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Why You Should Get Excited About Trevor Noah Stepping Into Jon Stewart’s Shoes

CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/COMEDY CENTRAL
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/COMEDY CENTRAL

Rise and shine and meet your new Daily Show host: Trevor Noah.

Who is Trevor Noah? you may be asking yourself. Fair question. Noah has only appeared on The Daily Show three times. But his selection is a sign that Comedy Central understands the future of fake news, like the future of real news, is global.

Noah was born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father whose marriage was illegal in Soweto, where he grew up during apartheid. In his standup, Noah mines his memories of being a biracial kid in South Africa, where his basic existence was a crime, for unlikely jokes. He’ll riff on how his mom would get fined and thrown into prison for the weekend for being with his white dad, or that his family couldn’t be seen together in public. Instead, his dad had to walk on the other side of the street and watch Noah from afar, “like a pedophile.” Noah’s mom couldn’t hold his hand in front of the police because they weren’t allowed to be a family; when the cops passed by, she would drop his hand. “It was hard for me. I felt like a bag of weed. It was a tough time.”

Since Jon Stewart announced he’d be departing from the desk after 16 years on the job, predictions about who would be taking over, and the implications of that choice, have been rampant. Would it be Samantha Bee, longest-running Daily Show correspondent, breaking into the boys’ club by becoming the only female host in late night? (No, she’s got her own plans: a show on TBS.) What about Bee’s husband, Jason Jones? (He’ll be co-executive producing Bee’s new show.) Would it be Jessica Williams, who at 22 became the youngest correspondent in Daily Show history and who, as a black woman, would break two glass ceilings at once? (Nope, although she’s flattered that you asked and annoyed that you would suggest her refusal has anything to do with imposter syndrome.)

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With the most obvious contenders spoken for — Stephen Colbert is taking over for David Letterman; Larry Wilmore is hosting The Nightly Show; HBO just renewed John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight for two more seasons — it felt like open season. Some even hoped that suspended-newsman Brian Williams might find his way to Comedy Central.

Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless did not name names of other individuals considered for the post. She told the New York Times that men and women were considered for the opening, and that “We found in Trevor the best person for the job.”

Frankly, the pitting of various marginalized, under-represented groups against each other for professional opportunities like the Daily Show gig helps no one. Women do not achieve progress by hoping for success at the expense of people of color; the opposite, and all variations on this theme, is just as true.

And though Noah is a relatively unfamiliar face, he’s not totally green. He’s performed on The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman — he was the first South African to appear on either program — and has done stand-up all over the U.S. and around the world for years. He spoke to the Times from Dubai, where he’s currently on tour.

What Noah brings is something valuable that’s mostly missing from late night, albeit something that isn’t quite as easy to notice as the total absence of women: a global perspective.

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Take this great impression of South African President Jacob Zuma, with a focus on Zuma’s disregard for proper diction. He “doesn’t conform to the laws of grammar and punctuation as we mere mortals… ‘Comma, for who? For you, maybe. Not me.’”

It’s the kind of impersonation we have seen of our own president and of a handful of European dignitaries hundreds of times. But South Africa is a part of the world most American audiences rarely see, particularly not in this way: as a place with nuance and quirks and a parody-worthy president.

To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — Nigerian-born author of Americanah whose Ted talk “We Should All Be Feminists” is quoted in Beyonce’s “***Flawless” — we have been stuck with a single story of Africa, where over 50 countries get treated as a single, monolithic mass. Adichie described her American college roommate’s “default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe.”

This is why so many book covers for stories set in Africa depict an acacia tree silhouetted against a generic yellow-orange sunset, why Delta sent that World Cup tweet about the U.S. defeating Ghana with a picture of a giraffe standing in for the latter nation, even though giraffes don’t actually live in Ghana.

The general American awareness and understanding of Africa — its diversity, its size, its logistics — is so low that when West Africa experienced an Ebola outbreak, tourism to South Africa plummeted, even though South Africa had a grand total of zero documented cases of the disease and Cape Town is geographically closer to London than it is to Freetown, Liberia.

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Noah pointed this out during his first visit to the Daily Show last December, telling Stewart he was nervous to be in America because of “your Ebola.” “South Africa, we haven’t had a single case in over 18 years. In fact, my friends warned me. ‘Don’t go to the U.S., Trevor! You’ll catch Ebola!’ And I was like, you know what, guys? Just because they’ve had a few cases of Ebola doesn’t mean we should cut off travel there. That would be ignorant. Right?”

Noah also brings an outsider take on American subjects, from the mundane (traffic lights) to the polarizing (race) to the ridiculous (confusion at the taco trucks).

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is a smash, in no small part due to the fact that Oliver is focusing on stories that other news outlets tend to ignore. His first episode gave cursory attention to the American news of the day — Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling — but made its major focus the elections in India, in which approximately 814 million people were eligible to vote. Even Oliver’s fellow fake-newscasters-in-arms didn’t dedicate that kind of on-air real estate to the story, which was the largest election in human history.

In his time at the Daily Show desk, Stewart provided an outlook that mainstream media sorely lacked: he was a fact-checking, hypocrisy-busting bullshit detector, splicing together hyperbolic cable news footage to reveal the lies and false outrage therein. But that point of view, once a rarity, can now be found all over the place: even the old guard runs humor-inflected fact-checking pieces on politicians’ speeches. The piece we’re missing from the discourse now is one Noah provides: a voice from a part of the world many Americans misunderstand, ignore, and/or treat as a semester-abroad destination, not a real place where people live and work every day. Which is exactly what Noah provides.

One more thing: the man looks sharp in a suit.