Battling racism and coronavirus: Trevor Noah is not done talking about America’s racial problems

Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show,” was on vacation when he first heard about the death of George Floyd.  Rather than wait the full two weeks for his show to return, Noah jumped online and uploaded an 18-minute video to YouTube, sharing his feelings of sadness, fatigue and optimism with close to 8 million subscribers. “You quickly realize that while everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, Black people in America are still facing the battle against racism and coronavirus,” said Noah. 

Since then, Noah has kept his online and TV performances squarely focused on the biggest civil rights question of the day, routinely interviewing leading Black intellectuals, activists and athletes on “The Daily Show” while probing the nature of America’s failed social contract on race.  

When Noah first took over the show from Jon Stewart in 2015, such a thing might not have been possible. During his early days as host, Noah was largely preoccupied with booking the most famous people he could land. But as his tenure grew, so too did his willingness to dig in forcefully at times on substantial, discomforting subjects. Along the way, Noah has earned a reputation as one of the strongest political voices in comedy and has earned two consecutive Emmy nominations. 

Noah spoke about using his comedy show to dissect the prevalence of racism in America, what it’s like to tape his show from home and who his ultimate dream guest would be. 

For about three months now, you’ve been hosting your show from home.  What’s it like performing in your apartment with no audience?

Coronavirus hit the world harder than anybody thought. The next thing you know we were told to stay at home, and that’s what we all did. I genuinely don’t think too much about having or not having an audience. I spend more time thinking about how to process the experience.

I am looking at my friends and family, thinking about how to create a sense of normalcy with the tools we have, whether that’s seeing artists performing on Instagram Live or seeing companies have meetings in Zoom. All of that has inspired how I think of creating the show. How do we exist in a normal world that is completely abnormal?

Have you spent any time watching your peers?

I can’t look to my peers because in this space my peers have no experience. It’s a completely new world. If anything, I look to the pioneers that created audience-less shows—the YouTubers.

Who are the YouTubers you admire?

Lilly Singh. I know she is on TV now but I’ve always admired and loved how she did things. Unbox Therapy. It’s a guy engaging you and talking about technology. Casey Neistat.

A key difference between the show now and before you took it over has been your aggressive use of social media platforms. How has that changed your comedy?

When I joined the show, I wasn’t trying to incorporate YouTube or think about Twitter. These are real things that exist that I use. I just said, “Let’s use it in the most organic way possible.” That’s a byproduct of who I am. I am younger than most of the hosts. Now, Lilly is the youngest.

Late-night hosts often come up with gimmicks for social media, whether it’s Carpool Karaoke or Bad Lip Reading. 

The reason you are mentioning them is because of how successful they’ve been. Carpool Karaoke connects with people because of James Corden’s infectious joy. He becomes the embodiment of how we’d feel driving in a car singing with our favorite musicians. People say, “What is your Carpool Karaoke?” or “What is your thing?” I am not trying to do that.

A lot of people look to topical comedy shows to stay informed. How do you balance the desire to make a joke with making sure your viewers are getting the best information? 

The first thing you need to ask yourself is: If you only inform, what separates you from the news? It’s also weird because in America a lot of the news isn’t informative. It’s entertainment-based.

But there are amazing journalists and great news out there. I’m not delivering the news. If anything, my team and I are working to distill and decipher what’s happening, not just in news but in the world.

A show like mine, there is no hiding how I feel or what position I come from. I don’t hide the fact that I’m progressive or liberal. That’s sometimes where the news gets caught up. The onus is on journalists to appear neutral as much as possible instead of telling the truth. Sometimes the truth makes it seem like you are not neutral.

If the news presents itself as being unbiased or fact-based, but you see bias or opinion, people get confused. 

Not everyone understands the distinction between a columnist and a reporter. 

When many people read the opinion section of a newspaper, they don’t realize this is not written by somebody who has been fact-checked or scrutinized in the same way.

Op-eds are pretty strange in my opinion. Imagine going to a restaurant, and there’s a section where someone who is not a chef also gets to prepare the food for people to consume. When people get food poisoning, try telling them it comes from the opinion section. 

At least two of your peers have apologized in the past few weeks for previously dressing in blackface. Should they have been punished? Do you buy the idea that this time is going to be different?

They understand that despite their intentions, people were extremely hurt by this thing they participated in. I get where Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel were coming from. They were trying to play a character. They were not doing a mimicry of Black culture or Black people. But understanding the adjacent legacy of these two things, maybe they only discovered over time.

Those hosts, like many other people in America, are now wondering, “What are those things we are doing that inflict pain in ways we may not have understood?”

Comedy is an entertainment format approved mostly by society. Yes, Fallon performed in blackface on TV. You also have to ask, who approved this? Who are the people who watched and thought it was fine? Just like the police, nothing is happening in a vacuum.

If you came to my Halloween party in blackface, I can safely tell you the night would not end with you in blackface. You’d either wash it off, and we’d talk about it, or you’d instantly be invited to leave. 

What do you think about social networks that have been criticized for amplifying hatred or misinformation but argue they are only reflecting the values of their users?

We can’t live in world where companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram claim to have no power over what’s happening.

It’s like if I said, “I am completely against all forms of animal abuse,” but I forward animal-abuse videos to everyone in my phone book. If anything, I’m subjecting people to a thing I say they shouldn’t be subjected to.

Do you have any idea when you’ll perform stand-up again?

No clue at all. I don’t even bother myself with that. I get sad when I think about no audiences, not just for comedy but also for music.

We’re talking, in part, because of the start of Emmy nomination season. Does it seem strange to continue with Hollywood awards shows?

It sometimes seems like everything you do should be geared to or shaped by what’s happening. But we need a break. We need to strive towards some form of normalcy. When I read history books about World War I, I am always intrigued by how soldiers would have a dinner party in the trenches. That’s wild to me.

What is your means of escape?

I would be lying if I said I had anything. The downside of any kind of fame or celebrity is it robs you of any kind of anonymity or freedom. I am used to being locked indoors.

Did you watch the Michael Jordan documentary? He’s on the couch in the hotel and says, “This is my life.” That seems familiar. I’ve been a comedian on the road for over a decade now. I know what it’s like to go to work and then go back to the hotel room. 

Have you been surprised by the boom in stand-up comedy over the past decade?

Is that true? I grew up in a world where everyone from Roseanne Barr to Ray Romano had sitcoms. Stand-ups were everywhere. Eddie Murphy was the biggest movie star in the world.

I’ve seen stand-up go in cycles. There was a phase where they all had TV shows and movies. Then the stand-up bubble burst. Now, people are popular because of Twitter or YouTube.

I’ve heard some comedians, especially those from a prior generation, bemoan political correctness in contemporary culture. They fear they can’t make the jokes they want to make without fear of reprisal. Is this a legitimate concern, or just a sign that what is funny has changed?

Partly a change in what is and isn’t funny, but also a change in how we hear people’s voices. For a long time, people didn’t have the means to tell you they didn’t appreciate what you’ve done. If  someone made an episode of TV that was considered offensive, how many letters did you have to write to get an effect? Now, thousands of people can immediately lambaste a show. 

I’ve always said that as a comedian you move with the times. Some comedians do it, and some don’t. Jerry Seinfeld does. Chris Rock does. What I think is unhealthy is when people look back and indict the comedy of that time. You must realize the comedy was a mirror held up during that time.

I’d go watch stuff from the 1990s and wonder, “How did people say this stuff?” But people were laughing at it. You can’t be a mainstream comedian unless the viewers are mainstream. People have forgotten that.

I think about that time every time I watch Eddie Murphy specials from the 1980s.

Eddie Murphy was the definitive mainstream comedian. You go from, “I can’t believe he told those jokes” to “I can’t believe people laughed” to “I can’t believe society condoned it.” And then you get to the core idea.

A lot of streaming services and TV networks are debating what to do with older content that is now considered offensive. Do you take down “Gone With the Wind” or “Tropic Thunder” or old episodes with blackface?

People make it seem like the woke brigade has come for “Gone With the Wind.” Nobody came for it. It’s s—ty in the way it portrays slavery in America. HBO made a decision: In this moment in time, what is this piece of content saying or doing? When Disney+ released “Lady and the Tramp” and other old movies, they asked, “Do we want kids watching racist stereotypes in cartoon form when we’ve completely accepted it as racist?”

“Tropic Thunder” is different. What I liked about that movie was that they acknowledged blackface was problematic. It’s not like Robert Downey Jr. was cruising through society with nobody acknowledging it. If anything, his character was the punchline. It’s a fascinating dissection of society.

Who is a guest you’d love to have on for the first time?

Rihanna and Beyoncé. I have genuinely been impressed and intrigued by their journeys of going from just being perceived as a female singer who is a sex symbol to leaders who encourage discussions around some of the toughest topics. That’s something not every artist has done, and not many have even tried to do.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

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