All eyes were on Trevor Noah Tuesday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. But it wasn’t the comedian’s average stand-up gig. Noah, who in less than two months will take over the ultra-high-profile job as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from Jon Stewart, faced a very tough crowd — members of the Television Critics Association.
It was his first in-person appearance before the group, many of whom will go on to report on and dissect his every move when he inherits the mantle Sept. 28 from the beloved Stewart, who not only has won countless Emmy Awards during his 16-year tenure but also has disrupted the media landscape with his take on world events and domestic politics.
Seemingly impervious to the intense scrutiny, the 31-year-old Soweto, South Africa, native, wearing a gray suit, black shirt and black sneakers, confidently commanded the stage for a nearly hour-and-a-half-long set.
Noah riffed on everything from being pulled over by the police to traveling from Africa during the Ebola crisis to various forms of racism he’s encountered in the United States, eliciting laughter and cheers throughout his performance.
“I find myself falling into traps. I always fly into the U.S. on Middle Eastern airlines. I feel that there’s less of a chance someone would take out that plane,” he said, before launching into a skit in which he impersonated one Muslim talking down another one bent on blowing up the plane in the name of Allah.
“Muslims used to be the blacks of the sky. How quickly we change our focus,” he said in discussing travel issues he faced during the Ebola crisis, which included a humorous take on being wanded by TSA agents and being forced to take off almost all his clothes.
The bit concluded with his description of a Mexican agent named Velasquez, whom he saw as a master of his craft — and a Mexican Jedi. That got him wondering why there are no Latino Jedis in “Star Wars.” “’Star Wars’ is a vision of America in the distant future. Would it be safe to say in a galaxy far, far away that there are no Mexicans?”
Noah touched on his background. Born of a white mother and an African father, the family was poor, as was everyone else in the township, preventing anyone from making fun of them. He said he was the first in his family to fly on a plane — and get kicked off of one.
He then launched into a discussion of various types of racism. “In South Africa, we have top-quality racism. Handcrafted racism. Now racism is cheap and mass-produced and probably made in China.”
In the United States, he finds what he called blatant racism — often by old people — and subtle racism, where people leave a series of clues that Noah said he doesn’t like to work for, and his favorite, what he called “charming American racism.”
“When I played in Lexington, Kentucky, it was racism with a smile,” Noah said, relating a story where a man passed him on the street and said “Good afternoon, [n-word]” and a Southern belle-type woman told him after his performance, “You are by far the funniest and most handsomest [n-word] ever.”
Noah referenced the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown and discussed the news coverage of each and how it morphed into questioning each victim’s character. “Who was Trayvon Martin and why was he wearing a hoodie?”
He also noted that when there is black gun violence it’s always called gang-related by the media but when it’s a white person with a gun, the shooter is termed a lone gunman, mentally unstable, who had no friends.
“I refuse to live in a world where a white man is denied the label of terrorist,” he said about the gunman who last month shot nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
After the performance, Noah spoke with reporters crowded around him for about 10 minutes, where naturally the hot topic was what he will do differently than Jon Stewart.
“I think of it as evolution as opposed to revolution,” he said. “I’m a big fan of ‘The Daily Show,’ so for me to break it would be blasphemy in my world. So right now I’m looking for a way to incorporate the new media while still keeping the core of what the show is.”
Noah faced the media again in a TCA panel Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, answering more questions about what the show will look like under his tutelage — and the controversy that arose after his hiring. He also accepted some compliments about his performance the previous night.
He was introduced by Comedy Central’s president of original programming Kent Alterman, who called him the perfect choice to take over for Stewart. “Trevor is wickedly funny and has incredible charm and a broad comedic sensibility,” said Alterman, who also announced that all senior staff of “TDS” will stay in place for the transition.
The first order of business is Stewart’s farewell, Noah said, and it’s almost certain that he will appear on the final edition of the show, taping Thursday, Aug. 6.
Yet changes will obviously emerge, as Noah comes at comedy from a different perspective than Stewart. “The way you approach a story depends on your point of view. The way you look at comedy depends on your point of view. So, Jon is a white, 52-year-old Jewish guy who grew up in New Jersey. I am a 31-year-old, half black, half white South African who’s lived in America for a few years on and off. So the way we look at the same story will be completely different.”
Yet Stewart’s are huge shoes to fill.
“The biggest pressure for me is living up to the expectations that Jon has of me. I never dreamed that I’d be sitting here in this chair talking to you now about hosting the show. I guess Jon knew something about me that I didn’t,” Noah said. “There is an immense pressure for me to live up to that legacy and keep that flagship going.”
The shape of the media landscape “TDS” lampoons has shifted, although many targets will remain the same.
“’The Daily Show’ was based on an emerging 24-hour news cycle. It was this big thing that came out, and that’s what inspired the show. Now you look at news and it’s changing. It’s no longer around 24-hour news, but there are so many different sources, half of it is online, like the Gawkers and Buzzfeeds of the world,” Noah said. “The way people are absorbing the news in soundbites and headlines and clickbait links has changed everything. So the biggest challenge — and it’s going to be an exciting one — is how do we bring all of that together, looking at it through a bigger lens as opposed of going after just one source, which was historically Fox News.”
The topic of dealing with race came up when Noah was asked about a recently revealed yet years-old disagreement between former “TDS” correspondent Wyatt Cenac and Stewart about his impersonation of Herman Cain, who at the time was a presidential candidate.
“It wasn’t a bad joke,” Noah said. “Anyone can feel offended. We have a diverse staff. That’s the whole point of having a great writing team. I may be the face of the show, but we’re finding the best way to tell jokes. That’s what the writers room is for. When you see it on the air we’ve already fought about it there.”
Noah addressed what some saw as a manufactured controversy about some of his tweets from 2½ years ago, which joke about women and Jews. He noted that Twitter used to be a place where people put out jokes but that now it has become a sea of negativity, and that Vine has taken over what Twitter once was.
“If someone sent out 9,000 tweets and you didn’t like five of them … I don’t strive to be offensive. When you know a person, you know the context,” he said. “I knew there would be some sort of backlash or furor. An announcement is made that someone is being replaced, someone’s going to say something about it. A lot of people won’t like it, a lot of people will like it. I didn’t know what the thing would be, though. ‘Will it be about the fact that I’m not an American? Will it be about the fact that I’m a black person?’ Then they went with that [his old tweets], which was an interesting choice. But I knew that something would come of it.”
And here it is, your moment of Zen.
“Luckily Comedy Central hasn’t limited me to 140 characters on the show. So I should be able to say things in a better, well-formed way.”