Trevor Noah is the outsider that U.S. television needed

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

rabble is expanding our Parliamentary Bureau and we need your help! Support us on Patreon today!

Keep Karl on Parl

Americans of leftish tendencies are, understandably, suffering late night Jon Stewart withdrawal, since he left The Daily Show this fall. The Trevor Noah patch hasn't worked all that well. Progressive (or pwogwessive, in Alexander Cockburn's coinage) sites like say "He has no bite, no message -- and has let Fox News off the hook;" he "lets the powerful run free" and the show "is a train wreck." It makes you realize how much Stewart meant to viewers.

Media historian Todd Gitlin, who was president of a 1960s leftist legend, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) says "those guys" on The Daily Show kept him going through the grim "W" years after 9/11, till the coming of Obama. Stewart, aside from being very funny, turned out to be a formidable intellect. He took on neo-cons not just about politics but economics and often rattled them. He also laid some tracks down, I'd argue, for a post-Cold War, non-doctrinaire left-wing politics. You could see him working on it.

He was also viscerally American, took 9/11 very personally, and rallied to the cause of snubbed veterans and first responders. Noah is South African; he'd ring false if he claimed the same passions. He has an impish, ingratiating, mischievous smile, which is also his overall style. He stands at a distance from U.S. politics, though it of course matters to him, as to all the world. Like BBC America, he deals with U.S. news and uses American experts -- which underlines his outsider status. He's also, by the way, brought an element of sex into the show's humour, which makes you realize it wasn't part of Stewart's repertoire.

That outside view is really Noah's strength. Take this week's Republican candidates' debate. It was harrowing. You could picture any of these guys (except maybe the unelectable Rand Paul) vaporizing the world out of pique, short-sightedness, ego, ignorance or religious zeal. And there's Noah, with his angelic grin, saying, "I'm sorry, these people are hilarious." Take a breath, folks. It's true, apocalypse beckons -- as it often has before. Then he skewers them all in that gentle way. It's hard for American comics to stay calm; their anger at the betrayal of their own patriotism by these dolts tends to preclude it. Even the satirist's saint, Mark Twain, maintained a bemused detachment on the horror of race at home -- in Huck Finn or Pudd'nhead Wilson. But he sort of lost it over the abuse of U.S. power abroad, late in life. Noah retains that useful distance.

He's of another generation (31 to Stewart's 53) which is also something Americans and the rest of us need. Every idealistic cohort gets its chance to perfect the world, if they're lucky; and they always fail, at least relatively. What then? They step aside and let the next crew take a shot. The newbies can grouse about their elders' failures or pick up whatever remnants look useful -- and so it goes. This isn't just about Noah adding new viewers in the valuable 18-24 demographic, as Vinay Menon pointed out here. It's what history requires if any progress is ever to be made: keep learning, keep failing, try something else now.

So U.S. TV, especially its pwogs, needed an outsider (check) and a new generation (check). But it also, it turns out unexpectedly, needed a South African. Here's what I mean.

You think your country has a race problem? Ever hear of apartheid? You think you were conned into believing you'd finally solved it by electing a black president? Ever hear of Nelson Mandela? He was in prison for 27 years and when he got out became president in a land where non-whites hadn't ever voted! You think you're disappointed at how little has changed, so that you need a Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps more than ever? Do you know how little has changed in South Africa so that the Black majority may in many ways be worse off than they were under apartheid? Yet you want some source of hope and resiliency? The people of South Africa still adore the now-departed Mandela and are grateful for what he did, even as they battle on to achieve what he didn't.

Trevor Noah may be the essential Keep Calm and Carry On guy, and also the ideal U.S. court jester, post-Obama. You don't always get what you want.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Elvert Barnes/flickr

rabble is expanding our Parliamentary Bureau and we need your help! Support us on Patreon today!

Keep Karl on Parl

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.