In many ways, “Daily Show” star Trevor Noah has been the most challenged Grammy Awards host in history: Last year he emceed the first-ever pandemic show, which featured the traditional awards and somewhat traditional performances, but in a semi-outdoor setting before a small, rotating audience of artists, presenters and staff. This year it’s a more-normal show, although it’s been rescheduled to Sunday from its original Jan. 31 date and moved to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena, with multiple changes along the way.
There’s also the matter of an online dust-up between Kanye West and Noah that led to the former calling the latter a slur on social media, to which Noah responded with a thoughtful and conciliatory — but since deleted — post. The incident played at least some role in the Grammys disinviting West, a move that Noah publicly objected to: “I said to counsel Kanye not cancel Kanye,” he tweeted. (Through a rep, he declined to discuss the incident with Variety.) In the past few days, Foo Fighters canceled their scheduled appearance on the show due to the tragic and untimely death of drummer Taylor Hawkins, and Will Smith changed awards shows forever by walking onstage and slapping Chris Rock during the Oscars.
So no pressure! But in an interview earlier this month, Noah was upbeat and optimistic about hosting the Grammys for a second time — and noted that it’s actually a format he worked in for many years in his home country of South Africa, long before he ever hosted the show for which he is best known.
“I actually didn’t have to adjust to [hosting the Grammys] because I’d hosted the music awards in South Africa and a few others, so interestingly enough, I actually had to adjust to hosting ‘The Daily Show,’” he says. “So if anything, it was me just dusting off the old awards-show bones and getting back into the rhythm of hosting that type of way.”
Those years of experience are likely to serve him well on Sunday night.
How do you feel last year’s show went?
That’s an interesting question. There are two parts to doing my job — one part is doing the job and the other part is then seeing how people respond to the job that you’ve done, although in this case it was difficult to have a sense of that because there was no live audience. It was a Grammys like no other, it was a really complicated affair, it was the brainchild of [executive producer] Ben Winston and I think he did a fantastic job — but it was really a coming together of many ideas, so I was just happy that I didn’t screw the thing up and it went according to plan. I guess I felt good enough to do it again!
Have you watched it again?
No, I don’t do that because I cannot change anything. What I try to do is rely on the director and the showrunner to tell me what they need of me, as opposed to me trying to think of what I need of myself. If I’m doing standup, I’m performing for the audience — I’m not performing for me, if that makes sense. So what I’m trying to do is what’s correct for the show, the audience, my bosses, the director etc. I’m a tool and I’m trying to be used effectively on that stage.
There’s our headline: “I am a tool, says Trevor Noah” (laughter). That’s an interesting perspective, because musicians often say, “I make music for myself, and if other people like it that’s great,” but what you do is processed so differently.
Yeah, I think the difference fundamentally between comedy and music is that music can exist in a vacuum — you know, it can just play. You can listen by yourself, or I’ve been in many bars or restaurants where no one’s really paying the musicians attention, but the music is still doing its job and you still can be enjoying it, you know? Music can be both the focal point and it can be ambience; comedy cannot. You can never have a comedian telling jokes in the background while you’re having a romantic dinner.
There is no such thing as ambient comedy.
(Laughing) That’s actually something I’ve always envied about music, to be honest. With comedy or as host of the Grammys, I have to be cognizant of you, I can’t just be caught up in my performance because that’s not my job.
Are you given guidelines by the producers, like “This is okay but that isn’t”?
I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to work on awards shows before, and the reason I agreed to this one is because of the team working on it. People don’t understand how important the teams are: You have to trust the director and the showrunner and they have to trust you, everybody’s working together. And I really trust Ben Winston and the team. It isn’t an iron curtain of them saying “Don’t do this or that,” it’s working together and saying, “Would this or that work best?”
When I’m coming to the Grammys I like to take a break from all the politics I do on “The Daily Show” and enjoy a night of music and a broader audience, because that’s part of who I am as a human being. People think I live my life 24-7 only speaking about politics and news, but I don’t. Doing this is not dissimilar to a race-car driver who gets to ride motorbikes for a weekend — you’re still on a vehicle that’s moving very quickly, but “Ah, this is a different idea, a different feeling.”
Is the script process collaborative, or do they give you a rough script and you work on it?
It goes both ways. Ben and the team will tell me what the show is going to be: This is going to happen, then this is going to happen. I’m the one who writes the script itself with my writers, and then we combine the two worlds. And what’s really fun is that it’s so collaborative: What do we think is funny? What do we think is great? I never try to be mean, I’m not an edgy comedian, despite what people might think because of the politics.
You don’t consider yourself edgy?
(Laughing) I think maybe that term has changed over the years. Politics has consumed so much of the world, so many things changed during the Trump era that now politics has become an edgy thing. But there are comedians — who I love, by the way — whose job is to make everybody uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. Like Anthony Jeselnik, I consider him an edgy comedian. I’m lucky — I have a broad audience, old young, Black, white, all kinds of people all over the world — and when I’m performing at shows like the Grammys, I get to flex a little more of those muscles.
The world is even more of a mess than it was a year ago. Is it more daunting this time to try to address things like Ukraine and Covid ignorance?
It depends — it depends on when it comes in and how. Maybe this comes from growing up in a country where injustice and threats were omnipresent: If you grow up in a Black family in South Africa just after Apartheid, people would think that your family never lost, that your family never talks about Apartheid and the police state — but to do that is to never be human. For myself, I’ve always acknowledged the paradox of existence, that we have to have moments to be joyful; we have to have moments where we live other parts of life whilst still acknowledging what is happening in the world. So I try and keep it as natural as possible. I’m not gonna try to crowbar anything into the show to try to leverage an issue to make it about the moment or me — no, I’m not trying to do that. I think if you do things in the right way and the right place, then it works.
Di you have any issues with where the Grammys were last year with diversity and the nominating process, and some of the other controversies of recent years?
It didn’t cause any issue for me, but that’s another thing that I enjoy — it’s not like I was in some dictatorship where I couldn’t ask questions. I enjoyed talking to [Grammy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.] and him saying, “You know what, Trevor? We’ve got to whip things up, man, we’ve gotta change things, we’ve gotta become better.” I was impressed by that because it’s not like I’m a Grammy employee; I just come in and do a show. But he didn’t brush it off even when I said it on the side. And as a fan as well, I hope they keep continuing to improve the process of how people get nominated and vote.
You never want awards shows to lose touch, you know? It’s similar to what I felt about the Oscars with “Spider-Man”: Come on, I know it’s a superhero movie but you’re telling me there’s no space for it? And for the Grammys, it’s important for people like Esperanza Spalding and Jon Baptiste to be nominated — because that is the breadth of music — and also I’m a huge fan of the Weeknd and I feel like he should always be nominated. But it wasn’t an issue for me because I wasn’t in charge of anything that regard, but it was nice to see that things had already been set into motion by the time I got there.
Who are you looking forward to see perform this year?
BTS is one of my favorite performers I’ve ever seen — I’ve seen few acts put together performances as elaborate as them. Billie Eilish also puts on some special shows. Who else… he probably won’t be at this year’s awards but I think Kendrick Lamar has some of the best performances I’ve ever seen, the choreography he puts together is just out of this world.
Do you have a favorite album from the past year?
Silk Sonic! There are so few albums in life don’t take themselves too seriously, and yet what they achieve is magical and artistically brilliant at the same time. When I first heard of Silk Sonic and the idea, I was like, “I wonder how this is gonna work?,” but I’ve become a huge fan, it’s one of my favorite of the year.
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