The man who will take over for Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, 31-year-old South African comedian Trevor Noah, might not have the name recognition of the more high profile names linked with the position (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler), or some of the internal solutions that might have been promoted (Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi), but he is hardly an unknown in comedy circles.
In addition to television and radio work in South Africa (including hosting duties on a couple of occasions), Noah has become more widely known to international audiences due to his stand up work, including the very well received special “You Laugh, But It’s True.” In 2013, Noah was the first South African comedian to perform on Dave Letterman’s show, as well as the first on The Tonight Show.
Since December, Noah has also done three pieces as a correspondent for The Daily Show. Each appearance showed an engaging and intelligent comic with a wicked sense of humor and strong delivery.
On paper, this may seem like a risky decision for the network and the show. No late night host, perhaps since Johnny Carson, has cast as giant a shadow as Stewart. Replacing him with a virtual unknown (who is both black and foreign, which for better or worse, is a thought that had to cross the producers’ minds) does represent something of a gamble. Though Stewart is technically the second host of the show, it will always be thought of by many as his. His successor will almost certainly be found wanting.
For this reason, some of the more fanciful suggestions for replacing Stewart were just never going to happen. Would Tina Fey really take on the hectic schedule and demanding deadlines just to be told she isn’t as good as the guy she replaced? Would Jon Oliver really leave his comfortable seat at HBO to deal with the same headaches and the guest interviews that were always the least successful bit of his stint behind the hosting desk?
Then there is the money. Stewart reportedly makes $30 million a year. Though no money has been mentioned, you have to believe that Noah’s salary will be a fraction of that. Any attempts to lure one of the bigger names would have required a similar outlay (in addition to paying HBO, for instance, if they tried to get Oliver back). By going with a younger, less famous host, TDS and Comedy Central can drastically reduce what has been their single biggest budget item on a show that will almost certainly lose viewers when Stewart leaves, regardless of who sits behind the desk.
The obvious precedent here is Conan O’Brien — oddly enough, in a couple of ways. If Noah becomes a hit like the unknown O’Brien was in 1994, then Comedy Central will be hailed as brilliant and forward-thinking. If Noah fails, as O’Brien did in his very brief stint as The Tonight Show host then Comedy Central can pony up for someone like Fey, whose task suddenly changes from being the person who replaced Stewart to being the person who saved The Daily Show.
Or the shutter the thing and move on to the next phase.
The Daily Show’s fans are certainly hoping that Noah is a success. If he’s not, Comedy Central still wins.
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