As American viewers weigh in on Trevor Noah’s debut as the new host of the “The Daily Show,” South Africans are already giving him a standing ovation – even though the show has yet to air here.
The debut episode will officially air tonight in the rainbow nation. Some 5 million South Africans – in a country of 53 million – have access to digital satellite television, but show clips are already being shared freely online and both Mr. Noah and “The Daily Show” are trending on South African social media.
"He’s played his cards exactly right," says John Vlismas, a fellow South African comedian. “The fact that Trevor's a comedian on the American stage who isn’t American, that’s something to celebrate.”
Noah’s starring role has stirred national pride in a country that's struggling with its own identity on the world stage since the death of Nelson Mandela almost two years ago. He was hand-picked by former host Jon Stewart to steer one of America’s most cherished satirical shows, giving South Africans a new figure to stand behind.
It was a chance, as Mr. Vlismas puts it, to see "a South African on an international stage who is achieving, not holding a picture of [Mandela]."
But Noah’s foreignness was also a point of debate when his appointment was announced this past spring. For his overwhelmingly liberal audience, Mr. Stewart was a political moral compass and an American treasure, and many questioned whether Noah could replace him. After controversial tweets from his past were revealed, South Africans quickly jumped to his defense, accusing American critics of being overly sensitive and politically correct.
Still, South Africans worried that Noah would not be accepted by US viewers.
"It’s an intimate relationship that Jon Stewart built," Mr. Vlismas says.
Judging by initial reviews, Americans are willing to give Noah a chance, mostly because he has not changed much of the old format. As The New York Times’ James Poniewozik put it, “[Noah] could run the software without crashing.” The Hollywood Reporter agreed, saying “No memories of Stewart and his storied reign have been usurped or replaced. Nor, however, have they been sullied.”
Noah chose content that Stewart might have produced were he still in the anchor’s chair: the Pope's US visit, the discovery of water on Mars, and House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation. Yet one of Noah’s biggest selling points, according to Comedy Central executives, was his international perspective – a plus he could have easily exploited on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.
At that meeting, just across town from Comedy Central's studios, the likes of Russia’s Vladmir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and South Africa’s own Jacob Zuma took to the stage to espouse on international issues that are central to American interests.
Noah’s most global moment, instead, came up during his opening monologue, when he took a brief moment to reflect on his rise: "Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa, I never dreamt about hosting this show."
And judging from the digital fistbumps among South Africans today, neither did they.