Trevor Noah and Heidi Gardner Talk Comedy, Covid and College

If you have entered any major Amherst College building over the past week, you may have come face to face with award-winning comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah — or rather, an eerie cardboard cutout of him. The two-dimensional cardboard figures of Noah scattered throughout campus finally came to life last night, Feb. 23, over Zoom. The college partnered with four other small colleges — Smith College, Union College, Middlebury College and Skidmore College — to virtually host Noah in a 45-minute Q&A with Heidi Gardner, a cast member on Saturday Night Live. The event was attended by over 2,200 across the five colleges.

In addition to his work on The Daily Show, Noah, who was born in South Africa at the end of apartheid, has published a variety of work speaking to his experiences growing up, as well as commentary on current social and political landscapes. His autobiography Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood immediately became a New York Times bestseller and he has also seen success in stand-up comedy, with nine comedy specials to his name.

Noah’s Q&A is one of a series of different talks and conversations that will be hosted by the college this spring. Other speaking events coming soon including LitFest speakers, who will appear next week, and other thinkers like civil and women’s rights activist Angela Davis and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

At the Q&A, Gardner and Noah covered a host of topics ranging from the culture of The Daily Show to how Noah feels he has changed since his twenties.

Gardner kicked off the conversation by asking about the writing process of The Daily Show — and how it has changed in the time of Covid-19. Noah described the process: “It’s like we’re doctors doing an operation,” explaining that with each episode comes a new need to strike a precise balance between political commentary and comedy.

Noah thinks about this balance carefully. When Gardner asked how he approaches the intersection between politics and comedy, he said, “I don’t think the two intersect per se. I think comedy is a tool that I use to dissect politics. One thing I love about comedy is that comedy has to be honest.” He noted that when people laugh at something, it usually means that there is a seed of truth in that joke, which he has found to be the asset of comedy in articulating his political and social commentary.

The Daily Show has been around since 1996 and was formerly hosted by Craig Kilborn and then Jon Stewart. Noah took over in 2015 after Stewart retired. As with many late-night talk shows, it aims to deliver news headlines with comedy and some analysis. Regarding how the show decides on what to cover, Noah tries to address the following: “What is the news that is going to affect people whether they like it or not, we have to talk about that … and then what is the news that might not affect people, but … is just interesting to know.” Beyond just what content The Daily Show aims to cover, Noah also described the particular atmosphere he is trying to create each time he sits behind his desk.

“When I’m making an episode … what I’m trying to do is bring you into a conversation that I’m genuinely having with my friends and my college and that involves everything,” he said.

As with most things, late-night talk shows have looked much different in the Covid-19 era. The Daily Show has been no exception. In March 2020, in compliance with health and safety guidelines, The Daily Show announced that it would no longer host a live studio audience as a part of its production and instead, introduced its new online-only alter-ego, The Daily Social Distancing Show. Noah noted, “I do miss talking to an audience.”

Another loss to the pandemic has been one of the central elements of the show’s writing process: the writer’s room, which had been the primary locale for brainstorming and civil (though sometimes heated) back-and-forths.

Despite the losses, Noah has tried to maintain a level outlook on the pandemic situation: “If this is how it’s going to be, then I may as well adapt and find my joy within this new show.”

Gardner then turned the Q&A toward a discussion that was more specifically applicable to the mostly college-age audience. Gardner asked how Noah feels he has changed since being a 20-year-old. He explained that when he was 20, he thought he could solve all of the world’s problems. At 37 years old now, Noah has come to see himself as “a part of the problem” so he sees change as something that starts with himself.

Noah ended the Q&A asking for “one favor” from the college students in the virtual audience: “You are in a place where the very concept is to learn new ideas, challenge people on ideas, and engage with different ideas,” he urged, “Talk to people from different walks of life, live with them, learn about them.”