Before Trevor Noah was on American TV, the South African transplant was making his name as a stand-up comic, playing lots of U.S. towns and finding some more accommodating than others.
But there was one place where Noah always felt wanted.
“Chicago was one of the few cities that welcomed me when I was a comedian that nobody knew,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this week. “You always remember those places, and you always strive to come back to them. I had a love affair with Chicago long before most of America or other cities had a love affair with me.”
So when it came time for Noah, now the acclaimed host and executive producer of one of TV’s most influential series, to take “The Daily Show” on the road, he knew where to go.
“From the very start of me taking over ‘The Daily Show,’ [Chicago] has been a place where we’ve had some of our best ratings,” Noah said. “I’ve always been attracted to Chicago as a city because in many ways Chicago is a microcosm of what’s happening in America. So I said, ‘If we’re gonna go anywhere, it should be Chicago, to say thank you to the fans. And to hang out there.’ ”
When: 7:30 and 10 p.m. Oct. 20 and 21; 7 and 10 p.m. Oct. 28
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $35 – $75
Tickets to the Oct. 16-19 Athenaeum Theatre tapings of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” are sold out.
Since Noah took over for Jon Stewart on the basic-cable staple in September 2015, “The Daily Show” hasn’t strayed much from its home base at “Comedy Central’s world news headquarters in New York.” The team did broadcast episodes from Philadelphia and Cleveland during the 2016 political conventions, but the four tapings at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre starting Monday mark the first time Noah’s show has traveled to cover not just a fleeting event, but a whole city.
The host and his producers already have been in and out of Chicago this week, preparing material and getting to know what is on Chicagoans’ mind.
“I’m trying to make ‘The Daily Show’ inspired by Chicago,” Noah said. “We’ll give it our all. I hope we do Chicago justice in the week that we have. [The show will] be slightly different. There won’t be a desk. We’ll be breaking out, we’ll be trying different pieces, talking to people we wouldn’t necessarily have access to and speaking about issues that are near and dear to Chicago on a micro level.”
And that doesn’t mean lighthearted joshing about hot dogs and Cubbies.
“It’s no secret that Chicago has a lot of challenges that it faces in regards to education, the relationship between police and minorities, how officials deal with the news around them and the scandal that follows them. And segregation,” he said. “Chicago is the home of many of the things that plague America. So it’s a fascinating place to come to to discover what those issues are and how Chicago is trying to solve them.”
The sold-out TV tapings are just part of Noah’s commitment to the city this month. After the Athenaeum run is done, Noah will stay put to do four stand-up gigs Oct. 20 and 21 at the Chicago Theatre. Then, after returning to New York for another week’s TV shows and swinging through Champaign for a performance Oct. 27, he comes back to the Chicago Theatre for two more shows Oct. 28.
In addition, Chicago will be the second ever host to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library, a “Daily Show” creation first seen in New York in June. It’s a free exhibition devoted to the president’s compulsive, sometimes counter-productive use of social media. The exhibits will be on display from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 20-22 in the Burlington Room inside Union Station, 225 S. Canal.
Noah arrives at a time when his profile in America continues to rise. Though “The Daily Show” was shut out of the major nominations this year and has yet to approach the winning ways of Stewart’s tenure, the Noah incarnation did win its first Emmy last month, for “Between the Scenes,” the digital series compiling the host’s musings during commercial breaks. Last week, Noah’s memoir “Born a Crime” was awarded the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, and it doesn’t get much more American than that.
Comedy Central says the number of “Daily Show” viewers is up 26 percent since the same time last year, and among the late-night talkers, the series trails only “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” in popularity with millennials. In September, Noah agreed to an unusually lengthy contract extension that will keep him at the “Daily Show” desk through 2022.
Like Stewart, Noah has widened his influence by executive producing the show immediately following his own: “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper,” hosted by a quick-witted veteran of Chicago improv. Klepper was hired by Stewart to report for “The Daily Show” but stayed on during the transition and developed a strong rapport with Noah.
“Jordan would find ways to approach the subject from an contrarian point of view and point out the absurdity of whichever argument it was,” Noah said. “And that’s what I enjoyed about him. He didn’t just accept everything as gospel. He didn’t immediately condemn a person for their ideas. And so in many ways I thought that would be good if he ever hosted a show, especially from him being a character.”
Since a rocky start trying to win over viewers accustomed to the revered Stewart, Noah says his “Daily Show” has been finding its own rhythms, fueled largely by his own growing familiarity with America’s ways.
“It makes a world of difference when you are in an experience as opposed to when you are just speaking about it,” he said. “And that’s not to say that I’ve experienced everything in America, but I know that it’s helped that I’ve spent every weekend [doing stand-up] on the road. Like, this past weekend I was in Lincoln, Nebraska; I was in Hamilton, Ohio, and I was in Greenville, South Carolina. When I go to these places I talk to people in random coffee shops, ask people about politics, how they see the world, and you get a really interesting view of how Americans on the ground actually see what’s happening at 30,000 feet. That in many ways has helped inform the show and try to target what we’re trying to speak about or how we’re trying to approach an issue.”
That mission continues next week, in a city that’s been on Noah’s radar since his impoverished youth in apartheid-era South Africa.
“It’s weird because I always knew about Chicago, mostly from TV shows,” Noah said. “For me as a young person growing up, it was always defined by the idols who came from Chicago. Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, or it was Kanye West, or it was Oprah Winfrey, there was always somebody who defined how I saw Chicago.”
The host says he’s “genuinely excited” about exploring the city. And even as he casts a critical eye on the city’s issues, there’s one cause he will not take up. He will not bash deep-dish pizza, the tourist favorite that his predecessor, East Coast loyalist Jon Stewart, once decried as “an above-ground marinara swimming pool for rats.”
“Hey man, I love deep dish pizza,” Noah said. “I love all pizza. In South Africa we have a wide variety of pizza and, because we don’t have any cultural claim to any of it, I don’t think we’re necessarily for or against any particular style of pizza. If the cheese is good, then I’m in the mix.”