Well, he's not a nobody, the South African comedian Trevor Noah, selected to replace Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's iconic, must-see parody newscast, The Daily Show.
To judge by a lot of U.S. media and TV-industry reaction on Monday, you'd think he'd been plucked from a high-school auditorium somewhere and given the high-profile job by a wild and crazy TV executive. As so often with the U.S. entertainment industry and its audience, anyone who has achieved anything outside of America is thought to be utterly unknown and possibly unskilled.
Noah might be a relative newcomer to U.S. television, but at age 31 he's been in show business, mainly TV, for almost 15 years. Even a cursory glance at his extensive résumé tells you that as a teenager he was an actor in a South African soap opera, then a reality-TV host, a radio-show host, a TV chat-show host, a successful stand-up comedian, a popular participant on those BBC-TV panel shows in which current affairs topics are analyzed and mocked, and he's been doing appearances on American TV for several years. Yes, he only started contributing to the The Daily Show in December, but he's vastly experienced.
A lot has been made, too, of the cornerstone of his comedy act – his mixed-race heritage. His father is a white Swiss and his mother a black Xhosa. But spend a few minutes watching and listening to Noah and you soon realize that's not really his schtick. It's just a starting point. His subject is ignorance. And he's at his sharpest when he's mocking the ignorance of some Americans about the world, about other countries and other perspectives, about race, about everything that isn't inside their tiny, limited box of personal experience. As such, he's a brilliant choice to replace Jon Stewart.
He's an exotic choice, but it's highly unlikely his core comedy approach will be all about race. Larry Wilmore has made comedy about race the anchoring aspect of his persona and comedic mindset in what was Stephen Colbert's slot, immediately after The Daily Show. Noah cannot be about race only. Possibly Chris Rock was just wrong when he responded to the news of Noah's appointment on Twitter with, "Thank you President Obama." A Daily Show that was heavily race-centric would wither.
And it's not as if Noah arrived in the U.S. three months ago and might not be attuned to the nuance of its full spectrum of politics and culture. A five-minute appearance he did on Late Show with David Letterman in 2013 was a small masterpiece of insight into the mercurial subtleties of everything – race, class, politics and general weirdness – in urban America. It's built around him being mistaken for a Mexican and it displays an intuitive grasp of what is beneath surface assumptions and prejudice.
What also emerges from even a glancing familiarity with Noah's work – a lot is available on YouTube and through Netflix – is a rare gift for language (he speaks six languages, apparently), accents and an ability to contort his face into expressions of amusement, shock and feigned outrage. This amounts to precisely one of the key skills required to fill Jon Stewart's shoes on The Daily Show. There are times when Stewart is at his most effective not when he's lecturing politicians or the public, or finger-wagging at pompous cable-news pundits, but when he's channelling the everyday, jaw-dropped bafflement of ordinary, intelligent viewers at the news of the day and how the U.S media cover it.
While The Daily Show has much-deserved praise for the way it has tutored a generation in being media-savvy and judicious about how to interpret media coverage, a lot of its humour is broad, sometimes coarse and outright goofy. That's essential.
Noah is on-board with that. In an interview with Interview magazine two years ago, he was asked, "What is the purpose of comedy?" and his reply was blessedly uncomplicated: "The first purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. Anything deeper is a bonus. Some comedians want to make people laugh and make them think about socially relevant issues, but comedy, by the very nature of the word, is to make people laugh. If people aren't laughing, it's not comedy. It's as simple as that."
Excellent. He's ideal. Smart, cosmopolitan, not a one-note comedian and committed to being funny, first and foremost.