Comedy Central Boss Admits Missteps in Trevor Noah Twittergate

Trevor Noah
Byron Keulemans/Comedy Central
Trevor Noah

The day after Comedy Central named Trevor Noah the new host of The Daily Show in March, the channel faced backlash over jokes the comedian had made on Twitter years earlier. In hindsight, admits Viacom Music and Entertainment Group chief Doug Herzog, the company should have vetted Noah’s Twitter feed.

“We did not, and of course that’s the first thing my boss asked me,” Herzog said Tuesday at the PromaxBDA conference in Los Angeles, where he was interviewed by CNN’s Bill Weir. “Truthfully, it never occurred to us.”

Noah was accused of making sexist and anti-Semitic jokes on Twitter, such as one that referenced “Jewish chicks.” Herzog, who oversees MTV, VH1, Logo, Spike and Comedy Central, said the controversy was “very unpleasant.”

“When we looked back on it, many of them were taken out of context, some just weren’t funny enough, and I think that’s where a lot of people’s problems were with it,” he said.

But even if Comedy Central had fully investigated Noah’s Twitter feed, Herzog said he’s not sure what the network might have done differently.

“At Comedy Central we’re not in the business of censoring people,” he told Weir. “We edit people for air. We have standards and certain things we’ll never say on air. In terms of jokes people say in their standup routine or on Twitter… I’m not sure what we really could have done. I’m not sure we would have said, ‘Wait, that guy’s not for us because he made that joke five years ago in response to something that happened that day.’ I’m not sure what we would have really done. But it should be a lesson to us all.”

Herzog said he was on vacation when “Twittergate,” as he called it, exploded.

“I was sitting alone on vacation, not talking to anyone in the office, not being able to share it in a way I would have liked to have shared it with my colleagues,” he said. “I was in this vacuum watching Twitter explode and it was unpleasant. But that’s a very particular dark place.”

Still, Herzog pledges Viacom’s and Comedy Central’s fill support in Noah. “We believe in Trevor Noah, he’s incredibly talented, incredibly bright, young guy,” he said. “We are certain he is the perfect choice to take over The Daily Show. There was never ever a minute where we didn’t go anything but go, ‘how do we get behind this guy?'”

Herzog said if there was anything he learned in retrospect, he says he should have been more aware of how personal fans would take the news of Stewart’s departure and who might replace him.

“Because of the way people view The Daily Show and Jon Stewart from an elevated place,” he said. “For me, I kick myself a little bit because Jon made his decision long before he announced it to the world. This is something that we’d been sitting with and sitting on at Comedy Central until the appropriate time. Jon wanted to get the Larry Wilmore show launched, he wanted to make sure we were past the Stephen Colbert departure. Knowing he was leaving and living with that, vs. the day it got announced, and watching the reaction from the country if not the world, it sort of took my breath away. It was overwhelming.

“Now that I look back at ‘Twittergate,’ I go, well we should have been more mentally prepared for how people would react when the announcement was made, no matter who it was. And there was certainly an unfortunate misstep in there… And we will go on, and guess what, Trevor will go on, and there will be people who love him the first night, there will be people who hate him the first night, but he’s coming back for night two, he’s coming back night three. He’s going to be there for a long time.”

As for the decision to choose Noah, Herzog said he was one of the first names that came forward to replace Stewart.

“He only got to contribute a couple of times before this decision was made,” Herzog said. “From the very moment we saw him, and I think Jon felt the same way, we said, ‘This guy is going to host The Daily Show some day.’ I don’t think anyone expected that day to be as soon as it turned out to be.”

Herzog added that the list of potential Stewart replacements was “very short. There’s not that many people we considered the possibility of actually sitting there. Not that anybody should come in and do what Jon Stewart was doing, that would be a mistake. But we needed somebody who could give it his own voice and his own point of view.”

He added: “The Daily Show now demands somebody who’s funny, who’s insightful, who’s smart, who understands world events and the news. It’s not everybody who can bring all that together. We thought Trevor was one of the few guys who could, and who could speak in their own very distinctive voice. I believe Trevor has that. In that regard, he became a candidate. Ultimately, we thought he was the right guy for the job.”