Last summer, Trevor Noah told me that if by some crazy turn of events Trump were to be elected, he wasn’t sure he would be “able to stay” in the United States. And if, as promised, Trump decided to “open up the libel laws,” the South African host wondered, could a program like The Daily Show even exist?
One month into the Trump administration, Noah is still here, still tearing into Trump four nights a week—most recently mocking his insane press conference—and delivering The Daily Show its highest-rated month since his October 2015 debut with an average of 1.4 million viewers a night in January. Just as he’s been for Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert, President Trump has been a barely-disguised blessing for Noah.
During a “chilled out” Saturday morning in Boston, where he is in the middle of performing six sold-out shows at the Wilbur Theatre, Noah calls The Daily Beast to talk about his new Netflix stand-up special, Afraid of the Dark. The hour-plus set premieres this Tuesday, but the comedian taped it last November, just three days before the election at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
It may just be the benefit of hindsight, but Noah says he had a feeling then that things might not be going Hillary Clinton’s way. Below is our edited and condensed conversation.
The last time we spoke, you said you hoped after the election The Daily Show might be able to “spread its wings a little bit more” and “have more of an opportunity to focus on the world.” Then Trump won. How’s that working out for you so far?
Well, for now it’s been chaotic. But you know what’s interesting? Trump has actually brought that closer to me than I thought, because he has involved the world in everything. So what Donald Trump has done, unwittingly, is he has gotten America involved in world politics in a way I don’t think he even imagined. So now we can do stories including the Japanese prime minister. Now we can talk a little more about what’s happening in Canada in relation to the U.S. We can talk a little bit more about what’s happening with Theresa May in the U.K. and how she’s dealing with Brexit because she’s meeting with Donald Trump. I still believe we’ve got to open up the lens a little bit more and talk about everything that’s happening instead of looking at only one dimension, and that’s what we’re going to keep on doing.
Your new Netflix special gives you a chance to talk about something other than politics. What do you get out of stand-up that you can’t get from hosting The Daily Show every night?
I think the two things I get out of stand-up is, one, it is a lot more forgiving in that I’m doing it live and I’m talking to the people. So, the audience is all there with stand-up. With The Daily Show, I’m trying to perform for people who are not there and so I’m trying to imagine how they would be reacting. With stand-up, I’m talking to the audience and the audience is responding to me immediately. So, I can have conversations with them that takes a slightly different bent. With stand-up, you’re also not restricted to time, both literally and figuratively. With The Daily Show and any late-night show, you’re reacting to what’s happening, you’re working with what’s in the news, and that makes sense. Whereas with stand-up, I can go back and talk about something that happened a year ago and try and parse that with the audience, which is nice because it gives you a different way to process everything that’s happening or has happened.
The new special was taped just three days before the election. At that point, how confident were you that Hillary would win?
I wasn’t confident at all! I saw the numbers and I was like, I think she’ll do well? And for all intents and purposes, the national polls were right. I guess it’s tough to calculate it on a state level because of the Electoral College. So I wasn’t in the most confident place. After the FBI came out and said they were opening up the investigation, I was like, oh wow, we don’t know what’s going to happen here. So when I taped the special, I taped it with that in mind. And I’m lucky in that I hedged my bets, so the special didn’t lose any of its relevance.
What was the audience like that night? Did you sense that they were on edge about the election?
No, they were actually pretty good. That’s something I try to create with my stand-up—let’s try and escape the feeling from the outside. Let’s try to create an entirely new feeling that’s going to be contained within the walls of this theater and within the walls of this hour and a half that we spend together. So that’s why, with my stand-up, I try to tackle things from a different angle. Even if you’re not really into politics, you may not be someone who completely agrees with my political views, but in the stand-up space we’ll be able to find a lot more common ground, because we’re working through the prism of laughter only. As opposed to The Daily Show, which is specifically focused on politics.
Since Trump took office, not only are The Daily Show’s ratings way up, but Stephen Colbert has overtaken Jimmy Fallon and SNL has its best ratings in years. Why do you think viewers are so hungry for political comedy right now?
I think it’s because a lot of people weren’t interested beforehand. We always forget — everyone goes, half the country is Republican, half the country is Democrat. No, half the voters are Republican, half the voters are Democrat. The majority of the country, the bigger chunk than half, just doesn’t vote. So there is this huge group of people who were just not interested. And then Trump comes in and he starts affecting everybody. Because during the campaign, he didn’t affect everybody. And now, whether you think you’re involved in politics or not, when a travel ban hits you cannot say, “I’m not political.” When the effects of Trump’s laws start kicking in, you can’t say, “Oh, I’m not really into politics.”
How has your job changed so far under the Trump presidency?
My job changed from the time Trump won the election. We stepped up. I know I changed gears, because the thing I struggled with trying to explain to people before the election was, why do you want me to be angry? People were like, “Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you outraged?” And I said, there’s nothing to be outraged about right now. There were moments where you could find yourself being angry about what’s happening, but you cannot exist in a constant state of outrage when nothing is actually happening. After the election I realized why. If I was at a level 10 outrage before the election, what would I be at now? There’s nothing higher. Whereas now, I can see a distinct change in the way I approach the show. I know that if you are a Muslim person now in America, before you were on edge but now you are terrified, because you’re seeing these dominoes fall toward a point where you are labeled an enemy of the state. If you are an immigrant or a child of immigrants in America right now, you are not in a comfortable space, you are afraid. And so that has definitely changed how we function on the show.
Do you feel outraged?
There are moments. It’s weird because it fluctuates between outrage and incredulousness and shock and disgust and disbelief. It’s a range of emotions every single day. Because it’s not like this administration is operating precisely. If they were, then you’d be able to maintain an emotion. This is like an apocalypse riding in a clown car. I don’t even know how to feel about this.
This past week you covered Trump’s press conference and you talked about how you basically had to throw out the entire show after that happened. What is that process like when you guys have to really start from scratch?
What we started realizing was, Donald Trump, unlike most politicians before him, does not adhere to the regular news cycle. He doesn’t communicate through regular channels. So what that means is, you cannot rely on the news remaining the same from the night before until the next evening. Donald Trump will create news in the middle of the day, randomly. If you look at the work day that he’s set for himself, he reportedly ends his day around 5 or 6 p.m. Most late-night shows tape in the afternoon, anywhere from 5 p.m. to 6:30, so if the person is creating news when you’re recording your show, you have to re-look at how you do your show. So that’s what we started doing, because you want to give the viewers the freshest content. If you’re talking about something that happened yesterday and since that time, this guy has declared war on several different groups of people, you want to have that on the show.
I feel like a lot of people just kind of stopped working and stared at that press conference for an hour and 15 minutes. Is that what happened at your office?
That’s exactly what happened. When it started, Donald Trump was just sort of reading and he was calm. And then it just turned into a monster and it was like, wow, OK, this is special. And you couldn’t ignore it.
He’s obviously created a lot of challenges for the press with his “fake news” narrative. How do you think the media is doing so far at covering him?
I think the media is stepping up, I won’t lie. I think news organizations are really stepping up. The only thing that I’m not a fan of is when some news stations or news anchors make it feel like they’re stepping up as revenge because of what Donald Trump is saying about them. That’s not why you should be doing it. News should be news, and whether the president likes you or not, you should be delivering the same news. But I won’t lie, everyone from [George] Stephanopoulos to Chuck Todd to Jake Tapper, you’re seeing news anchors that are really, really upping their game. Even people on Fox News like Bill O’Reilly, he hasn’t just succumbed to Trump. He calls Trump out. And you can see a lot of the more extreme voices on Fox News starting to hate him for that. Shep Smith the other day, he came out and said something, and people were like #FireShep, that was the new hashtag that was trending. “Shep is the new Megyn Kelly, kick him out.” So there are a lot of great journalists who are doing a lot of great work out there.
We’re talking the morning after Bill Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos on his HBO show. He got a lot of blowback for booking him in the first place and then got even more criticism for letting him off kind of easy. You got a better response for your interview with Tomi Lahren, which also got a lot of attention. How do you balance giving someone like that, who you might not agree with, a platform versus having them on and debating them and holding them to account?
I think the question you have to ask yourself is, what is your intention? Why are you having the person on? I don’t ever wish to have somebody on the show just for the sake of having them on the show. I don’t ever wish to provide hate a platform. There may be people who you feel are hateful, who are saying things you feel are just being said to incite. But if they truly don’t believe that from their side, then maybe there is a discussion to be had. Now will the discussion bear fruit, will it always yield some sort of consensus? You never know that until you have the interview. What I always aim to do though is make sure that I know what my intention is going in. I would never want someone to have, as you say, a platform. But when you are challenging somebody and when you don’t allow that person to walk away with unchallenged views or let them spew things that are completely incorrect, then you’re not giving them a platform. But the same way I play clips that I don’t agree with and then challenge arguments is what I would do when certain guests come on the show.
What about someone like Kellyanne Conway? She has now been banned from Morning Joe and CNN for a while was saying they weren’t going to have her on because of “credibility” issues. Is that someone you would welcome on your show and how would you approach an interview with her?
I don’t know if we would. I mean, I guess we probably would but that’s the thing. Why would we be having Kellyanne Conway on? Because news organizations, I’m glad that they’ve picked up on that. If the person is not coming to provide clarity — that’s the sole reason that people were having Kellyanne Conway on. They go, Kellyanne, you are the voice of the administration, you will provide clarity on what Donald Trump has said or done. If you realize suddenly that she is not doing that, then why are you having that person on? There is no point. There is literally no point at all. If every interview ends with you being more confused than you were when the interview started, then you start to realize there’s no point. So I say kudos to them, because at the end of day the only reason these organizations have people from the administration on is they are meant to provide clarity. And if they’re not doing that, the news can still do the news without them. The news can still report. And that’s what journalism is all about. You get the information and you pass it onto the viewer.
Do you think Trump will ever appear on The Daily Show?
I doubt it. Trump is in a world where he truly only wants to associate himself with people that like him. And so, unless The Daily Show turned around and said, “We’re really sorry, Trump, you’re actually a really great leader,” I don’t think we’ll ever see him coming on the show. I don’t think Trump has the balls to go on a show where people don’t like him. You saw him at the press conference, what did he say? “Can I get an easy question?” And the guy got up, gave him the easiest question in the world. All he had to say was, we’re going to stamp out anti-Semitism and once again, Donald Trump failed to say he’s going to stamp out anti-Semitism or he’s opposed to it 100 percent. That was the craziest moment where I was like, wow, this guy really doesn’t seem to get it.
You’ve made it known that you are open to hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. If it even happens, and if you were chosen, what would you hope to accomplish on that night?
I’d hope to accomplish what any great White House Correspondents’ Dinner host would hope to accomplish, which is a good strong show that’s funny and truthful. That’s really all the White House Correspondents’ Dinner should be. All the greats that hosted it have achieved that and that’s what I would hope to do. That’s the one thing that’s really great about it, is you have a simple goal if you are a comedian, and that is truth through comedy and that’s it. It’s as simple as that.
Obama was known for being pretty hilarious at those events. How do you think Trump would do on that podium?
I don’t think he’s going to do that well. He’s not great at delivering a joke that was written for him. He’s good in the moment at riffing and stuff, but he’s not particularly good at like, reading, in general. So I don’t think he’ll do that well. He’s not really that charismatic when he’s delivering someone else’s words. I wonder if they will have the event or not. I will say this though: The irony in any country is, if you track satire and comedy, you will always find them in countries where there is no revolution. If you look at the Arab Spring, if you look at Egypt and those places, it’s when they started shutting down free speech that people started taking to the streets. Because there is a fine balance that is achieved between any administration and the populace with allowing them to say how they feel about what is happening. And once you start shutting that down, the people feel like they no longer have a voice or a space to amplify their thoughts. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner not being there could just be one step closer to the people feeling like this man is trying to set up his authoritarian regime.
So if Trump doesn’t want a revolution he should let comedians say whatever they want about him?
Hey, you never know.