The South African host of US comedy programme The Daily Show takes a patient approach to building viewership.
Before dropping out of the US presidential race, Republican hopeful John Kasich lamented the retirement of Jon Stewart as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, saying “Trump was lucky” to escape Stewart’s withering commentary.
But Stewart’s replacement, South African comic Trevor Noah, got the last word on Twitter.
Noah admits stepping in to host the nightly spoof of politics, current events and the media has been a daunting task.
Under Stewart, the show became a trusted news source for millions of young, primarily left-leaning viewers.
So far Noah is getting only half of the television audience Stewart did in his last year, and the critics have not always been kind.
But Noah is taking a patient approach to building viewership – his own way.
“You can’t ever fill Jon Stewart’s shoes, so the most important thing is not to try to fill his shoes,” he said.
“You just do your own thing and that’s what I try to do every day, make my own show.”
For the 32-year-old comedian from South Africa, that has meant bringing a more global perspective to the show, one that is sorely lacking in the US media landscape.
“I think of myself as a global citizen,” Noah explains. “The show is slowly evolving into that.”
That international approach and his adeptness with social media are starting to show some results.
Comedy Central says international ratings are up, driven by record viewing in his homeland, and increases in the UK, Denmark, Ireland and Sweden.
The Daily Show is now broadcast in 170 countries – compared to 163 under Stewart.
This weekend it begins airing in the Middle East for the first time ever on the OSN Network.
Noah’s international appeal was obvious at a recent taping of the show which attracted audience members from South Africa, Canada and Chile.
Thobile Hans was among them, a South African journalist who says his countrymen see Noah as a trail blazer.
“Nowadays we talk about US politics it is something that we never cared about before.”
Insular American audience
Can this global approach win over a notoriously insular American audience trying to make sense of a presidential election that has defied all pundits’ predictions?
It doesn’t help Noah that some of Stewart’s best contributors have left to host their own shows.
Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have been faring better in the ratings, but they only air once a week.
Sometimes Noah’s lack of experience shows in his interviews with guests.
Still, culture writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong thinks Americans will warm to Noah. After all, it took Stewart 16 years to grow his audience.
“He does have this outsider, international perspective that feels right for me,” she says. “I think it’s both something people want and are more comfortable with – and also they just kind of need, whether they want it or not.”
Armstrong points to a segment Noah did comparing Trump to African leaders.
A series of clips show a shocking similarity between statements made by Donald Trump and the brutal former Ugandan president Idi Amin. After showing both men bragging about how rich, smart and beloved they are, Noah quips.
“Donald Trump IS presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent!”
Noah is also scoring wins on social media, the platform that is so difficult to monetise but so important in attracting millennials.
Comedy Central says his show generated an average of 67 million monthly streams across all digital platforms in 2016, up 22 percent over 2015.
That’s where Noah says he’s in his element. At a recent junket for international media, he displayed a sharp intelligence, quick wit and humble confidence.
“I remind myself to just have fun,” Noah said about his approach to the show.
As the son of mixed-race parents who grew up under apartheid, whose stepfather once shot his mother in the head, he said humour has always been his coping mechanism.
His ability to relate to the common man, while parleying with political and cultural elites, is certainly something he shares with his predecessor – and could just end up being the key to his success.