Back in March 2015, I was devastated to learn Jon Stewart wouldn’t be returning to The Daily Show. His snarky attitude, pressed suits, and biting wit were the background to my high school experience. I couldn’t have gotten through midterm elections and pop culture shenanigans without him.
When news got out that he would be replaced by Trevor Noah, I was worried. Noah is a lot younger than Jon Stewart (goodbye, silver fox fantasy) and he had only been a contributing reporter on the show for about a year.
However, these concerns were immediately proven unnecessary. Noah is a worthy successor; funny, driven, and smart-as-hell, he deserves to sit behind the iconic Daily Show desk. I also 100% recommend checking out his book, Born A Crime. The book was named a New York Times bestseller shortly after its release, according to Noah’s website. The title is a reference to his very existence; born during apartheid South Africa, it was illegal for him to have been conceived from a black mother and a white father. His writing is witty and spot-on, but also urgent, calling for something greater.
Noah took the stage at Salomon Hall on Sunday evening to raucous applause. Rarely have I attended a lecture with so much crowd enthusiasm. When the applause died down, one student yelled out, “yeah, Trevor!” to which he responded, “you said that like I owed you money.” And with that, Noah was off to the races.
Moderated by Tricia Rose, acclaimed professor, author, and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the event lasted around an hour and was packed.
Immediately, I understood Rose to be an expert moderator. She easily transitioned between topics, navigating difficult terrain effortlessly. The conversation began on a lighter subject; the pair discussed Trevor’s high school experience and disastrous prom adventures. Rose then probed Noah about the “complicated, rigid, and stratified” world of apartheid South Africa. Noah’s responses were thoughtful; after a pause, he explained that “painfully, and strangely enough, it was normal… the only world I knew.”
Noah spoke in great detail of his family, giving lots of credit to his mom. She was alternately very funny and very strict; he added she is “the most confident and beautiful woman around.” He went on to say that she encouraged him to question the world, giving him the “ability to understand rule of law, but the freedom to challenge it.” They would spar over religion, he explained, adding a hilarious anecdote about a car breaking down and the questionable role of Jesus and the devil. Ultimately, he said, she gave him a sense of humor.
Noah also described his high school experience, explaining how–despite taking place in the emerging democracy of South Africa–it was very similar to high school across the globe. “It was sports, it was crushes, it was heartbreak, it was awful, it was fun,” said Noah, who would later go on to describe how he never attended his prom because his friends called him out on bringing a girl he didn’t know (and didn’t speak any of the languages he spoke.)
The conversation took a more serious note when Rose asked him why he invited Tomi Lahren to his show. His response, as always, was well-reasoned. He articulated that when making TV, there is a “certain level of commercial viability” necessary to succeed. He invoked Kendrick Lamar and others as examples of being raw and honest while remaining relevant to a large platform. Moreover, he explained that he was curious about Lahren because his friends on Facebook described her as “tortuous.” Noah wanted to see who she was in a new environment, get her to engage beyond social media, and test whether his views were able to hold up when challenged. He explained a need to “pressure test” his beliefs, an idea threaded in many of his answers.
I appreciated Rose’s willingness to push back, engaging Noah to go further and back up his claims. Following one animated exchange, Rose said “I think you won that round.” Noah smiled. “I think we won that round,” he said. The crowd cheered.
Before moving into an audience Q&A, Rose asked Noah questions students had submitted via Google form. These were not easy inquiries. Trevor spoke on a myriad of tricky topics: Trump and the complicity of the media, America as an international superpower, pro-Blackness and anti-Whiteness, and the problems of the two party system.
While the crowd seemed generally excited and many students voiced their gratitude for Noah’s visiting Brown, some students took the question and answer portion of the evening as an opportunity to question Noah’s often comedic approach to complex issues, both in South Africa and the United States. Alexa Clark, a South African student, questioned if Noah’s use of comedy could at times simplify “complex issues underlying in South African history.” Noah responded by saying that oftentimes, “issues in society are not dealt with because they are not simplified.” Later in the evening, he went on to say that he sees it as his responsibility to take the most dense or complicated political topics and make them easier to understand for a broader audience, arguing that comedy is a way to accomplish this.
Another student asked if it would be pro-Black for Noah to date a white person. Noah said that his instinct would be to say yes, arguing that white people have played a crucial role as allies in both the South African and American Black freedom struggles. “I refuse to thrust myself into a world where it’s impossible to exist beyond that color barrier,” he said.
While Noah seemed eager to engage with questions and the audience, he nonetheless stood his ground when probed by Rose and students alike; he moved masterfully between effortless jokes and thoughtful reflection.
He ended with an invocation for laughter, imploring the audience to make time to laugh with friends. “You can laugh harder with your real friends than with anyone else in the world,” he explained.
Noah is a master storyteller, a magician with words. He is also incredibly thorough, taking the time to hit all of his points on the head. He reminded me how powerful levity is when coupled with intellect. Ultimately, this event was the perfect, thought-provoking end to a wild Spring Weekend.