It's tricky satirising Trump, says The Daily Show's Trevor Noah

The Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s funny and incisive takes on United States President Donald Trump have given the satirical newscast new cultural relevance.
The Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s funny and incisive takes on United States President Donald Trump have given the satirical newscast new cultural relevance. PHOTO: COMEDY CENTRAL
The Daily Show’s Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library pop-up museum, launched last Friday in New York, features framed reproductions of the American leader’s most infamous tweets as well as exhibits.
The Daily Show’s Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library pop-up museum, launched last Friday in New York, features framed reproductions of the American leader’s most infamous tweets as well as exhibits. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Trevor Noah of The Daily Show says the American leader's unconventional persona makes his job more difficult

Satirical newscast The Daily Show is among the biggest beneficiaries of the so-called "Trump bump", or ratings boost enjoyed by certain television shows since United States President Donald Trump took office.

The left-leaning news and comedy programme hosted by Trevor Noah - which airs in Singapore on Comedy Central Asia (Singtel TV Channel 324 and StarHub TV Channel 516) - joins a list that includes sketch show Saturday Night Live, certain cable news outlets and talk shows by comedians Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, who have been openly critical of Mr Trump.

The Daily Show may be getting more mileage from the Trump era than most though.

When Noah took over from popular host Jon Stewart in 2015, the little-known South African comic and his new team of faux correspondents met with a decidedly cool reception from many fans and critics.

But their funny and incisive takes on Mr Trump have given the series new cultural relevance.

Last Friday, the show unveiled the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library - a tongue-in- cheek pop-up museum featuring framed reproductions of the leader's most infamous tweets and exhibits such as a sculpture of tiny orange hands holding a phone.

Satire generally relies on a certain level of reality to exist for you to then satirise and take to a ridiculous place. And a lot of the time, the thing that Trump will do will seem like what a satirist would try to picture him doing.

THE DAILY SHOW HOST TREVOR NOAH

Located near Trump Tower in New York City, the free museum proved so popular that hours were extended over the weekend - another sign of how the programme is tapping a certain zeitgeist.

But Noah is quick to shoot down suggestions that they are somehow profiting from anti-Trump sentiment, noting that similar ratings boosts occurred during other controversial administrations and that conservative media benefit too.

  • From criminal existence to top comic

  • When Jon Stewart picked Trevor Noah to succeed him at The Daily Show in 2015, the young comic was an unlikely choice to take over the satirical news programme which, under Stewart, had won 23 Emmys and redefined American political comedy.

    Few had heard of the then 31-year-old outside of his native South Africa. But Noah had already lived a remarkable life - one he details in his best-selling autobiography, Born A Crime, which was released last year and received a glowing review from Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Time magazine last month.

    Noah was born in apartheid-era South Africa in 1984, when mixed-race relationships such as the one between his white Swiss-German father and black mother - who belonged to the country's Xhosa ethnic group - were outlawed by the minority white government.

    His mother was jailed and fined as a result and Noah's existence was a crime. To keep the authorities off their backs, his parents avoided being seen together and would tell people Noah was albino to explain his light complexion.

    After his father moved back to Switzerland, Noah was raised by his mother and grandmother in Johannesburg's impoverished Soweto township.

    But he survived that and an abusive stepfather, who shot his mother Patricia in the head following their divorce (miraculously, she survived, the bullet exiting through her nose after missing her brain and arteries).

    At 18, Noah landed a part in a South African soap opera. He later made his name as a television host before becoming one of the country's most popular comics.

    He moved to the United States in 2011 and began working his way up the comedy scene there before landing coveted stints on popular late-night talk shows and, eventually, The Daily Show.

    The comic - who lives in New York and is dating Jordyn Taylor, a 26-year-old American model - attributes his unlikely success to his mother, who still lives in South Africa and works as an estate agent.

    "If I had to put it down to one factor, it would simply be my mother. She gave me the right mindset and provided me with all the right tools," he tells The Straits Times.

    "She couldn't afford to send me to the best schools or university, but that didn't stop her from providing me with books, or putting me in spaces where I would have access to kids who had gone to those schools," says the comedian, a polyglot who speaks Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and several other languages.

    "My mother always worked to give me more advantages than she had. And that's something I've never taken for granted."

    Alison de Souza

"I understand that people call it a Trump bump, and technically that's true, but I think I would say it's almost a 'news bump' - certain shows will have people tuning in more if they feel the news pertains more to them, or if things happening in the world frighten them in a certain way," the 33-year-old tells The Straits Times at a press event in Los Angeles.

"It's no mistake that when Jon Stewart was hosting The Daily Show, his biggest bump came when George W. Bush became president and all throughout his presidency (2001 to 2009). And then the show slowed down when Barack Obama became president."

Similarly, conservative outlet Fox News "had its highest ratings when Obama became president, and now it's ranked third behind MSNBC and CNN, now that Trump's president".

But like other political comedians in the US, Noah admits Mr Trump's unconventional persona has made his job trickier.

"That's because satire generally relies on a certain level of reality to exist for you to then satirise and take to a ridiculous place. And a lot of the time, the thing that Trump will do will seem like what a satirist would try to picture him doing."

The show is, however, adapting to this new political reality - in part by trying to reach out to those who hold opposing views.

Noah concedes that they are probably not winning over a lot of Trump fans. Although, he quips: "I'm sure we get some people who maybe hate-watch us from Trump's side.

"But there's a larger group of people who don't see themselves as Democrat or Republican and there's always an opportunity to get those people to tune in. There's lots of room to grow when you're not trying to change a person's mind and turn it inside out."

Another reason for the show's growing popularity may be Noah himself, who has been credited with bringing a more international perspective to US politics.

The Daily Show correspondents Roy Wood Jr and Jordan Klepper confirm this in separate interviews, saying it was Noah who came up with a popular segment comparing Mr Trump to African dictators, and revealing that he has a cooler head when it comes to issues, such as racism, that are emotive for Americans.

Noah says it is simply a result of having lived elsewhere. "Because I didn't grow up in the world of Democrats and Republicans, I may be able to see things that somebody else may not be able to, and ask questions that they don't."

Also informing his approach is the fact that comedy in South Africa is not as politically divisive as it is in the US.

"Because in South Africa, we have to learn how to use comedy to bring people together in a country where they've been separated for such a long time, and connect to audiences that are as broad as they are similar.

"That was something I always enjoyed - trying to tackle issues with people who are on opposite sides, but getting them to see the middle ground, or from another person's perspective."

•The Daily Show with Trevor Noah airs on Comedy Central Asia (Singtel TV Channel 324 and StarHub TV Channel 516) on weekdays at 11.25pm, with episodes repeated the next day at 11.35am and 5pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Tricky satirising Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe