Not long into Trevor Noah first Stern Show visit on Monday, Howard realized his guest was one of the hardest-working entertainers in show business. Born to a poor black woman and a white man in apartheid South Africa where racial segregation was enforced by law, his childhood was complicated to say the least, but the obstacles he had to overcome forged in him an incredible work ethic. Whether he was charging his classmates money to wait in the lunch line at school or making a half-dozen comedy albums before taking his talents to America, he never stopped hustling.
Now, the 35-year-old comedian and Emmy-winning TV host is on top of the world. He’s selling out stand-up specials at Madison Square Garden and hosting “The Daily Show” five nights a week on Comedy Central. Still, he doesn’t dare stop to catch his breath.
“I worked seven days a week for two years,” Trevor told Howard on Monday. “I’m terrified of being broke again. I’m perpetually terrified of that.”
He said part of his outlook stemmed from the American way of life in which one seemingly never has enough to feel secure, but another part comes from lessons taught to him by his mother, who worked tirelessly for everything she ever had.
Howard was fascinated by the story of his mother, who knew she wanted to have a baby and wound up asking her Swiss-German neighbor—Trevor’s father—to help conceive one. “She wanted something that would be hers. She lived in a world where nothing was hers and she wanted her thing that she could love and would love her unconditionally,” Trevor explained.
“My mom in that moment only thought, ‘The government says I’m not allowed to be with a white guy. Well, then I’m going to be with a white guy,’” he continued.
As he recounted in his bestselling 2016 autobiography “Born a Crime,” Trevor’s childhood woes didn’t stop there and his mom eventually married another man who could be extremely abusive. He told Howard his stepfather actually shot his mother multiple times, permanently disfiguring her face in the process, and never went to prison for his crimes.
Howard wondered how Trevor wasn’t filled with rage considering all the injustices he and his mother were forced to endure.
“I was definitely angry. I had to work through that anger,” Trevor told Howard.
However, Trevor’s mother advised him not to hold onto that anger. “She said something that terrified me. She said, ‘If you don’t work through that anger, you will become the abusive man you hate,’” he recalled.
While Trevor doesn’t talk to his stepfather anymore, he still has a relationship with his biological father. Howard wondered if he would ever consider following in his dad’s footsteps if a woman asked him to help her conceive a no-strings-attached child.
“I think I might,” Trevor said.
“Really? I bet you’re gonna get a lot of email after this interview,” Howard joked.
Despite being so recognizable, Trevor has managed to keep many of his romantic relationships out of the tabloids. He told Howard he meets women “everywhere” but flies below the radar because he’s not looking to date other celebrities.
“I’m lucky. I gravitate toward real people in life,” he said.
“Do you think you’ll ever be married?”
“I’m not opposed to it,” Trevor said, adding, “I don’t know. I can only know where I am now in life and that’s what I’ve learned to enjoy.”
He also believes other people might get more enjoyment out of their own lives if they could just be honest about what they needed from a relationship. “You should have the person love you or hate you for who you are, not who you portray yourself to be,” Trevor told Howard. “How many people go into like a used car salesman, bullshitting about who they are?”
Howard agreed. “That’s why I’m an advocate for living together before you get married,” he said.
“I’m a big advocate for not living together ever, even if you’re married,” Trevor responded. “I think one of the biggest reasons people get divorced and relationships breakup is because of this cohabiting bullshit that we’ve come to believe is the way relationships are supposed to be.”
For the moment, stand-up comedy is the closest thing Trevor has to a wife. He told Howard Chris Rock has encouraged him to tour less and enjoy his life more, but he still performs 80 to 90 dates a year. Thankfully, Trevor has little trouble writing an abundance of material—that’s because when he first got started in stand-up he mistakenly believed he was supposed to deliver a fresh set every night.
“I’ve kept that [skill], luckily. I can write jokes fairly quickly,” Trevor said.
Some comedians have complained about political correctness in recent years and Howard wondered if that ever bothers Trevor or constrained his joke-writing process in any way.
“Obviously, as a comedian we love just saying the thing you’re not supposed to say … but now we live in a world where people want and need some sort of tentpole of, like, sanity,” Trevor told him, adding, “Comedy can only be as crazy and risky as the world is not, that’s what I’ve found.”
Howard wondered how Trevor decides which material is best for stand-up and which was best for “The Daily Show.”
“It’s completely different,” Trevor told him, admitting he was frustrated early on when he couldn’t figure out how to use his best TV jokes on stage.
“‘The Daily Show’ exists in a wonderful state of reacting to what is happening, providing context—in that moment—and making jokes in that world,” he explained. “And then when I do stand-up I now enjoy taking it to a place where it has nothing to do with what’s happening now … it’s a joke.”
Trevor walked Howard through his “Daily Show” workday, which involves reading the news in the morning and collaborating with his writing staff all afternoon to produce 22 minutes of fresh topical comedy every single weekday. His process has evolved since taking over Jon Stewart’s news desk in 2015, and now he saves time by skipping cable news.
“Cable news in America is not news, so I don’t watch it anymore. It’s opinion,” he explained. “I say this as someone who grew up in a world where news was boring and informative.
As the legend goes, Stewart decided Noah should be his successor after seeing him perform on David Letterman’s show. He then invited him to be a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and the rest is history. Howard wondered if Trevor thought those rumors were true and Jon had courted him in a Machiavellian sort of way.
“He is brilliant enough to be that person. I don’t know. It felt a little bit like Willy Wonka,” Trevor said.
Trevor said he and Stewart still talk, but only about life and never about the show because he made Jon a promise before taking over that he’d never come to him for that kind of advice. “The thing that he always liked, he liked that I wasn’t going to try and do Jon Stewart. He liked that I was going to let his legacy live as his legacy,” Noah explained.
Jon did give him one kernel of cautionary wisdom before handing over the reins, however. “He said this show deserves a host who is not angry,’” Trevor recounted. “He said enjoy that you still can make jokes. Enjoy that you can find a way to use humor to dissect what’s happening because he said a day will come when you become so angry and frustrated that you don’t think anything is funny anymore.”
When Trevor finally did take over “The Daily Show” he was still virtually unknown to U.S. audiences but had already released a string of successful comedy albums in South Africa. Howard wondered if it was difficult for him to give up fame in Africa and return to relative obscurity in the States.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Trevor said to Howard’s surprise.
“As a stand-up comedian, if I could make people not know who I was every time I got on stage that would be the perfect life to live because now I have all the experience I garnered from life but none of the expectation,” he continued.
Trevor can no longer enjoy anonymity in the states now, either, but he admits his newfound fame does come with a few nice perks. For starters, he no longer has to worry about how to pay the bills.
“I’ve learned to enjoy having money,” he told Howard. “I do work hard for it. I’ve earned every cent. I’ve also never robbed anyone to get it.”
Additionally, he’s been able to meet some of the people who inspire him, including not only Rock and Stewart but also Oprah Winfrey and Dave Chappelle, who he said have each given him valuable advice.
Chappelle’s words of wisdom came when Trevor got nervous before opening up for him during his 2017 residency at Radio City Music Hall. “I was like, ‘Dave, what am I even doing here? … I don’t even know if I’m funny enough to be here,” Trevor told Howard. “Dave said, ‘Look, man, you don’t understand something. You’re not here because you’re funny—I know 100 funny motherfuckers out there—you’re here because you’re interesting.'”
“He said anyone can be funny, not everybody can be interesting,” Noah continued. “So, that changed my perspective on silence. Now, if I can hear that an audience is listening, I’m engaged.”
“Wow, that is a great piece of advice,” Howard said, adding that one of the things he’s always loved about Chappelle is how interesting he is.
“He’s the most interesting man I’ve ever met,” Trevor agreed. “Many people are funny … What makes Dave Chappelle Dave Chappelle is that he’s interesting. It’s how he sees the world between the jokes.”
Another burgeoning celebrity both Howard and Trevor are fascinated by is 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who was recently a “Daily Show” guest.
“I fell in love with her from your interview … that kid is a dynamo,” Howard told Trevor, though he couldn’t understand why so many people are attacking her.
“That’s what politics has become now … we’re no longer able to separate human beings from the beliefs we may hold,” Trevor said. “All she’s saying is let’s save the planet.” He admitted there have “always been assholes in life” but believes the internet may have exacerbated the problem. “Social media has rewarded the negativity and not the positivity.”
Trevor’s job forces him to tackle serious and often depressing subjects on a daily basis, but he told Howard he still has plenty of reasons to be happy. In addition to “The Daily Show” and his ongoing “Loud & Clear” comedy tour, which stops through Madison Square Garden on Friday, he’s also thrilled to be producing an upcoming movie about an eight-year-old chess champion.
“I’m truly blessed. You ask me why I’m so positive—how could I not be? Life only gets better for me,” Trevor said. “Considering where I came from, I only should be having a good time.”
Click here for Trevor Noah’s “Loud & Clear” tour info and tune into “The Daily Show” weeknights at 11 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.