Donald Trump hasn’t yet gone after “The Daily Show,” and that’s fine by host Trevor Noah.
“I don’t think Trump’s attack is the mark of a good show,” he told IndieWire last month, after taping an episode in his Midtown Manhattan studio. “People always go, ‘He’s attacking ‘SNL.’ Actually, he is attacking Alec Baldwin. That’s what gets to him, the fact that that’s whom he aspires to. That’s a New York guy. That’s the face of fame for him. He has his peers that he wants to be associated with, and everyone else he doesn’t really care about. That’s part of the problem of Donald Trump. He lives in his own world.”
And it turns out, Noah is doing very well without Trump’s seal of disapproval. Just 18 months after Noah took over the Comedy Central franchise from Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show” finished the first quarter of 2017 with its best ratings since the host transition. It is the only daily late-night talk show this year to enjoy year-to-year improvement among both total viewers and adults 18-49.
It’s a solid turnaround for “The Daily Show” and Comedy Central, which took more than a few lumps after losing marquee talents Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee over the course of a year. (More recently, the network canceled “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” due to low ratings.) Noah also had a bumpy start before even taking over, as several of his old Twitter posts were criticized for being offensive.
Comedy Central has always stressed that hiring Noah was about recalibrating “The Daily Show” for a new, younger generation, and it is doing particularly well with young viewers, surpassing “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as the top late-night talk show among millennials under 25, and it’s now the No. 1 late-night talk show with men under 35.
“Our whole orientation was, if we try to replace Jon Stewart with just a younger version of Jon Stewart, it’s a fool’s errand and will never work,” said Comedy Central president Kent Alterman. “Our gut instinct about him is being borne out. I never really had any doubts about [Noah], and we never had doubts that it would take time. No matter how much I said that publicly it didn’t matter, people always thought the obligation was to compare Trevor’s Day 1 to Jon’s last day after 16 years. We always told people that we didn’t hire Trevor for his experience; we hired him for his talent and his brain.”
Noah is the first to credit the Trump Effect for giving “The Daily Show” renewed purpose and vigor.
“We’re in a world where maybe, for a certain amount of people, there was no need for a late-night satirical show in their lives when it was presumed that Hillary Clinton would win,” he said. “[When that didn’t happen], we felt the click in the show. I felt it in myself as a person. You feel that there is a fear and a tension, and when that tension rises, comedy is oftentimes the release.”
Noah now sees his early days hosting “The Daily Show” during the presidential campaign as training for how to handle the job under a Trump administration. “Before the election and leading up to it, I remember people were like, ‘Why aren’t you more angry? Where’s your rage?’ I said, ‘Why would I be angry? What would my rage stem from? What is my origin story, for me to all of a sudden be this character you think I should be?’
“All I did was read; I learned. In essence, I’ve realized now that I was learning at the same time as Donald Trump was. We were learning about the country at the same time. The only difference is, I feel like I still read my briefings and he doesn’t.”
Noah’s growing knowledge is on display every night on “The Daily Show” set, even in between commercials. One night, he gave the crowd a succinct play-by-play of how House Speaker Paul Ryan had painted the Republicans in a corner by trying to push through Trumpcare so fast (something that later played out the way Noah had predicted). Some of those impromptu chats have wound up on “The Daily Show’s” social media channels, which have seen YouTube and Facebook video viewership grow by 200% over the last year.
Meanwhile, Alterman has heard the criticism that Noah isn’t angry enough on air, but believes it’s a complaint coming mostly from older viewers.
“Our research shows younger people don’t feel that way,” he said. “One thing that sets Trevor apart is he can take these strong positions and really go after whatever targets are out there, but he doesn’t do it in a dogmatic yelling way.”
Early on in the Trump campaign, Noah said he purposely approached it from a neutral perspective. “That’s why very early on, I said, ‘I can see how Trump’s connecting. I can see why I think he won that debate.’ People are like, ‘Are you mad?’ Even as a person who’s just come into it, very quickly you realize that there is an artificial middle that has been created and facts and truth and honesty are almost artifacts of a bygone era.”