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Africa’s most famous funnyman and TV star, the South African stand-up comedian and author Trevor Noah, is leaving his job as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in the US. Noah, who hosted the high-profile show for seven years, says he wants to devote more time to his stand-up career. We asked Allaina Kilby, a journalism, political communication and satire lecturer, how he will be remembered in the political satire landscape on TV in the US.
What’s your view of Trevor Noah’s tenure at the show?
Taking over from Jon Stewart was never going to be easy. Stewart was widely respected for his passionate satirical takedowns of US political transgressions and cable news channels. The appeal of successful satirists like him is that they are on the audiences’ side, they articulate citizen concerns and anger on a public stage but in a funny and compelling way. This creates a bond between the satirist and audience and this is why Stewart leaving The Daily Show was such a big deal to his loyal followers.
Noah, a little-known comedian back in 2015, had to build that trust back up with an audience who had no idea who he was. This took some time and viewing figures for the programme took a dip in the first two years. But eventually, the audience came to realise that Noah was equally as capable as Stewart if not more so because he was able to offer something different to his predecessor: an outsider’s perspective to America’s political and social problems.
What did he bring to the landscape?
The American late-night comedy scene is very male, white, and American. As a native South African, Noah has brought clarity and fresh perspectives to emotionally charged political issues that are often missing from late-night comedy and American cable news.
But growing up as mixed-race during apartheid also enabled Noah to handle crucial moments like the Black Lives Matter movement with a level of awareness and sensitivity that could never be matched by his white, male counterparts. These unique perspectives caught the attention of a younger and more diverse global audience that has been introduced to The Daily Show via Noah.
Is the power of TV satire as a critical tool increasing or decreasing?
The genre has become a highly saturated space with lots of different programmes vying for the attention of audiences who are leaving TV in favour of digital platforms. This makes it increasingly difficult for the more progressive and politically charged satire programmes to have the same impact they once had, particularly when the highest rating shows in the genre tend to be more entertainment-focused like Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Late Show With James Corden.
It is vital that TV satire shows continue to highlight and critique political and social issues. However, it is equally important that they explore them through the lenses of gender, race and class and via a wider variety of digital platforms.
What has it meant for a black African to take on this role?
Trevor Noah’s tenure on The Daily Show has highlighted the importance of challenging the white, male-centric nature of the American late-night scene. I hope that the show continues to recognise the importance of diversity. Maybe this time they can bring American actresses and comedians Jessica Williams and Samantha Bee back into the fold as chief anchors.
Allaina Kilby, lecturer in journalism, Swansea University.