By Thobile Hans
While I was queueing for my ticket for the “Daily Show with Trevor Noah” at the corner of 11th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City, I heard a woman’s voice yelling in IsiZulu, Haibo (hell, no).
Immediately my patriotism and journalistic instinct kicked-in. My brief search brought me to three young South African accountants who had been traversing the United States since January. They told me they had just finished a training they had been attending in different states, but the trip couldn’t be complete without converging in NYC and seeing the famous South African comedian in the flesh.
I invited myself into their conversation; they seemed to also be pleased to meet someone from the motherland. I told them it couldn’t have been a better day to come, as the show was on its seventh month and 100th episode. A few hours earlier Forbes published a review of the show on its website. It felt odd to see a television program reviewed along the lines of “reaches 100th episode.” That’s something popular with politicians back home.
I was about to see more South Africans in attendance. Sherwin Bryce-Pease from the state broadcaster, South African Broadcasting Corporation, came to “The Daily Show” for the first time despite being the New York correspondent for eight years. The South African Sunday Times sent a reporter just for this one assignment. At the time when the Rand is at an all-time low, it didn’t make business sense to me. On top of that, Noah has a reputation for refusing one-on-one interviews.
Surely, the Sunday Times believed in the spirit of Ubuntu, humanity in IsiZulu, and thought Noah’s team would be sympathetic and grant them an exclusive interview. We are a nation that follows local talent wherever it is. Even when a veteran playwright and actor John Kani got a simple cameo in “Captain America: Civil War as King T’Chaka”, that was big news in the country.
My publication, Forbes Africa, tried and failed a few times to secure an interview with Noah after he was announced as the successor of Jon Stewart, months before his debut show. Noah’s publicists are still not budging; they said we are free to ask him questions at the press junket, but sorry, no exclusive interviews. I have come to know they are dishonest because Bryce-Pease got him for 30 minutes before the junket. That must have been an excruciating pain to those who flew a journalist over.
In South Africa, Noah has been a household name since the days of “The Daywalker,” a one-man show that spring-boarded him to the international audience in 2009. Urban Brew Studios produced his television show “Tonight with Trevor Noah” for M-Net and was well received by many African countries on the service. The Comedy Central had so much influence in his African version satire.
Without a doubt the Emmy award winning African comedian is a star among his own people, but the U.S. journalists have none of it. Many casted doubts on him even before he started the show.
“The Disappointing Shallowness of Trevor Noah Daily Show” and “Trevor Noah Has No Bite” were among the headlines seeking to explain why the show is bad. But there’s one critic who bucked the trend —the music and television critic Ken Tucker. At least Tucker acknowledged Noah’s background and unique comedy style and that he will never be his predecessor.
Forbes’ contributor Hayley C. Cuccinello wrote a balanced critique of Noah’s performances, but like many she doubts he will fill Stewart’s big shoes. Noah said that’s not his job.
Bad reviews followed and are still continuing to this day. One would conclude the initial decision by the Dubai-based OSN not to broadcast the show was informed by the bad reviews. OSN‚ the biggest TV subscription service in the Middle East and North Africa, has changed its stance. It called Noah to launch Comedy Central on May 7. U.S. journalists didn’t bother to write a brief on this.
On the night I watched Noah live in New York. He was fired-up. I have known him for taking a mickey out of African politicians. He lampooned President Jacob Zuma and his former alter ego, Julius Malema. But I think the focus on the broader world politics warrants criticism about his shortcoming on mastering current local affairs. Some say Noah is lacking the “righteous anger” and “gravitas” Stewart had.
At the press junket, Noah replied to the criticism by saying that his style is gingerly. It looked like something that gives him sleepless nights.
“A lot of Americans have only grown accustomed to one type of attack, but there are many different ways to attack something,” he said. “Some creatures don’t have teeth but they are even more deadly. I have never been an angry person but it doesn’t mean I have never been effective at getting people thinking about something or changing their minds or even biting into something. It is just what I do is perceived as not hard in America.”
According to Nielsen Ratings, Noah’s viewership declined by 37 percent from where Stewart left the show. He has roughly 820,000 viewers a night and Stewart averaged 645,000 in 1999 when he started his Daily Show.
When the revered Stewart anointed Noah he must have seen something local critics who were absent at the “100 episodes” press junket are not seeing. Perhaps it’s time to get over it; Noah is here to stay.