Earlier this year, Jon Stewart, the longtime host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," announced his plans to leave. And fans around the world freaked out. Since taking over the show from original host Craig Kilborn in 1999, Stewart has carved out a role in pop culture and politics that few have occupied before him. He's become one of America's sharpest and funniest political satirists, as well as something of a moral compass.
As the news of Stewart's impending departure sank in, speculation about his successor mounted. Would it be "Daily Show" correspondent Samantha Bee? Her husband and fellow correspondent Jason Jones? Both? Maybe Tina Fey or Amy Poehler?
In March, Comedy Central named Stewart's heir: comedian Trevor Noah. To which the show's fans responded: "Who?"
Noah, 31, is a native of South Africa who began performing at age 18. Though he joined "The Daily Show" as a recurring correspondent in December 2014, he was virtually unknown to American audiences. That changed quickly. Within hours of the announcement, someone unearthed a series of offensive jokes on Noah's Twitter feed, sparking controversy over his appointment. Both Stewart and Comedy Central stood behind him.
In a statement, the network wrote, "Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central."
Added Stewart as he opened the April 6 episode, "Trevor Noah will earn your trust and respect. Or not." Calling Noah "an incredibly thoughtful, considerate, funny and smart individual," he continued, "I hope you give him an opportunity to earn that trust and respect."
Noah's opportunity will come when he officially takes over as the host of "The Daily Show" on September 28. In the meantime, he's been honing his act, performing standup around the country to largely positive reviews. Noah will appear at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland this Sunday, July 19. Seven Days caught up with the comedian and "Daily Show" host-to-be via email.
SEVEN DAYS: When you found out you were taking over "The Daily Show" from Jon Stewart, what was your initial reaction? Jubilation? Shock? Pants-wetting fear?
TREVOR NOAH: Jubilation and disbelief. There are few times in my life I can remember being as stunned by news as I was with "The Daily Show." I knew I was being considered as the host, but still...
SD: You were something of an unknown when you were named Stewart's successor. But Stewart was hardly a household name when he took over from Craig Kilborn. Do you think that relative lack of celebrity might actually be an advantage for someone stepping into what is now such a high-profile and influential gig?
TN: I think for me it's a great advantage. I get to focus 100 percent on the show, and I'm not stressed about a certain image that I need to maintain.
SD: Which celebrity or political figure are you most looking forward to interviewing, and why? (I'd personally be pretty pumped about Neil deGrasse Tyson, but that's just me.)
TN: I'm pumped for a variety of people. When watching TV, I've seen some wonderful interviews from the most famous people to relative unknowns. But if I had to pick one, I'd go with Kermit the Frog. He's a legend.
SD: What kinds of changes, if any, do you anticipate making to "The Daily Show"?
TN: If I told you, I'd have to kill you.
SD: Seven Days is a Vermont paper, so I gotta ask: Bernie Sanders. Does he have a shot?
TN: I think everybody has a shot. That's the great thing about democracy. Hillary was a sure win in the last race, until Obama beat her. So, you never know, Bernie Sanders might just do it.
SD: With Bernie, Trump, Bush v. Clinton 2.0 and the cavalcade of other unusual candidates on both sides, are we looking at the most entertaining primary season ever?
TN: This primary season is insane and overwhelming. I'm so excited to get into every candidate from both sides. At least there won't be a shortage of material to work with.
SD: You're a native of South Africa. How does being foreign-born and -raised inform your perspective on American politics and culture?
TN: Growing up, we were all exposed to a huge amount of American culture. From movies and music to watching the U.S. elections, this is a country I've always felt invested in. I mean, when Obama became president, we celebrated like we had voted for him!
SD: Issues of race, racism and bigotry have dominated the news cycle and social media in the U.S. this year. Coming from South Africa, how do you view this, especially in the wake of the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag debates, the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, etc.?
TN: That's a question that would take many episodes of "The Daily Show" to explain. Each issue has its own complexities and ramifications. Each means so much for the future, and so I spend a lot of time thinking and debating about all these topics, because often the answer isn't in black and white.
SD: Jon Stewart was often asked about his influence on American political discussion. His answer was typically that he was "just a comedian doing fake news." I'm paraphrasing, but the basic gist was that people shouldn't view him in the same way they would legitimate news sources, because the intent and role of each is fundamentally different. Still, people put stock in "The Daily Show" as a source for news and opinion. As the show's next host, do you feel a responsibility to inform and shape discussion as well as to satirize and make us laugh?
TN: I, like Jon, am a standup comedian. We love to make people laugh. We also use laughter to navigate often-precarious subject matter that may be weighing down the society we're living in. "The Daily Show" is comedy, but comedy is often the bastion of free speech that can open the doors to a discussion that many struggle to have without laughter. A spoonful of sugar...
Trevor Noah performs on Sunday, July 19, 8 p.m., at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland. $34.75-50.75. paramountvt.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Noah's Arc"