TV

Trevor Noah On Making A Timeless Comedy Special And Why Facts Are Our Friends

It feels as though it’s impossible to break away from Donald Trump, but in his new Netflix special (Afraid Of The Dark), Trevor Noah manages to find a way. That may surprise you since Noah is the host of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, a program shaped heavily by the chaos that emanates from the new president’s White House, mouth, and Twitter account. But Noah wanted to take a larger view and he wanted to speak to the world, so he delivered a special that aims to be timeless.

We spoke about with Noah about that goal, how The Daily Show handles an era where hypocrisy is accepted with a shrug, why Milo Yiannopoulos wouldn’t be welcome on his show, why Donald Trump would, and why facts are always our friend.

When was the special filmed and what was the difference between filming this one and the Lost In Translation special?

We recorded the special in November. I think it was a few days before the election. And I guess the biggest difference in terms of recording it was, like now I was making the special for the world, like I set out to make one specifically to be filmed in New York City but then, to be seen as a world show. If that makes sense.

So, what I was doing was, I wanted something that I had worked on, something that I had toured, and then something that would pop regardless of where you’re watching in the world. Because that’s the great thing about Netflix — you premiere worldwide simultaneously.

The special seems to focus on stories that try to convey a sense of history and a sense of scope. I definitely see that worldwide kind of angle. I think it’s possible that you could say, that in American culture, we’re lacking that sense of history and that sense of scope. Is that something you would agree with? And, if so, why do you think that is?

I think there are many times, you know, America’s been a country where you haven’t really been affected by the outside world. You’ve been a determining factor of the world. And with the growth of globalization, with the growth of social media, with the internet — the world of information has become a smaller place. So now, we are watching… you know, like there is a meme about a guy who puts salt on meat in Turkey and it’s become a big thing. So now, all of a sudden, people are like “who is Salt Bae?” That would have never happened ten years ago.

Just the idea that we could be reading news stories about Syria from Syrians is something that is completely different from what we had a long time ago. So I think, with America being as big as it is, and with how much news America can generate for itself, it’s understandable that a lot of Americans have never really delved deep into the world of what’s happening outside of their borders. But now, more and more, it has become something that is part of the American story, because you can’t escape it, it’s happening to America as well as the rest of the world.

There’s a surprising lack of Donald Trump mentions in the special. Was there a conscious decision to make this feel more timeless by keeping the election out of it or were you looking for a change from what you do at your day job?

Well, I think it’s a combination of the two. On one hand, I try and make it timeless. On the other hand… You know, Trump and politics and the election is something I get to do all the time. So, with my stand-up… I like to look at every single outlet as a different opportunity. When I wrote my book, I went, “If somebody doesn’t know me, or if somebody does know me: what do they get from this book? What am I trying to give them with this book?” And that goes for my stand-up.

Because I’m at different places in my career, doing different forms of art, I’ve used those platforms very differently. So for the special… Donald Trump is not the highlight of my special because my special is not topical.

The only joke I put in about Donald Trump was in there because he will leave an indelible mark on American history for decades to come. You can’t ignore it completely, but the last thing I would do is create a Donald Trump special. And to be honest with you, when it come to stand-up, you work on this stuff for so long that it’s like Donald Trump would make it too easy. I want to go for the harder stuff, which is making material from scratch. Figuring out how to do it.
Do you want to do a stand-up special every other year and are there other things you want to do besides stand up while still hosting The Daily Show.

I’m genuinely interested in acting now, you know, acting in smaller roles. Because The Daily Show has helped me hone performance. Because the restriction of being locked into a chair and sitting behind a desk, you get to explore your character a lot more. You get to explore the feelings a lot more and how to portray that. So that’s something I’m enjoying a little bit more every single day.

I’m always keen to produce. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was give people a platform to share their voices. Especially people that you don’t often hear from, because I think there are so many interesting stories that nobody knows about. And that’s just for the sake of diversity. There are amazing original stories. You hear people complaining all the time, going “Oh, there’s no original stories out there.” People are just not trying to hear these original stories. You know, what people are really saying when they say there are no original stories is there are no original stories from the same sources that we keep going back to over and over again.

I think if I could, in some way, help or even just lend myself to any project that could move that conversation forward, I’d be really excited. But for now, the monster that lies ahead of me is The Daily Show and the Donald Trump presidency. So, I really don’t spend too much energy thinking about that. I just work hard and the chips fall where they fall.

I was really impressed by your interview with Tomi Lahren. Obviously, you’re interested in perspectives that differ from your own. With the whole Milo thing and his Bill Maher appearance: where do you draw the line? What’s the criteria when you look at whether you want to let someone else use The Daily Show megaphone?

The most important question I ask myself is always, what is the purpose of this interview? Everyone has a different purpose. One of the things for me with Milo was the fact that he’s a professional troll. So I saw no purpose in ever engaging that person. Because they are not trying to engage, they are not even presenting the façade of engagement.

It all depends on what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. So when I think of who to have on the show and I think of why, it’s a good balance of people that are going to teach us something [and] sometimes it’s just famous people to have a fun chat because people like seeing them on TV. Sometimes it’s because we want to have a discussion, where we get to argue ideas with people that we agree with or disagree with. And sometimes it’s just to keep us, I think, sharp and on edge.

What I do enjoy about debate and having people that you don’t agree with on your show, is that they are looking to engage, and that forces you to sharpen your point of view. Where as, often times, if you only talk to people who agree with you, you never think of how to galvanize your argument. You never think of how to strengthen what you’re trying to put forth to somebody else because you never have to sell it. And that’s why I get people on the show that I get on the show.

Would President Trump fall into that same criteria? Would you want to have him on the show?

Of course. We would have had him on the show before he was president. As soon as he was, like, a serious candidate. Now he’s the president of the United States, so, of course, we’d have him on the show. Would he ever come on? I doubt it.

I don’t think Donald Trump has shown himself to be the kind of person who wants to engage in conversation with anyone that doesn’t agree with him on the surface. You saw his press conference, he says “Give me the nice questions.” So, I would be surprised if he’d come on. I’d love to have him on, but right now Donald Trump seems to be a president who is going “I’m the president of the people who voted for me, not for anyone for anything else,” so I’m not holding my breath.
How do you combat the tidal wave of stuff that comes at you guys on a daily basis in a time when maybe pointing out hypocrisy doesn’t have as much effect as it used to?

Well, that’s the biggest thing we have to do. And it took a while, you know, it’s funny how… because I inherited Jon Stewart’s show, and his legacy, and many of his staff, so the biggest thing I had to try to explain to people was, hypocrisy and shame don’t hold the power that they once did.

Absolutely.

So, what we manage to do all the time is forge a path that doesn’t rely on that. If anything, I’ve realized that the show will continue to be one where we take a satirical look at the news and politics, and also we try and educate ourselves. We try and ask the questions. We may not have the answers, but we just try to have a show that asks the questions that we should be asking of every situation that we encounter.

If I can do that for my audience, especially younger people who tune into the show and all the people who already think they know the answers, I think we can get to a place where the show is doing multiple things: still calling out somebody’s BS if there is [BS] to be called out, but not relying on that person’s shame to some how miraculously cause them to now change who they are as a person.

With Trump’s war on the media, what is the media doing wrong here? And what traps are you guys consciously trying to avoid, beyond relying too heavily on shame and pointing out hypocrisy?

It’s tough. You know, I don’t think the media has been in a position like this before. I think presidents and politicians have generally had a certain level of respect for the media regardless of their relationship with the media.

Is it a lack of fear of being called out?

I don’t think it’s a lack of fear, per se. If you look at Donald Trump through the prism of reality TV, essentially he’s found his frenemy, which is the media. You know? You’ve got that character that you sometimes laugh with and then you turn around and have a fight with them. In the middle of a press conference he’s making jokes with them and then he turns around and he fights with them again. Like, that’s great for a TV show. That’s great reality TV. One thing is, the media mustn’t fall into that. You’ve seen some journalists on TV say things like, “If Donald Trump shuts us out, he better be careful,” and I go, “What does that mean?” As a news organization, you’re coverage of a person shouldn’t be affected negatively nor positively by how they treat you.

Think of it as business. Just go, “It’s just business.” The press shouldn’t get, like, angry at Donald Trump, the press shouldn’t… It’s hard not to. But you’ve gotta go, “No, I’m a professional.” Can you imagine if journalists who were covering dictators and despots all over the world got caught up emotionally? You’ve just gotta report the story and you’ve got to rely on your reporting to convey the message to your viewers that you’re hoping to convey.

I mean, I guess I would say the only concern is that his attack isn’t just on the media, it’s on facts. So I can see why people get emotional. It’s just, I think people don’t know what to do about that, because it’s obviously working.

I understand that completely, but then I look at somebody like Pete Alexander, who called Trump on his Electoral College thing. I don’t know why it’s taking so long for people [to learn], at a Trump press conference, just ask one question. If you ask a triple question, he’s going to answer the easiest part of the question. So, he [Alexander] says, “you said you’re electoral college victory was the biggest, that’s not true.”

Trump says, “No, I said since Reagan.”

He said “Yes, but Obama had a bigger one.”

And he said “No, I said for Republicans.”

And he said “Yes, but Bush had a bigger one,” and then what did Trump say? “Oh well okay, those were the numbers I was given.” That was a blow! You can’t deny that that was a blow.

No, absolutely.

A staunch Donald Trump supporter couldn’t say, “Oh, but it’s a lie.” It’s like, “No, that was true.” And so, if you are precise and if you [the press] don’t get caught up in the frivolous fight that is happening, you will find the moments where… Facts are always your friend. Everyone can be like, “Oh, facts are dead” or “It’s an attack on facts” or whatever, but I go like, “Yeah, but, it can’t be.” Because it’s just, like, illogical to see in life. You need facts to get you from point A to point B. There are some rules and ideas that we have made up as a society, but facts are facts at the end of the day, and they will always be your friend.

I think if people don’t just fact check him off to the side and actually put the facts out to him, in the light of day, I think it’s definitely more effective.

I think that’s a huge thing. If you had every press conference taking that tone and taking it… Not as an attack on the president, it’s just going “Hey, you said this,” or “This is what the numbers are,” or “this is wrong.” Slowly, slowly, we chip away at the monster that’s inside him.

Trevor Noah’s Netflix stand-up special, Afraid Of The Dark, is available to stream right now and you can catch him on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Monday through Thursday at 11pm ET on Comedy Central.

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