sad that tomorrow’s his last day hosting The Daily Show?’ 

It was sad, but shortly after that Trevor came on stage and showed the audience why he has had such a successful run on the show and has become a proper A-lister in the US, who now has the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world, like former US president Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and that night’s guest, tennis icon Roger Federer. 

None of us knew how adept Trevor would be at this hosting gig and the naysayers came from every quarter when it was announced that he would be taking over in September 2015. 

“I remember when I started this show. There were so many people who hated me, genuinely hated me,” Trevor remembered during his last episode. “They hated how I looked, they hated my hair, they hated my accent, they hated everything about me. My point of view, everything. 

“And then I look, seven years later, and now those people still hate me, but for the right reasons, cos now they know me, they understand me.”

He may joke, but a lot more people love him than hate him. 

It used to be that as a South African living or travelling abroad when you told people where you were from, they would say, “Oh, Nelson Mandela.” But now, they also say, “Oh, Trevor Noah. Have you read his book? Have you seen his latest stand-up special?”

He brought Africa into American living rooms with commentary on African current events, and although he was sometimes controversial and drew the ire of people on the continent and the diaspora when he negatively depicted African leaders, he also put a spotlight on Africans that many Americans may never have been exposed to. 

People like Burna Boy, Davido, Yvonne Orji, Lupita Nyong’o, Black Coffee, Zozibini Tunzi, Charlize Theron, Nomzamo Mbatha, Thuso Mbedu and Nelson Makamo were among his guests.

There was a personal touch, a brotherhood, in the way he interacted with African guests on the show that was heartwarming to watch. It seemed he was intentional and deliberate about maintaining and showcasing his Africanness, which was evident from day one when he brought along with him from South Africa, his long-time friend, Ugandan comedian David Kibuuka, to be one of the writers and producers of the show.

When the show returns in January, a slew of guest hosts will be behind the desk until they reveal the new host. One of The Daily Show’s correspondents, Dulce Sloan, questioned Trevor about “leaving a good job to do nothing” and he responded: “I just think life isn’t all about work … it’s about exploration, it’s about discovery, it’s about fulfilment.

“This is a moment where I’m just taking time, it’s about me making time for family, for friends, to travel a little bit more.”

We know that whatever Trevor does from now on, he will turn into gold. He had to start from scratch when he began touring in the US about 10 years ago, making $300 per show, which he reminisced about with his final guest on the show, comedian Neal Brennan. 

Trevor left us with some of his strongest words yet, as he shared some of the lessons he has learned in his time in the US. 

During his last Between the Scenes, an Emmy award-winning short-form segment of The Daily Show that has Trevor interacting with the audience when the show cuts to an ad break, an emotional Trevor gave  a special shout-out to black women in a clip that has since gone viral. 

“I’ve often been credited with having these grand ideas. People are like: ‘Oh Trevor, you’re so smart’ and I’m like: Who do you think teaches me? Who do you think has shaped me, nourished me, informed me? From my mom, my gran, my aunts, all these Black women in my life. In America as well. 

“I always tell people: if you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women … Do yourself a favour. If you truly want to know what to do and how to do it, maybe the best way, or the most equitable way, talk to Black women. They are a lot of the reason that I’m here and so I’m grateful to them. 

“I’m grateful to every one of you. This has been an honour, thank you.”