The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: A Thoughtful Blend of News and Entertainment
I recently wrote this paper for a college course. The assignment was to take notes on four episodes of a television satire program and write a critical analysis of the program using readings discussed in class. I’m currently working on some new projects but in the meantime, I thought some people might enjoy reading my non-sports writing.
Premiering in 1996, The Daily Show is a satirical late-night talk show that frequently touches on political and cultural topics. The longest-running show on Comedy Central, The Daily Show has won twenty-four Primetime Emmy Awards and, according to Comedy Central (2017), performs particularly well amongst younger and more educated audiences, as well as through digital and social platforms. Over its more than twenty years on television, The Daily Show has had three different hosts. While Jon Stewart, who took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, is largely responsible for growing the program into the mainstream success it is today (Goodman, 2004), Trevor Noah has continued the tradition of satirizing current events in his tenure since 2015.
The modern version of the program consists of three main segments which remain consistent in their order across episodes. First is Noah’s take on current events, highlighted by his main story of the day, which is often but not always preceded by a few smaller news stories. In this segment, Noah appears by himself and combines humor and storytelling to inform his audience on things happening in the world. Following this is the correspondent segment, when one of the show’s correspondents appears either alongside Noah, via greenscreen, or through a pre-packaged video. The correspondent is presented as a specialist on an issue and discusses it while combining humor and often exaggerated antics. Finally, in the interview section, Noah brings on an outside guest for a conversation regarding that person’s work, and typically, societal issues at large. In contrast to the prior two segments, the interview is presented with a more serious tone throughout.
In The Daily Show, Noah satisfies the awareness instinct by providing his audience with information beyond their experience while also fulfilling the primary tasks of journalists as described by Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) including those of the authenticator, sense maker, and watchdog. However, as Baym (2005) points out, The Daily Show also incorporates elements of comedy to attract an audience dissatisfied with television punditry and asks critical questions of people and institutions that would not be expected of a typical television news program. Under the guise of “fake news”, the program allows Noah to act as a cynical insider and bring parts of culture to a level of conscious awareness, one of Koziski’s (1984) main attributes of a comedian.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah embraces its role in the modern media landscape, blurring the line between news and entertainment as Noah uses humor to convey underlying truths of the world while refusing to give up his subjectivity and personal values.
This analysis mainly uses the works of Kovach and Rosenstiel, Baym, and Koziski. Both Kovach and Rosenstiel and Baym deal with the journalism industry and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with it. Kovach and Rosenstiel describe a crisis of credibility where a majority of people prefer objective news sources but see journalism as not living up to that promise. Baym takes this a step further by stating that particularly younger audiences are less satisfied by TV news and twenty-four-hour punditry. He argues that this frustration is contributing to a rise of late-night comics which now play serious roles in political communication and are helping revive critical inquiry in journalism.
Baym also discusses how comedians are uniquely able to convey information to society. This is a topic Koziski also goes into detail about, suggesting that comedians are sensitive cultural critics skilled at finding connections and bringing them to light. Baym instead writes that by rejecting the conventions of journalism, programs such as The Daily Show can avoid being manipulated into focusing on prepared sound bites. In this way, because comedians do not intend to be an objective source of news, they have the ability to be more targeted in their conclusions.
Lastly, Kovach and Rosenstiel deal with the fundamental principles of journalism. This includes statements that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, that it serves the people, and that journalists function as monitors of power and leaders of public discussion. Koziski describes similar values key to comedians, who are tasked with bringing parts of culture to a level of conscious awareness, which brings a new cultural focus. Koziski also mentions how comedians are particularly adept in conversations on topics that are not easily discussed. Noah’s ability to combine these elements of journalism with the particular affordances of comedy allows for his success.
A key aspect of The Daily Show’s ability to blend news and comedy is how the show presents itself simultaneously as mimicking traditional television news programs while also making its goal of entertainment abundantly clear. In the show’s opening sequence, the date appears in front of a cityscape. Music similar to that of other news programs plays in the background. The set consists of a large news desk surrounded by maps, globes, and images of Manhattan. Noah always appears wearing a suit and tie.
However, while all of this sounds official, the introduction also features a faux-serious voice announcing “from Comedy Central’s world headquarters in New York” with an image of the Statue of Liberty arching backwards to avoid being hit as these words fly across the screen. Noah typically enters clapping and waving to the audience. He thanks them for coming, and on one occasion, says “let’s do this thing” as he instructs everyone to be seated. Just the idea of a live studio audience is antithetical to a pure news program, and the combination of all these cues serves to convey a program designed to cover the news but in satirical and entertaining ways.
However, just as journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, The Daily Show’s opening segment always starts from a place of truth. The stories selected are all factual, appealing to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s idea of the awareness instinct, our basic human impulse of needing to know happenings beyond our own experience. The program makes frequent usage of video clips both to inform about an issue and to show how it has been covered by the media, and it is only through this lens that Noah provides his commentary. When he does offer his opinion, it is made quite obvious, such as in the intro graphic to “The Magical, Wonderful Road to Impeachment”, a recurring segment on the presidency of Donald Trump, which features key government figures skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, including Trump as the cowardly lion and Mitch McConnell as the scarecrow lacking a brain.
The idea of balance is very important to The Daily Show. Larger segments are broken apart by informative clips, Noah’s rational reading of the situation, and comedy which makes heavy use of cultural references. Even amongst the quicker news stories that open many episodes, there is typically a balance between political issues Noah satirizes and makes substantive arguments concerning and more lighthearted stories which allow Noah to make what Freud (1905) would consider non-tendentious jokes which do not require any individuals or groups to be meaningfully attacked.
This allows the viewer to have a different experience than they would from watching most news programs which do not intend to provide humor. Noah is personable — by addressing the audience at the beginning of the program, he creates a dialogue, framing his show as a conversation rather than him simply reading the news. Not limited by objectivity, Noah expresses his genuine emotions to the content, often laughing with his audience at the absurdity of video clips, such as when he describes a Democratic primary debate as “wild” and acts impressed by the energy and level of hostility between the candidates. By responding to the news in ways similar to the audience, he comes across as a likeable, normal person, which helps to strengthen his bond with the audience. Using Kovach and Rosenstiel’s theory of the interlocking public, this allows Noah to turn his audience into interested listeners as he gains their trust.
All the while, he acts as both an authenticator and a sense-maker capable of turning information into knowledge in his discussion of complicated topics like COVID-19 and PFAs or “forever chemicals.” Koziski writes about the comedian’s skill for making connections, and Noah exhibits this through cultural references that make concepts more accessible while simultaneously providing entertainment and excitement. Noah additionally uses his role as a comedian as license to openly discuss issues such as race and to be heavily critical of government officials and public figures when appropriate. In one episode, he goes as far as to accuse Kamala Harris of gaslighting the American public after she endorsed Joe Biden for president without making any reference to her previous accusations that Biden was a friend of racists. It’s this type of commentary that Baym suggests is a unique capability of comics, writing that “unlike traditional news, which claims an epistemological certainty, satire is a discourse of inquiry, a rhetoric of challenge that seeks through the asking of unanswered questions to clarify the underlying morality of a situation” (p. 266). Whereas traditional news networks must maintain a strong working relationship with institutions to ensure access, The Daily Show does not have these responsibilities. In airing on Comedy Central, Noah is able to voice his beliefs with a greater deal of freedom, and he carefully constructs arguments and jokes in ways that allow him to do so while keeping viewer tuned in.
Even the order of the segments themselves serve this purpose. By opening with major stories in the news featuring Noah himself and heavier use of satire, Noah invites audiences in with the timeliest stories like to draw interest from the largest group of people. Following this, the pivot to the correspondent section is when the show begins to be more selective about the topics discussed, switching from a more politics-based program to social and cultural issues. This is where the real values of Noah and his correspondents take center stage as comedy is used as entry point to talk about the representation of women and African Americans in history and the unique perspectives of the LGBTQ community among other things. While these segments are still based in humor and are conversational in nature, they exist largely to draw attention to and educate about issues that are more far-reaching, existing beyond the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
The interview section takes this a step further, as by this point, comedy is almost entirely removed from the equation. The hope here is that over the course of the show, Noah has built a strong enough relationship with the viewer that they will remain interested throughout what are detailed and thought-provoking interviews, even if it may be more intellectually challenging than earlier segments.
There are several elements to Noah’s interviews that distinguish them from those of fellow late-night talk show hosts. The guests themselves do not fit the typical model of A-list celebrities and are instead are more leaders in their fields. Instead of actors and musicians, the guests in the episodes studied were a combination of writers, politicians, and athletes. Three of the four guests were black, along with all three correspondents, which additionally shows the program’s commitment to minority representation. Content-wise, the conversations were far less about storytelling and self-promotion than examinations of that person’s career work and views on relevant issues. Noah is unafraid to ask critical and difficult questions and, in stark contrast to some other interviewers, rarely interrupts his guests, often allowing them to develop their answers and speak for a minute or more at one time. The interviews themselves are also more longform, clocking in at between ten and twelve minutes without a commercial break in between, another thing one would not expect to find in a traditional television program neatly separated into seven or eight-minute bits.
In a world where information is available instantaneously at an individual’s fingertips and satisfaction with traditional sources of information have declined, the most valuable qualities to succeed in the modern news media landscape are being able to approach situations with a unique perspective and entertain while informing the public on important stories and issues for society moving forward. With The Daily Show, Trevor Noah is able to accomplish both of these things. As a comedian coming from a stand-up background, Noah can establish a strong rapport with his audience, earning their trust as he entertains with a combination of satire and commentary that clarifies situations and utilizes connections to enhance understanding. Despite not presenting himself as an objective source of information, Noah ends up following the ideals of journalism more closely than television pundits who participate in fiery debates over anything and everything. Through critical analysis, Noah helps make sense of a complicated world, serving as a community leader and curator of information. And by balancing the various goals of the show in engaging ways, he gives himself the freedom to keep things light or go in deep when appropriate. An excellent representation of the way media has developed over the last few decades, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah serves as a model for how to blend the arts of journalism and entertainment to deliver a product with broad appeal and substantive meaning.
Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. Political Communication, 22(3), 259–276.
Comedy Central. (2016, July 11). “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” reaches a multiplatform audience of 7.9 million viewers during 2Q 2016. Comedy Central Press. https://press.cc.com/press-release/2016/07/11/press-the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-reaches-multiplatform-audience-of-79-million-viewers-during-2q-2016
Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and their relation to the subconscious. Deuticke.
Goodman, Tim. (2004, Oct. 29). Jon Stewart, seriously here to stay. SF Gate. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Jon-Stewart-seriously-here-to-stay-2678273.php
Kovach, B., Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. Crown.
Koziski, S. (1984). The standup comedian as anthropologist: Intentional culture critic. Journal of Popular Culture, 18(2), 57–76.