“Let me remind you, he’s not just the presenter, he’s the executive producer.” This reminder from Evert van der Veer, head of Comedy Central in Africa, of the enormity of what Trevor Noah has achieved in claiming THE seat at The Daily Show, was a key moment at today’s early screening of the first episode hosted by Viacom. Sure, the world (and South Africans especially) has been Trevor obsessed in the run up to the big reveal, but as South Africans I have sensed an almost smug “they don’t really get it, we KNOW why Trevor”. Amidst all the “will he live up to Jon Stewart” and “oh my goodness he’s the son of a white father and black mother at a time when that was totally illegal in apartheid South Africa” rhetoric that the American press has been repeating (in between rhyming “clever” with “Trevor”) it has really seemed as if they have not got it.
If you want to get critical, there are several angles you could view Noah’s debut from. You could talk positives – that the writing was strong and he landed most of it as if he was born to, that he demonstrated both the reverence for Stewart we needed him to (we’re all coping with losing dad) but that he’s not taking that (or himself) too seriously (even if his correspondent is worried about his condo) and those delicious dimples (it never hurts to be good looking on television). We could be critical – because to be fair his interview style could use a little work and I would probably not have forgiven him that much smiling if he wasn’t so darn good looking (those dimples again). To be fair, however, Noah deserves the time to grow into his interview style and he has only just begun to show his range in delivery. While the positives and the could-do-betters can be debated, neither stood out as the most significant about Noah’s debut.
More interesting was the opportunity Noah presents and that he delivered on. It was both an excellent piece of writing and a foreshadowing of the new vast playground The Daily Show has open to it with Noah as host, that the two “correspondent” pieces – focusing on speaker John Boehner’s resignation and the NASA’s Mars revelation respectively – provided two ends to a very telling larger story. First, in a piece that conflated the need to replace Boehner with the fact that they’ve replaced Stewart, a white correspondent freaked out about how his new black boss would mess everything up and cost him his condo while Noah played oblivious to the innuendo. Then, a black correspondent stepped up to remind Noah not to get carried away and let a few minutes at the helm of a major television show to allow him to forget his place in society as a black man. America, Trevor Noah is winking at you.
It’s that wink that resonates with many of his South African fans and has long been a part of his comedy. When we read the oft repeated story of how Trevor’s parents couldn’t walk on the same side of the road, we know the significance even more so than the Americans for whom this becomes the go-to anecdote. South Africans skim over this paragraph to some degree – not because it is not significant, but because we heard it in Daywalker so long ago and it is more a common fact than an exotic one. Trevor is not the only Daywalker we know. Many of us are in relationships now that were illegal in our lifetimes. We know from whence we come, and while we should never be so silly as to forget, it is our NOW that we are focused on.
So while Noah’s history is significant, worth telling and not to be taken lightly, it is what he represents about right now that most excites me. He stands as a shining light of what can be, of the opportunities that are slowly (sadly too slowly) becoming a reality. And perhaps even more importantly, he is a flying flag to every white person of what equality could start to look like.
Noah made it against the odds. For many black South Africans those odds are still great. If you’re a white South African, your odds are good – and not just that you’re significantly financially better off. Odds are good that you’ve had someone whining into your ear about how they perceive “quotas” have damaged the Springboks (don’t get me started, that’s a whole other article) or how so many white people don’t get jobs because blacks have an unfair advantage because of employment equity programs. Or worse, you’ve done that whining yourself. I like to see Noah as one of those flags, waving to this group of people, reminding them that black excellence is neither a myth nor just another hashtag. Granted, we should not have to explain this to the and also, he is by and far not the only example, but he’s one that is very difficult for this group to overlook. Whether that is enough to shift their perspective, I can’t say for sure. Perhaps it is utopian for me to hope.
What is clear though, is that even with a debut in which The Daily Show team seemed to want to push the envelope just far enough (pope cock jokes) but not over the line (we could still feel enough of the old show to feel safe), they are going to ask us difficult questions about race and prejudice. Noah – not just because he is mixed race, but because he is not American – has given them all kinds of license. It’s license I trust Trevor with. After all, he’s probably the first person that managed to get Durban a mention on a late night US show – and that’s no small thing.
The group of people that Viacom assembled to watch the early screening of The Daily Show was mixed, youthful (although not necessarily young), cosmopolitan, progressive and South African – or at least that’s my assessment based on their willingness to guffaw at the jokes that pushed it (and yes I mean Whitney Houston) and a cursory glance around the room. Little wonder that one of the loudest cheers (and there were many) followed Van der Veer’s reminder – “he’s not just the presenter, he’s the executive producer.” Their salute was to a young man of their number, standing up and showing us what we could be while holding up a mirror to remind us of what we are. I hope we see it. He’s the guy for the job. Because of who he is. Because of how good he is. And there’s no denying it.
By Marie Straub