Trevor Noah Thinks America Can Learn Some Things About Racial Reconciliation From South Africa

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When he took over as host of the Daily Show for the first time last September, Trevor Noah admitted to his audience that the experience was “surreal” and “strange.”

“Jon Stewart was more than just a late night host,” Noah said in his debut. “He was also our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad. And it’s weird, because ‘dad’ has left. And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad… and he’s black.”

A few months into Noah’s stint in the host chair, it probably still feels like he’s America’s daily political satire stepdad to many. Heck, for some Daily Show diehards, it might always feel weird. But it’s hard to deny that Noah is progressing along, that the show is actually starting to feel more like his show. And thank goodness: At this moment, we need a strong, vibrant Daily Show to help make sense of, and find some humor in, the madness going on all around us. The summer of 2016 is already one many of us would just like to erase from memory, and we’re just getting to the conventions phase of one of the most bizarre and important presidential elections in U.S. history.

Coincidentally, Noah and the Daily Show are on the ground and broadcasting from the GOP convention in Cleveland this week, and from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia next week. We spoke to Noah about this and other some things, including how he feels about the show in its present state, race relations in America versus his native South Africa, and the rivalry (or lack thereof) between he and his fellow Daily Show alums who are also hosting late night shows, among other topics. But not before we discussed his random encounters with Robert De Niro.

I was looking at your Instagram page and I saw you have multiple pictures of yourself with Robert De Niro and found that quite funny. I guess that’s one of the perks of being the host of the Daily Show, you getting to meet some really cool people?

Yeah, you know, Robert De Niro is one of the funnier ones. We bump into each other, but in random places, and sometimes not even in Daily Show-related things. It’s just me happening to be in the same place that he’s in. He’s really wonderful, he and his wife. We just chat about random stuff, and taking pictures together, is like a funny running thing, I guess.

Is there a story you can share about one of the random things you’ve talked to Robert De Niro about?

No, I honestly can’t think about anything. It is the most benign, random conversations.

You’ve been at the helm of The Daily Show for a few months. How do you feel about where it is right now?

I’m excited, because of where we are. You know, we did something that I don’t think has ever really ever been done before, and that was, we revamped and kicked off a show in what, five weeks? Five weeks is all the time I had to take over The Daily Show. I mean, that’s something that no one has ever done, in terms of turnaround time and pre-production, and so on. It’s crazy when you think, I inherited the show, I inherited staff, I inherited a style. You know, I’ve had to work within those perimeters to slowly move into a closer vision of what I need to be doing and who I am. So, it’s really exciting to see how far we’ve come. What’s even more exciting is thinking how much better we can get, which is what I always focus on.

What’s your favorite part of being the host of The Daily Show so far?

I think having a platform to make an impact, you know?

You’re hosting one of the most important shows on television at a very important time in American history. It’s not only a very cool thing, there’s a tremendous responsibility that also goes with it. I’m sure there’s a part of you that has to feel that.

Yeah, definitely. You know, it’s something you come to realize in time. At first, you mainly see the show as a show, you know, a space for entertainment and fun. But then you realize it’s not just The Daily Show. Any show, or any space, or any stage is a platform and the way you choose to use that platform is extremely important. So, for me, it’s something that I have taken very seriously, and I brace and I go, “Can I improve or try to improve the life of another, by using what I have?” And if the answer is yes, then I should do that.

Did you have any interest in American politics prior to moving to the U.S.?

I don’t think I had any interest in the intricacies of American politics. Because each place has its own intricacies and details are only really interesting when you live there. You know, it’s like someone being interested in South African politics from this side of the world. That’s going to be very rare. So really I was interested just in how it affects the rest of the world. Now that I’ve been here, I read it all like it’s my daily soap opera.

I ask because in the last six months or so, when I’ve traveled abroad, American politics has been the lead story on the news almost anywhere I go. I was in Australia recently and the lead story on the news every night was Donald Trump.

You know, you cannot deny that America is, to a certain extent, one of the biggest influences in the world, in terms of entertainment, and pop culture, and news. So, it completely makes sense that that would happen because the world is looking to America, the world is going, “What the hell is going on there? What are you guys doing?” So, I don’t that it’s any mistake that Donald Trump is making news all over the world.

You grew up the product of a mixed race relationship in South Africa, and obviously race relations there were not the best. I read somewhere that your parents, I believe, were jailed for having married?

My mother was, yeah.

Your mother was, but not your father?

No, because he was white.

Having grown up under those circumstances must give you an interesting perspective on what’s happening in America right now, that we’re still battling racial demons in 2016?

Well, I think it’s interesting because South Africa and America have a very similar history, in terms of race, race relations, the way these things have been approached. Even the relationship with the British, in terms of the founding of the country. But the biggest difference I think with South Africa is that it’s the majority that was oppressed. You know, so change came a lot quicker and the change itself was seen on a larger scale. I mean, that has come with its own challenges, but it’s a lot harder to oppress the majority of the people.

Of course.

I think also though, the biggest thing we had in South Africa, one of the most important steps that we took, was we had a government commission (the Truth and Reconciliation Committee) which basically forced us as a nation to have come face to face with all of the horrors of the system that existed before democracy. And that’s something that the United States has never done. Unfortunately, because of that, it means you still get people saying things like, “Oh, was saying nigger even that bad?” and so on and so forth. So those are probably the biggest differences that I’ve noticed. Otherwise, in terms of race relations and interactions, it’s really familiar to me.

So the government there, they took initiative to sort of say, “Hey, this is something that we did that was messed up. It was wrong. We’re moving past it and we’re putting mechanisms in place to speed the healing process.” There was an agreed-upon history of that time taught in schools and it was ingrained into young people’s heads. Whereas here, there’s still obviously so much unofficial misinformation about our past that gets spread around, like that the myth that Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with “state’s rights.”

That’s exactly what it is. It’s the misinformation. You know, there is no denying what happened in South Africa. I mean you still have people who go like, “It’s over, get over with it.” You know, it’s over and done. But there’s no denying that. And that’s one of the key things that has helped, and continues to help us to move forward as we know where we are coming from. And so that has been the biggest difference between South Africa and the U.S. to me.

I’m always curious to hear the stories of people who’ve moved here from other countries; you know, what provoked them to come. What’s your story? Why did you want to come to America? Was it just the most logical thing to do if you wanted to pursue a career in comedy?

Yeah, I’d traveled all over the world doing comedy. So I lived in London, I’d been to Australia for months at a time, I’ve done comedy in Europe, Germany, all over the place. But New York was the one place I always dreamed of living, that I always dreamed of being, just because of the connection to comedy. It’s a place where anything can happen, and often times does. So I’ve always enjoyed just being in that city. And coming to America was a natural progression of that and I found that New York is like a home to me. It’s one of the cities where I go, “You can be a global citizen in this city and not feel out of place.”

When you came here, did you have any designs at all about pursuing a career as an actor? I read that you started your career as a soap opera actor in South Africa.

I always feel like actor’s a strong term for what I did. I was in a tiny part in a soap opera. But I think real acting entails a lot more then that. So, yeah, I did that for a bit, but I had no aspirations in that regard. I’ve always been someone who liked performing. It’s something uniquely a part of me. And I guess comedy is where I found the most natural fit, when it comes to that.

Speaking of comedy, there so many other Daily Show alums that also have late night shows right now: Sam Bee, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver. Is there any sort of rivalry between you guys?

It’s so funny how I guess that used to be the staple of late night television and yet now that is thrown away. I think it’s easier to have a rivalry when there’s just two. It’s easier for a rivalry to come from a situation where it’s Jay Leno vs. Letterman.

That makes sense.

With the broadening of late night, with the diversifying of voices, it’s a lot harder to do, to have a rivalry. There’s too many people. What’s the point of your rivalry? Because a rivalry, in my world, implies that you are both trying for the same audience and for the same thing. And in essence, we’re not. There’s no point in me having a rivalry with Sam Bee because she’s on once a week, and she’s on a half-hour before my show. I cannot have a rivalry with Larry Wilmore, cause he’s on after me. I cannot have a rivalry with Colbert or Fallon, because they are doing different shows at different times. The point of rivalry is almost lost on me. So I would love for a rivalry. That would make it fun. I’m also not a fan of anarchy. It makes no sense to me.

So there are no group text chains where one of you is going, “Oh, check out my ratings! Eat shit, motherfuckers,” or anything like that? That’s unfortunate. I like to imagine that there would be.

I think because everyone realizes that ratings are a cycle, you know? Everyone will have their ups. Everyone will have their downs. You know there will be a time when you are king and there will be a time when you are peasant.

That’s very good perspective to have.

That comes from being a stand-up comedian. In the world of comedy, in the comedy clubs, everyone is there sitting together and some are getting the big break and then over time they end coming back and sitting at that very same table. Whether they are a superstar now or not, is irrelevant, the point is, sitting at that same table where you started out. So, if you are one of those people that kicks everybody on the way up, then good luck on the way down.

What do you plan to do outside of work while you’re in Cleveland and Philly? Are there any particular places you plan to visit? Maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, any of the cheesesteak joints in Philly, anything like that?

Yeah. I’ll probably do all of that. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to run the Rocky stairs, the Rocky Steps in Philly, too. I’m going to check out a bit of the art scene. So, it will be fun to just go around in those places and get a feel for what the city is. But I really won’t have much time because the show is a full day process.

Of course.

And when the show is done, I have to be back at the convention watching the next day’s speeches, doing the next part of the show. So, really, I won’t be in the city so much as the show will be in the city, and I will be in the show.

Well, one of our writers, Stacey Ritzen, wanted me to tell you that although Pat’s and Geno’s and Tony Luke’s are the cheesesteak joints in Philly that get the most publicity, she recommends a place called, Jim’s, and says that you should go there. You may have seen a viral video recently of a bunch of patrons, at like three in the morning, breaking into song together, singing Boyz II Men’s, “End of the Road” — that took place at Jim’s. That’s apparently where the locals go.

Oh, that’s funny. No, I didn’t see that. I’ll be sure to try to go there.