Trevor Noah grows in the late-night glare

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Greg Brax­ton Ab­so­lutely. I have many ques­tions for him I don’t think many peo­ple would ask. greg.brax­ton@la­times.com Twit­ter: @GeBrax­ton

Trevor Noah came un­der a bright and some­what harsh spot­light when he took over Jon Stewart’s host­ing chair at Com­edy Cen­tral’s “The Daily Show.” The South African co­me­dian was rel­a­tively un­known in Amer­ica, and he re­ceived mixed re­sponses in his first weeks.

But al­most two years af­ter his de­but, Noah and “The Daily Show” have landed in the top tiers of the highly com­pet­i­tive late-night arena. He scored one of the last White House in­ter­views with Pres­i­dent Obama. He notched his most­watched week ever in May, with more than 1 mil­lion view­ers. Boost­ing his vic­tory lap is his best­selling mem­oir, “Born a Crime,” his hu­mor­ous and heart­break­ing ac­count of grow­ing up poor in South Africa and hav­ing mixed par­ents.

Dur­ing a re­cent stop in Hol­ly­wood, Noah dis­cussed his jour­ney, why he doesn’t watch Fox News, “Trump fa­tigue” and what it’s like host­ing a daily po­lit­i­cal show when news breaks al­most hourly. Was there a par­tic­u­lar point when you felt the show was fi­nally find­ing its rhythm and hit­ting its groove?

The Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Cleve­land. It was the first time we had got­ten out of the build­ing and the show was in an un­fa­mil­iar space. Be­cause of that, we were now en­gaged in this com­pletely dif­fer­ent thing, and we were all learn­ing to­gether. It was also when Don­ald Trump be­came real. Up to that mo­ment, every fan­tasy of him be­ing some­what de­nounced by the Repub­li­cans was still lin­ger­ing in peo­ple’s minds. Cleve­land is when it all be­came real. What was it like for you in­ter view­ing Pres­i­dent Obama?

Mag­i­cal, sur­real. It was a re­ally mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion for me, per­son­ally and for the show. He said [goes into Obama im­pres­sion], “Hope we’re, uh, go­ing to have a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion. Hope you’re, uh, not go­ing to make me play games. Let’s talk.” It was him see­ing us as an im­por­tant show, say­ing, “This is not the place where I’m com­ing to be friv­o­lous.”

Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I imag­ine I would be on a first-name ba­sis with the pres­i­dent of the United States of Amer­ica. Es­pe­cially the first black pres­i­dent. And maybe the last. Hope­fully not. What’s it like to be in a sit­u­a­tion where news is con­stantly break­ing? Are there times when the show is ready, you’re go­ing on and then a huge story breaks and you have to re­spond?

I love it. It’s put us in a place where we can never be com­fort­able, where we have to vis­cer­ally re­act to what is hap­pen­ing with mea­sure and thought. It’s re­ally fun to be in a space where you can’t set­tle into a rhythm, you can’t com­pletely know what your day is go­ing to be. Now we see the show as a liv­ing or­gan­ism that adapts and re­sponds to what’s hap­pen­ing. Is there any po­ten­tial dan­ger of “Trump fa­tigue”?

I def­i­nitely think so. But I be­lieve peo­ple aren’t of­ten good with sep­a­rat­ing Trump from what is hap­pen­ing within the world he in­hab­its. Don­ald Trump is the pres­i­dent of the United States. That is some­thing that some peo­ple still refuse to ac­knowl­edge, nor do they wish to ac­cept as a re­al­ity. That’s the first mis­take peo­ple make, in my opin­ion. And this pres­i­dent in par­tic­u­lar has an im­pres­sive abil­ity to cre­ate and sus­tain scan­dal and news like no one be­fore.

I don’t think of Don­ald Trump as the story. I see this as Amer­ica’s story, and Don­ald Trump is the an­tag­o­nist. Amer­ica is deal­ing with Don­ald Trump, not the other way around. That char­ac­ter of­fers up the op­por­tu­nity to have con­ver­sa­tions about things that peo­ple may not have oth­er­wise been in­ter­ested in. On the grid­dle of “The Daily Show’s” bar­be­cue, we cook dif­fer­ent foods every day. But the fuel we use to cook that food is Don­ald Trump. Do you watch Fox News?

No. Fox is try­ing to con­vince me that what Trump is do­ing is not scan­dalous. If I’m watch­ing CNN, I’m watch­ing a shout­ing match half the time. I watch very lit­tle ca­ble news, to be hon­est. I read ev­ery­thing. There was a lot of out­rage and ad­ver­tiser pull­out when the sex­ual ha­rass­ment con­tro­versy and the Bill O’Reilly furor broke out at Fox News. Yet there was very lit­tle crit­i­cism through the years when O’Reilly and other Fox per­son­al­i­ties made what could be con­sid­ered openly racist com­ments.

The tip­ping point of out­rage or jus­tice is very strange some­times. I strug­gle to un­der­stand it my­self. When the Fox thing hap­pened, I found it par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing that th­ese peo­ple who had been say­ing the most racist things for so long were now be­ing taken to task for some­thing that in some ways paled in com­par­i­son. What I’ve come to re­al­ize in Amer­ica, which is re­ally scary, is that many peo­ple don’t see black peo­ple as hu­man be­ings. They see them as be­ing pre­dis­posed to crime, peo­ple who cel­e­brate poverty and suf­fer­ing. I think part of it is — and it’s a painful thing to say — is that maybe there aren’t enough peo­ple in Amer­ica who have a per­sonal con­nec­tion with black peo­ple for them for them to be as out­raged by those state­ments as they are about sex­ual as­sault. Ev­ery­one knows a woman. Not ev­ery­one knows a black per­son. It’s 2017, and you are the only host of color of a late-night show.

You would hope there would be more. I’m ex­cited to see Robin Thede’s show com­ing on BET. That’s not just a host of color, but a fe­male host of color. Also, I may have only one show, but I can have many peo­ple on that show who have di­verse voices. That’s what I try and do. Would you like to in­ter view Don­ald Trump? You’ve reached out to conser va­tives for your show. Your in­ter view with conser va­tive fire­brand Tomi Lahren went vi­ral. You were very re­spect­ful to her.

It’s show­ing the leaks in the wall. It’s im­por­tant to ex­pose the flaws of their ar­gu­ment. When I can sit across from Tomi Lahren and she says black peo­ple are protest­ing be­cause they’re cry­ba­bies and [NFL quar­ter­back] Colin Kaeper­nick shouldn’t kneel dur­ing the na­tional an­them, that’s not the right way to protest, then I get to ask, “When is the right time for black peo­ple to protest?” And when she can’t an­swer that ques­tion, whether she likes to ad­mit it or not, she has now re­al­ized the ir­ra­tional­ity of the po­si­tion she is in or put ev­ery­one else in. You spend all week do­ing the show and then hit the road do­ing stand-up in­stead of tak­ing week­ends off ...

Stand-up com­edy is my ther­apy; it’s where I thrive; it’s what I’ve done for more than a decade; it’s the purest ex­pres­sion of how I think and who I am. Sec­ond, it helps me hone my mes­sage and how I com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple. When you’re in front of an au­di­ence, you can con­nect with them on what they’re think­ing. You can lose sight of that in a TV stu­dio. How long do you think you’ll be do­ing “The Daily Show”?

As long as I feel I can pos­i­tively con­trib­ute to a con­ver­sa­tion in the com­mu­nity that I’m in, whether it’s late night or the po­lit­i­cal dis­course, I will con­tinue the show as long as I’m hav­ing fun. I’m just get­ting started, I’ll tell you that much.

Rick Loomis Los Angeles Times

“I DON’T THINK of Don­ald Trump as the story. I see this as Amer­ica’s story,” says Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show.”

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