On Sept. 28, the final piece of the recast late-night lineup clicked into place with the debut of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. Replacing an icon like Jon Stewart after 16 years would be a daunting task for anybody, much less a relative unknown like the 31-year-old South African comedian. But Noah started strong ("Assured, handsome and with a crisp delivery, Mr. Noah was a smoother presenter than Mr. Stewart," proclaimed The New York Times), and he has improved markedly every night since.
When Stewart announced in February that he was stepping down as Daily Show host, Comedy Central offered the job to big names like Amy Schumer before settling on Noah, who started as a Daily Show contributor last December. The network is betting on Noah's long-term potential to reach millennial audiences (see "In Just Nine Months, Comedy Central Reshaped Late Night—and Kept Advertisers Happy"), and so far, so good. While ratings have dipped versus Stewart (which Comedy Central anticipated), more than half of the show's 18-34 audience is new to the show under Noah, according to the network. Meanwhile, advertisers have stayed loyal. According to SQAD NetCosts, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah boasts the second-highest 30-second ad rates in late night, behind only The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
After wrapping his first few weeks in the chair, Noah sat with Adweek to talk about easing into his role, what he thinks about brand integrations, plus the crazy consumerism that has come to define the holidays in America and the world.
Adweek: Some worried that you would completely overhaul The Daily Show, but it was clear from your first night that this was the same program that audiences knew and loved. What was behind that choice?
Trevor Noah: I don't consider myself the smartest person in the world, but I know that I'm not an idiot. Throwing away one of the most amazing shows on television for the sake of throwing it away makes no sense to me. Rather, it's building on that and creating a newer version of the show. It's an evolution: the next model of a car, where you still see the lineage of the car before it, but it's a newer model. That's what we're working on.
You've talked about the importance of adding diversity to the staff. One of your new correspondents, Roy Wood Jr., already seems indispensable to the show.
Diversity brings flavor into conversations, and authenticity to an argument or to a presentation of a view that is sometimes lacking. That's why I wanted Roy on the show. And then, with [the other correspondents], there are conversations you can have where I don't have to go, "I wonder what [that person] thinks?" I can just ask directly. I'm really proud of that, but it's not the end. My goal is to get more of that going in the writing room and in the building itself, and I think you'll feel that richness in the show.
You joked in the premiere about bringing a "global perspective." What has been the best example of that so far?
We were really proud of our Trump Africa piece [which compared Donald Trump to several African leaders, including former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin]. I got to apply my mind and go, how do I see Trump as opposed to how is Trump perceived in the media? Everyone in the building would be furious: "Did you see what Trump said?" And I was like, "I don't think he's crazy; I just think he's a different type of personality, and he reminds me of home." A lot of the people are new to me, so it's great to come into a space with that fresh perspective.
You had a lot to worry about leading up to the premiere. What really kept you up at night?
My biggest worry was letting the people in the room down and letting Jon Stewart down. I made a joke about it in the [opening-night] monologue, but it's the truth. I wouldn't want people to think Jon is some crazy old man who as his last senile act bequeathed his show to some random homeless kid. I wouldn't want the network to look like they put their faith in the wrong person. I wouldn't want the staff to feel like they have someone who can't do their work justice. I wouldn't want my country, my continent, to feel like, "Ugh, this is our guy?"
How do you think you've done so far?
I'm extremely hard on myself. Very seldom do I walk away going, "That was great." Most nights, I get home and I go, "Ah, that's what I should have done!" But I think we can be very proud of ourselves, because as a show we have gone from people saying, "Will it be a trainwreck?" to people critiquing us as The Daily Show, saying this argument wasn't watertight and this could have been better. I take that as a compliment because before it was just, is this even going to work?
What's the toughest thing about doing a show every day?
Three things. No. 1, putting the show together every single day—having a great angle, covering the news, making it funny. The second thing is planning for the future while we're working on the present. You're doing that at the same time, and that's tough, because often creativity lives in the space of a very relaxed atmosphere. Third is, on a personal level, finding that you have to make your skin thicker and thicker every single day.
Is there anything you can tell you're already getting better at?
Everything in varying degrees. I'm more comfortable in the chair. Every day, I feel less like a visitor and more like this is my show, so I'm getting better at conveying that. I'm getting better at welcoming people into my space as viewers. I'm getting better at enjoying myself, which is a tough thing to remember to do. I'm getting better every day, and I think the show is as well, at structuring our arguments and looking at why a story didn't work as we wanted it to.
Jon Stewart told you that he's there for you if you need help. Have you reached out to him since the launch?
I've felt like doing that on most days, I'm not going to lie. In the first week, he just gave me feedback: "Great job," "Enjoy that more," "Have a good time." But I've made a point of not going to him because it will be a crutch. Necessity is the mother of invention. And if you've got Jon Stewart helping you, I don't think you'll ever invent.
You're the first millennial late-night host. What do millennials want, and how are you bringing that to late night?
I feel I'm on the old end of the spectrum, but one thing we face as millennials is the barrage of information. I struggle to sit down and just watch a show, because it's so tempting to pull my phone out. We live in a world where everything is on demand. I want a car to come where I am; Uber provided that. I need a place to stay now; Airbnb provided that. The tough thing for everyone to understand is that you have to open it up and realize that you are living in an on-demand world. Many networks still want to try and control how and when you watch shows. Those things make me so angry. What do you mean it's not available? Everything is available!
Given that, what changes are you making to the Daily Show's digital space?
We've been very active on Snapchat, and way more active on Twitter—live tweeting debates, for instance. Whereas before The Daily Show's voice was, "You'll hear us after the debate only," now we tweet you during the debate. The same thing on Instagram. We're looking at all of these spaces and going, how can we exist there and most importantly, what is our purpose there? I see brands trying to branch out into digital spaces and I go, "What are you doing there?" Some do it really well, others really don't. We've got [The Onion's former director of digital] Baratunde Thurston, who came on board and has been amazing in guiding the team in that.
We're also seeing more brand integrations, like what Colbert did with Sabra on his premiere. What's your feeling about them?
It's an interesting conversation, because advertisers are saying, "People are not watching TV in the same way anymore, so we need to be a part of the show." But a lot of them neglect to realize that to do that, you have to surrender a tiny bit of that control that you're so used to having and trust the space that you are in. You go, "Oh, but our brand wouldn't say that." Yes, but it's no longer your brand, it's an integration: half your brand, half the brand of the show that you're teaming up with. And once that synergy is achieved, then you will find an honest and very fruitful relationship. Integration can be a beautiful thing, but the advertisers need to understand the power of the show.
So you would be open to them under those circumstances?
Oh yeah, definitely. Because it's the future of television. We need to evolve. We cannot stagnate. Look at HBO. They've been really smart about evolving. And Netflix. The key is, don't be that person who holds onto it and goes, "No!"
Seeing as this is Adweek's Holiday Retail Issue, as someone relatively new to the U.S., what's your take on the over-commercialization of Christmas?
Oh, that's normal—that's all over the world. That's something that never shocked me. I've been more shocked by other things, like the fall buzz and the pumpkin spice latte buzz. I'm like, what is this thing? These are things that don't exist in most places in the world. But when it comes to Christmas and the holiday season, that's not an American thing—that is a capitalist, commercial thing.
How about Black Friday?
Oh, that's insane. I've never understood when people die [during Black Friday stampedes]. Is that top really that amazing? I've always wondered, if you bought an item on Black Friday where you were at that event where somebody died, would you still use that thing? "That's a great jacket you've got there." "Oh yes, I got it at a Black Friday sales event where a man died. They trampled him while getting to this jacket."
Is there anything else the retail industry does around the holidays that doesn't carry over internationally?
One thing that is different is the holiday shopping periods. We don't have that. Like you'll hear, "It's the Columbus Day sales event!" The what? That blows my mind.
Everyone is talking about late night and who is beating who. Are you as cognizant of what is going on with your competition as everyone else is?
No, I really am not. I watch shows that I'm a fan of, but I see television for the most part like golf: You're playing against yourself. There just happen to be other people there. I own a few restaurants back home in South Africa, and the hardest thing to understand is that a restaurant opening next door to you is good for your business. Competition is good for business, and the same thing happens for late night. The quality of late night is good for late night, so I want everyone's show to be a success. But I don't truly think you can ever master your own game, so you just keep playing and trying to get below par. I strive for my own excellence. I'm competing against myself.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.