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Essay: You Can't Put Trevor Noah in a Box

I am what I affectionately refer to as an “early adopter” of foreign actors and performers.As a kid I was watching poorly dubbed grainy VHS tapes of J
Trevor Noah
Byron Keulemans
/ Source: NBC News

I am what I affectionately refer to as an “early adopter” of foreign actors and performers.

As a kid I was watching poorly dubbed grainy VHS tapes of Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” movies long before American audiences were introduced to him in ‘90s action flicks with Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson. I was a fan of David Oyelowo’s work as a British spy on MI-5 on BBC long before the rest of America saw him in “The Butler” and “Selma.”

So when it was announced today that Trevor Noah would replace Jon Stewart as the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central it gave me another chance to humble brag as most of American Twitter caught up. Trevor Noah is an amazing talent, “The Daily Show” is in good hands, and if you’ve watched his career grow like I have, you know he’s going to literally transform the face of American television.

I was first introduced to Trevor Noah’s comedy in 2013 with the documentary “You Laugh But It’s True.” I use the term “introduced” because I want to avoid “Columbusing” his talent, since much of the rest of the world has been laughing to his comedy for the last half decade. “You Laugh…” is the story of Trevor’s early career and the growing influence of Stand Up comedy amongst South Africa’s still growing middle class from 2008 to about 2011. The documentary was so moving, so funny and so accessible that I reached out to the director David Paul Meyer, got a free unfinished copy of the movie and have been using the film and Trevor’s comedy to teach my students about South African Politics for years.

Trevor Noah appears in a publicity still from "You Laugh But It's True."
Trevor Noah appears in a publicity still from "You Laugh But It's True."Day 1 Films

When Noah was picked up as a Daily Show contributor a few months ago I was shocked, and when the news broke this morning that he would be Jon Stewart’s replacement I had to reach out to Meyer, to see if he ever imagined this happening when he first met Trevor years ago.

“I was in South Africa doing research for my movie and I saw Trevor performing in this small Jazz club [In Johannesburg] around 2008 and I thought – this guy is gonna be a star,” Meyer said. “I didn’t expect The Daily Show, but his stage presence, his work with the audience – he’s always blowing me away.”

If you want to get an idea what kind of take Trevor Noah is going to have on “The Daily Show,” you should go back and hit his highlights. Besides “You Laugh But It’s True,” he’s done various comedy specials, he has a Pandora comedy channel, and a short lived talk show on SABC (South African Broadcasting). Born of a South African mother and a Swiss father, (an illegal union under apartheid), bouncing between suburbs and townships, along with seeing the fall, rise and then fall again of functional democracy in South Africa, Noah brings a fresh and entertaining view of American politics that is seldom heard from any corner.

“It’s hard to put him in a box,” Meyer says. “He appeals to a lot of different people, from many backgrounds. He’s passionate about so many things”

While you can’t put Trevor Noah in a box, what you can clearly do is see what Comedy Central was aiming for in making this 31-year-old biracial South African at the masthead of their flagship show. The easy answer might be that Steven Colbert, and John Oliver were gone, and previous contributors that may have been a good fit like Wyatt Cenac or Rob Corddry have moved on to other things. But in reality it likely has to do with ratings and the realization of just how important “The Daily Show,” to a global audience. “The Daily Show” is one of the most watched American programs around the world, and millennials and Generation Xers in Europe, Africa and Asia both learn English and American politics from the show’s nightly sketches.

In 2012 I was giving a lecture tour on American politics in Germany and I had tons of audience members ask me about the influence of “Super Pacs.” When I asked how your average German knew about such an obscure piece of American political strategy I was consistently told that most Germans watch “The Daily Show,” and that it (along with “The Simpsons”) was a common program to show students who are learning English. If everyone all over the world is already watching “The Daily Show,” why not give them a host who views America with the same wild eyed curiosity, who can also touch American audiences.

“The Daily Show” under Trevor Noah will not be nearly as acerbic as “The Colbert Report” or outraged as John Oliver or even as fiercely political as Jon Stewart, at least not at first. Noah’s comedy is usually more bemused by America’s “First World Problems” and obliviousness to the rest of the world than disgusted. His interviews will likely fall somewhere between the ironic humor of Sacha Baron Cohen and the shoulder shrugging political riffs of W. Kamau Bell.

But that’s just the beginning, he will grow and evolve during the political season into an incredibly unique voice on the TV landscape. Americans showed 6 years ago that they were comfortable having a relatively inexperienced biracial guy with African heritage showing up on their televisions every night and talk politics. I think they’ll be fine with Trevor Noah. Just remember that you heard it here first. It’s not often we early adopters latch on a star that makes it this big.