Inside Trevor Noah’s Bombshell Decision to Leave ‘The Daily Show’ — and What Comes Next

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On Sept. 29, seven years and a day after assuming his role as host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah requested a few extra minutes during that night’s program. He wanted to thank his audience for sticking with him, which his producers OK’d as long as he kept it brief. There was a lot to get through that evening.

He whipped through the day’s headlines and a remote segment with Ronny Chieng. Then, with guest Iman waiting backstage, Noah leaned into camera. There was nothing in the teleprompter. A script, he reasoned, didn’t feel right for the moment. “Before we go [to commercial],” Noah began, a ball of nerves and excitement. He had been chatting with correspondent Roy Wood Jr. the day before, he told the audience, when Wood reminded him that it was their seventh anniversary on the air. The milestone hit harder than Noah expected. “And I just found myself filled with gratitude for the journey,” he said. “It’s been absolutely amazing, and I found myself thinking about everything we’ve gone through — the Trump presidency, the pandemic, more pandemic — and I realized that after the seven years, my time is up.”

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Trevor Noah was photographed Nov. 9 by Peter Ash Lee at Hudson Yards Loft in New York.

Photographed By Peter Ash Lee

If you listen closely to the telecast that aired a few hours later, you can hear audible gasps from the studio audience and the Daily Show crew. The South African stand-up continued, explaining how, at 38, he wanted to go have other experiences — to travel more, to tour more — but it’s hard to imagine the staff heard anything beyond I’m out of here.

“He starts talking and talking, and I look at Zhubin [Parang, the show’s head writer], like, ‘What is he doing? We’re going to have to edit this,’ ” recalls showrunner Jen Flanz, who, with Parang, was seated at the producers desk just off camera. Soon, they’d realize what was happening and, as she says, “lost all feeling in our bodies.” “Did you know?” he whispered. “Does it look like I knew?” she replied. Four minutes and 40 seconds later, Noah was done, and the two walked over to his desk, as they’d done every act break for years. But with 200 strangers in the studio audience, they wouldn’t have a moment of sincerity. So, Flanz tried to cut the tension the only way she knew how. “We went heavy, are we keeping that?” she joked. “But he couldn’t even look at us,” she says. “He said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and we were like, ‘Let’s finish the taping, let’s get all these people out of here, and then we’ll talk.” Noah’s representatives, most of whom were en route to Toronto, where he’d be filming a Netflix special the following night, were just finding out as well.

“Part of the reason I did it that way is because I didn’t want anybody to be the person who then tells somebody else, who then tells somebody else, who then tells somebody else,” Noah says when we meet at a restaurant near the Daily Show offices the following month. “And this is where we create the thing. [The show] is where we’re together, our space, and so for me, it felt like the most natural way to tell everybody at the same time.”

In the few hours between the taping and air, the staff was assembled. “It was exactly what you think it would be: quick and very quiet,” says Flanz, who started at The Daily Show when Craig Kilborn was the host. “Trevor apologized to everybody, and then, since I was there for the transition from Craig to Jon [Stewart] and Jon to Trevor, I felt pretty confident saying, ‘We’re so lucky that we had Trevor for seven years, but this place is an institution.’ ” There wasn’t much more to say at that point. In the weeks since, the shock has subsided and, as Noah’s Dec. 8 end date nears, many acknowledge that the warning signs were there for anyone who was looking. Even Paramount’s Chris McCarthy, who oversees Comedy Central, insists he knew, deep down, that Noah’s days were numbered.

“Maybe this comes with not being raised in America, but I believe that everything should end,” says Noah. “A lot of American business and American media is just like, ‘Keep it going as long as possible,’ but I think it’s healthy for things to end when they’re still in a good place. I want to leave before I’m burnt out, because there are many other things I’d like to do.”

“The thing I appreciated from the network side was that they always said to me, ‘You’re here as long as you want to be here,’ ” says Noah. Valentino shirt and jacket.

Photographed by Peter Ash Lee

***

The Daily Show was never part of Noah’s plan, much less his dream. In fact, when Stewart first called, back in 2013, about him being an international correspondent on the show, Noah wasn’t interested. Not yet 30, he barely knew who Stewart was, and he certainly didn’t love the idea of derailing a lucrative stand-up career to join an American TV show. But he came around, ultimately appearing on The Daily Show three times before he agreed to what seemed to be a suicide mission to replace Stewart as host.

Then, not 24 hours after his hiring was announced in March 2015, controversy erupted over a few years-old tweets that were seen as sexist and antisemitic. Though Noah had been raised almost exclusively by strong women — including his own single mom, who’d converted to Judaism and bar mitzvahed her son — he wasn’t interested in explaining or apologizing. “Social media and comedy are time stamps of who we were, and if you’re not disgusted by what you did when you look back five, 10 years ago, then I’d argue you haven’t grown,” he said the last time we sat down together in 2019. “But we live in a society where people are more concerned with the platitudes of apologies than they are with the actual change in human beings.”

In the end, Comedy Central stood by its choice, and the news cycle eventually moved on. Noah’s incarnation of The Daily Show premiered Sept. 28, 2015, with Kevin Hart as his first guest. “Nobody wanted to touch me with a 10-foot pole, but Kevin was like, ‘I love comedians, let’s do this,’ and I’m eternally grateful to him for that,” says Noah. Booking got considerably easier over time, and then, as the country became more polarized, hard again. Noah says he’ll run into celebrities at awards shows, and they’ll tell him how much they love the show. “You should come on,” he responds. “And they’re like, ‘No, no,’ and it’s a variety of reasons,” he says. “Some will say, ‘I don’t do politics,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, it doesn’t have to be politics.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I’m afraid I’ll come off as dumb. I don’t know anything about what’s happening in Iran,’ and I’m like, ‘It doesn’t have to be about that.’ I get it, though; in a weird way, the show sort of became a victim of its own success, and people are terrified of everything right now.”

Still, the early days were rockiest, with the series hemorrhaging viewers without Stewart in the chair. “The first iteration, for me, was just getting it to a place where people didn’t think the network was a group of absolute idiots for hiring me,” says Noah. Then came Donald Trump, who proved a better foil than his predecessor, and Noah found his footing. Those at the show felt it, too. “Everything up until election night was Rocky in a training montage,” recalls Wood. “And then, election night 2016, was us stepping in the ring with Apollo Creed.” Viewers — on air and online — and accolades followed. By 2018, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah had muscled into the best variety series Emmy race, where it’s remained every year since. “Once the comments went from ‘The Daily Show sucks!’ to ‘The Daily Show is overrated!’ I knew we were back,” says Flanz.

Noah settled into a routine, too: He’d tape the show Monday through Thursday, then head out on the road, doing stand-up Fridays and Saturdays, only to fly home on Sunday and do it all over again. “You’d think doing a daily show you’d want the weekends off, but doing stand-up comedy in theaters gave him energy,” says Derek Van Pelt, one of Noah’s managers at Mainstay Entertainment. As his popularity grew, those theaters became arenas, and, before he knew it, he was selling out 15,000-seat venues throughout the world. As a matter of distinction, his stand-up was rarely political, in part, he says, “because I don’t think people should exist constantly in politics. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

His late 2016 memoir, Born a Crime, about being born during apartheid, which made his very existence as a mixed-race child illegal, became a New York Times best-seller, sitting on the list for a staggering 26 weeks. In 2018, Paramount announced it would be making a film version, for which Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is still attached to play his mom. That same year, Noah signed a second book deal, which he may finally have time to honor. There were podcasts and speaking gigs, too; and, with whatever free time he had, he’d fly to South Africa to do work with his eponymous foundation, or out west, to Washington state, to meet with Microsoft. Though his chief questions officer title there is new, the tech wiz has been consulting with the company for six years and, through his work with its product development team, has applied for multiple patents. (The latter involve user interfaces for “multiscreen computing devices,” and at least one of them has been granted.)

Referring to Noah’s seeming ability to do everything all at once, Flanz says, “I think I’d always hoped he was just the Energizer Bunny and would go on forever.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many at The Daily Show.

Then the pandemic hit, and so much of what Noah had built came to a screeching halt. Like everyone else, he was confined to his apartment, albeit a 3,600-square-foot Manhattan penthouse. With a cellphone camera and a rainbow wheel of hoodies, he guided viewers through the nation’s darkest days, landing one of Anthony Fauci’s first in-depth interviews and delivering powerful monologues about the police killings of Black Americans that regularly went viral. The Daily Social Distancing Show, as the at-home version was renamed, was so compelling, the network expanded it from 30 minutes to 45. GQ named him newsman of the year, noting at the time, “As a global pandemic and the legacy of American racism dominated newscasts, Noah seemed almost predestined for the moment.”

It doesn’t mean any of it was easy or comfortable, particularly for someone who has openly struggled with his mental health. “I was forced to be me and to welcome people into my world and my space and how I dress, and it was a lot,” he says now. “There was no veneer — I’m just sitting here in my apartment, and we were going through this pandemic together.” Noah has since listed the Hell’s Kitchen pad for $12.95 million, and he’s not yet sure he’ll buy a new one in New York.

“Obviously, the pandemic shattered our day-to-day process, but it also rewrote a lot of our own ideas about what we want out of the day and how hard we want to burn the candle on both ends,” says Parang, who works closely with Noah by day and plays video games with him at night. “We were always one foot in front of the other because we still had to pump out a show every day, but there was this sense of, this is becoming exhausting, and at a deeper level than it ever was before.” For Noah, that realization of, “Oh, maybe this is harder than I’m giving myself permission to express,” came a year or so into the pandemic. And when the world started to open back up, the toll it had taken became that much clearer. He flew to India to do some work with Microsoft this past summer and found himself chafing at how little time he had on the ground. “I found myself realizing just how much I’d missed out on,” he says, trailing off.

Making the show wasn’t as much fun anymore, either. Pre-pandemic, Noah spent very little time alone in his office during the day. “My previous assistant was always running down hallways trying to find me because I was always in other people’s offices, chatting and laughing and coming up with ideas, and we had these big meetings and everybody was there and I loved it,” he says. “Now, everybody in the building has masks and we’re limited in how many people can be there at a given time and where you can or can’t be, and because I’m the host, I’m in this bubble. They’re all like, ‘He cannot get COVID.’ And so, what was already an isolated experience was exacerbated, and all of these things just add up.”

“If he weren’t a comedian, I’d be more shocked,” says correspondent Roy Wood Jr. (right) of Noah’s decision to exit. “But comedians are creative nomads. We settle down for a little while, and then it’s time to go do the next thing.”

“If he weren’t a comedian, I’d be more shocked,” says correspondent Roy Wood Jr. (right) of Noah’s decision to exit. “But comedians are creative nomads. We settle down for a little while, and then it’s time to go do the next thing.”

Courtesy of MATT WILSON/COMEDY CENTRAL

***

The day before Noah’s late September announcement, he had lunch with a pair of Paramount executives — McCarthy and his COO, Keyes Hill-Edgar — where his desire to scale back his Daily Show commitment was purportedly discussed. “We were problem-solving around how to actually make it, I don’t want to say easier, but to give Trevor more flexibility,” says McCarthy, who added Comedy Central to his purview in late 2019 and, though he’d overhauled the team and its comedy output, had deemed Noah and The Daily Show a priority. “And actually, if you talk to Keyes, who was with me when we were walking back to the office after lunch, I said, ‘We lost him.’ I didn’t know [that he’d be making the announcement the very next day], obviously, but I knew that our time was short.” Noah, for his part, won’t discuss the lunch, noting: “I’d never speak about a private meeting because then I would have had a public meeting.”

Eager to quell mounting speculation that the meal had hastened Noah’s decision to leave, McCarthy claims he and Noah had a “bonding moment” the morning after the news hit. “I called him, and he was like, ‘Are you mad at me? I’m sorry,’ and I said, ‘Not at all; I just want to check in on you,’ ” recounts McCarthy, who remains bullish on the joint venture Paramount will maintain with Noah’s Zero Day Productions. “And so, I know it’s easy to put a lens on it and say, ‘Something went wrong,’ but I almost think he needed to do it that way and surprise all of us because he probably was there a couple times before and didn’t get across the line. Plus, anyone who’s spent time with Trevor knows he is a man of the world, he loves new, he loves to be on the road, and, long term, a daily show, four days a week, 40 weeks out of the year, probably wasn’t going to last.”

Nevertheless, Noah had extended his contract for two more years in June, an agreement he admittedly didn’t feel all that beholden to. He tells me he’d once read, with envy, about Conan O’Brien’s early days in late night, when NBC had the then-struggling host on 13-week contracts. “Now that sounds like a great deal to me,” says Noah, who makes eight figures a year at The Daily Show. “I’ve just never found myself particularly enamored by the idea of a constant guaranteed income, and the thing I appreciated from the network side was that they always said to me, ‘You’re here as long as you want to be here.’ ” Implicit in that statement was the very real notion that Comedy Central needed Noah more than he needed the network. Despite a linear audience hovering at fewer than 400,000 nightly viewers, he’d established a massive social footprint — thus far this year, the show has more than 1.8 billion views across social — which was also younger and considerably more diverse.

But as far as Noah and his team are concerned, seven years is a nice run. “At the end of his career, he’s Trevor Noah and, yes, he hosted The Daily Show,” says Van Pelt, “whereas if you host The Daily Show for 25 years, you’re The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, which is not what he is or what we wanted him to be.”

Van Pelt and the other reps have been preparing themselves for this day for some time, though when, exactly, it would come Noah had always kept close to the vest. Even his own family has called him out for keeping things so tightly guarded. Years ago, before one of his two younger half-brothers headed off to university, he said to Noah, only half-joking, “Bro, if you become president or something, please let me know before other people find out.’ ” As for all the apologizing, Noah insists it’s a very South African response, though he’s also aware that his decision to move on impacts others. “And if you could choose a perfect emotion, obviously no one would be sad,” he tells me, “but I’d rather people be sad than people be happy, like ‘Good riddance, that dick is out of the building.’ “

Since that early fall evening, Noah’s reps have been busy working through his next chapter, which included reconfiguring his 2023 tour that kicks off in late January. Though they’d felt it was important to film his forthcoming Netflix special in a 20,000-seat arena — “to show that Trevor’s achieved that status in the stand-up space,” says Van Pelt — they’ll have him back in smaller venues for more dates and lengthier stays in many of the cities he hits next year. “Pre-Daily Show, I used to almost live in a city before I’d do shows,” says Noah, who already speaks seven languages and, with more time on his hands, is eager to learn more. “And I miss knowing where my favorite restaurant in London is. I miss knowing my favorite sandwich shop in Frankfurt, Germany. I miss knowing a great bar to go and watch a sports match in Bangalore, India.” Plus, arenas have never given him energy the way theaters do.

Noah lured Sanaz Yamin, previously part of his management team, to run his Zero Day Productions slightly more than a year ago. In that time, the com­pany’s nine employees, two of whom are based in South Africa, have been prepping more than 30 projects across multiple platforms. There’s a documentary series airing now on MSNBC, along with a scripted project based on Noah’s early days immigrating to the U.S., a video game and a Broadway musical about apartheid with veteran producer Scott Sanders in the works. “Until now, it’s always been balanced against the reality of his schedule, and now we’ll have more of his brain and more of his bandwidth,” says Yamin. She and Mainstay CEO Norm Aladjem, who runs point on Noah’s business, have been busy looking for potential starring vehicles for Noah as well. As Aladjem notes, “I’ve always believed this guy is a movie star, so I’m a dog with a bone now that we finally have a chance to explore that.”

Noah insists he’s willing to try almost anything, though at this stage, he’s much more comfortable with voiceover work and writing screenplays, which he reveals he’s been doing, without offering any specifics. “I’d love to make great movies, and I’d like to act in some of them, but I think stardom is a byproduct of a job well executed, so that’s not something I’m too concerned about,” he says. “If anything, I wouldn’t mind a little less stardom so I can eat a few meals uninterrupted.”

To his perpetual frustration, Noah’s romantic life, real and rumored, has been a source of great interest to the tabloids for years. He once met up with a married couple, both friends of his, and hugged the wife, only to have a photo of the embrace run in the tabloids with questions about the “new woman” in his life. “And then the family calls the husband, like, ‘Oh my God, Trevor’s having an affair with your wife,’ ” he says, “and my friend’s like, ‘I’m in the picture, too,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s not what the tabloids say.’ And it’s just amazing to me how powerful these things are.” When I ask what he makes of the latest headlines, which have him linked to Dua Lipa, he simply leans back in his chair and laughs.

“Stand-up has always been a wonderful outlet for me because The Daily Show exists in a hyperpolitical space,” says Noah.

“Stand-up has always been a wonderful outlet for me because The Daily Show exists in a hyperpolitical space,” says Noah.

Matt Wilson/Netflix

***

After The Daily Show With Trevor Noah wraps, Noah will head to Qatar to catch the World Cup, and then it’s back to South Africa to be with family and friends. The last time he was home was a year or so ago, and he misses his world there immensely.

From there, Noah is more than willing to be part of whatever the next incarnation of The Daily Show entails, be it as a producer, a consultant, a voice or simply an enthusiastic viewer. What he won’t have is a say in who replaces him, a decision that’s being left to the Paramount executives, who are committed to keeping The Daily Show a Comedy Central staple. Despite dramatic declines in linear viewership, the program still managed to bring in nearly $25 million in ad revenue between January and June.

McCarthy suggests his phone has been ringing off the hook with interested parties, though many suspect the network will struggle to lure big names, as it did seven years earlier when it tried and failed to snag Amy Schumer and Chris Rock as Stewart’s successor. Per multiple sources, the plan is to have the show go dark for the remainder of the year, returning in January with a rotation of potential successors, including correspondents like Wood, who’s believed to be among the frontrunners. Asked about the possibility of being elevated, Wood says he won’t give it any thought until Noah has left the chair. “It’s too overwhelming,” he says, “and I don’t want to have that on my mind.”

Since the announcement, Noah has sat with each one of his correspondents — most of whom he handpicked, all of whom he’s close to — and discussed what, exactly, the job entails. He doesn’t want any of them to come in and be surprised in the way he feels he was seven years ago. “I wish someone had told me what a grind it was,” he says now, noting that the responsibilities extend far beyond simply hosting. “You’re also running the show, so everything from HR to designing the set, you’re a part of, and it doesn’t stop when you leave the building. There’s no moment when breaking news happens where I go, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t care.’ No, I have to care; being informed is part of my job.” Noah regularly takes those weekly “How much are you keeping up with the news”-style quizzes in Axios or The New York Times and admits he’s devastated if he gets anything wrong.

When we talk again a few weeks later, I ask him whether he would’ve taken the job had he known what it entailed, and he doesn’t reply right away. “Because I don’t know that the answer is yes,” he says, eventually. “And maybe that’s what saved me, the ignorance, because I am glad that I did it. It’s like, would I go bungee jumping again? I don’t know, but I’m glad I did that, too.”

As Dec. 8 draws closer, Noah’s been cycling through emotions: excited, nostalgic, hopeful and more than a little bit nervous. And though Stewart, whom he has called his “Jewish Yoda,” is among a tiny subset of people who could relate to what he’s going through, Noah doesn’t want to impose. He’s never wanted to impose, which is why the most substantial catch-up the two have had in years was when they bumped into each other on the streets of New York. Still, it’s some early wisdom that his predecessor offered that’s stuck with Noah all these years. “After he announced his departure, Jon said to me, ‘Try to leave before it drains you, before it makes you tired and angry,’ ” recounts Noah. “And I remember going, like, ‘Why would you get tired and angry?’ And he said, ‘It’s different for everybody. Just know that you can leave whenever you want to leave. Your journey is your own.’ “

Inside Trevor Noah’s Bombshell Decision to Leave ‘The Daily Show’ — and What Comes Next

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