Trevor Noah was an established star on several continents before he began earning laughs nightly from a U.S. audience after succeeding Jon Stewart last fall as the satirical host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
But as a mixed-race child growing up under the brutal yoke of apartheid in South Africa, Noah not only did not aspire to be a comedian, he barely knew there was such a thing.
Satire was beyond scarce in his homeland. Censorship was the rule of law. Speaking out against the notoriously oppressive government could lead to years in prison, or death.
Noah’s very birth was itself a crime, since he was the son of a black Xhosa South African mother and a white Swiss father. His father’s name did not appear on his birth certificate, and his parents - since separated - could not marry because that, too, would have been a crime. To be under the same roof with him and his father at the same time, his mother had to pretend to be a maid or a babysitter.
“Free speech didn’t exist, so comedy wasn’t a big part of my life. Comedy was a thing I didn’t understand,” said Noah, 32, who performs Saturday at Harrah’s Resort Southern California.
“But laughter, luckily, was something that we all had access to, in some shape or form. With regards to comedy itself, in South Africa, it wasn’t performed anywhere by comedians of color. Because there were laws that restricted people of color being in the same place, because (of the fear) we’d be plotting against the government, not practicing punch lines. And even whites would get arrested if the government thought they were being disparaging.”
Given these grim circumstances, when did Noah first earn a laugh and realize he was funny?
“I was in first grade, and I remember making a joke about the principal at the time and the manner in which he administered corporal punishment. There was something funny about the way he did it,” Noah said, speaking last week from an airport waiting area in New York.
“I said something, and the rest of the class laughed very hard. It was probably something stupid. But, at that time, I thought it was comic genius!”
The boyish-faced comic, who became a star in Europe and Australia before cracking the U.S., chuckled at the memory.
“I never actually craved the laughs or attention,” he continued. “But I did enjoy the reaction of people laughing and having a good time. I liked seeing people’s mood improved.”
Did Noah, who went on to work as a late-night radio DJ, ever get in trouble for making fun of his school principal, or other authority figures?
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Events Center, Harrah’s Resort Southern California, 777 Harrah’s Rincon Way, Valley Center
Tickets: $35-$45 (must be 21 or older to attend)
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“Oh, no. No. I always respected authority; that’s one thing I didn’t have a problem with,” he replied. “In that regard, I was very, very calm. Teachers didn’t have problems with me. And the joke about the principal wasn’t to his face - just in front of other students. I guess that, growing up in Africa and in a Third World culture, respecting your elders was of paramount importance.”
Many comedians grew up admiring and emulating the work of comedy stars who inspired them, copying their delivery and timing before developing their own style. Noah is not one of them, in large part because comedy was so hard to come by when he was growing up.
“I would say I had no professional (comedy) influences,” he said. “My mom influenced me. My grandfather influenced me,. But I didn’t know stand-up comedy in any professional capacity, so I didn’t shape myself according to any rules of stand-up.
“I don’t have a fantastic story of how I watched this famous comedian and mimicked them. I didn’t have any of that. When I saw Eddie Murphy for the first time, I was already six months into doing stand-up...
“Essentially, I feel comedy is organic. You tell people things that you find funny and hope they will, too. Over time as I got to meet comedians from other countries at festivals in South Africa, and after I started touring in Europe and Australia, through that I started honing my comedy.”
But Noah did not incorporate his South African upbringing into his routines until he was encouraged to do so by English comedy star Eddie Izzard.
“I met Eddie by chance in the U.K. and got to know him. I had no idea who he was when we met in a comedy club,” Noah recalled.
“He was fascinated by my life story, and said: ‘You should try and tell those stories on stage,’ which I’d never considered, because I didn’t think there was a place for that in stand-up comedy. But that’s exactly what I did after I met Eddie. I went back to South Africa and started incorporating more of my life stories into my routines, and it went over great.”
Fluent in four languages, Noah delivers his routines and punch lines with smooth polish and infectious charm. A gifted mimic, he can deftly sound like an inner-city American one moment, a Cuban-American or Southern redneck the next, before reverting to his buoyant South African lilt.
This ability to switch accents and personas is impressive. So is Noah’s borders-leaping ability to playfully point out the nearly identical, “I am so great!” boasts of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and those made in the 1970s by Idi Amin, the notorious Ugandan dictator.
Is Trump manna from heaven for comedians? Or has he stopped being funny?
“He is manna from heaven for comedians,” Noah said. “But, if I remember the story from the bible, the manna got rotten and became a problem for the people. I think that’s similar to what’s happening here. Yeah, he was funny, and I don’t think he expected to get as far as he’s got. Now, the joke has turned into reality and people are realizing the political system is more fractured, and the country is more fractured, than they thought.
“Donald Trump is a gold mine of satirical content. But what he does and says means that people aren’t in the best mood to laugh.”
Differing comic sensibilities
Humor, it has often been noted, is universal. But countries and continents can have very distinct sensibilities, which reflect their social, political, economic, religious and racial realities.
“There are differences,” Noah agreed. “But one thing that’s really been strange to me is how similar audiences are in South Africa and America. I think it’s because our histories have been so similar. Both countries suffered a history of slavery, oppression and systemic racism in the culture itself. And, on both sides, people are used to (diverse) audiences coming together and enjoying themselves.
“The one thing that’s different is, in the U.S., there’s a lot more sensitivity right now. I think - because of everything going on in politics - that it’s a lot harder to be seen to be mocking both sides. Because each side wants you to take their side. In South Africa, we’re still raw and fresh. And what’s great about that is people are all seeking the truth together. It’s less about political partisanship in South Africa. I mean, we’re still battling (about) race, but people are coming together.”
Post-apartheid, South Africa has produced other comics - both black and white - including Loyiso Gola, Nik Rabinowitz and Kagiso Lediga. But Noah is the only one to achieve global success, let alone to become an American television show host.
He had made inroads here, even before Jon Stewart retired and the Johannesburg native took over as host of “The Daily Show” last September. Noah was the first South African comic to appear on “The Tonight Show” and had performed in 40 states across the country. He also had one Comedy Central special under his belt, “Trevor Noah: African American.”
The names of Amy Schumer and Chris Rock had been floated as possible successors to Stewart on “The Daily Show,” but Noah got the job. He had only previously appeared as a guest on the show a few times, offering his biracial South African perspective with a mix of insight and bemusement.
One of his memorable lines: “You know what African mothers tell their children every day? ‘Be grateful for what you have. Because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.’”
Another: “I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa. It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days, back home.”
Noah delivers his material with a winning smile, not a snarl. His subject matter is topical and sometimes pointed, but his goal is to make his audiences feel better.
“I’ve always been blessed with a gift of conversation,” he noted, “and also of negotiation - being able to see both sides and empathize with people from whom I may have a different position. My greatest weakness is I’m extremely optimistic and always willing to laugh. But optimism has got me this far, and I don’t plan to abandon it yet.”
Name: Trevor Noah
Birthplace: Johannesburg, South Africa
Unusual upbringing: His black Jewish African mother and white Swiss father could not wed because interracial marriages were then illegal in South Africa. As a mixed-race youth, Noah often had to claim he was an albino in order to explain his lighter skin tone. None of his black friends came to his bar mitzvah “because they didn’t know what it was.”
First break: At 18, he appeared on the South African TV soap opera “Isidingo.”
Second break: In 2008, when he was 24, Noah was a runner-up on South Africa’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
Former day jobs: As a late-night radio DJ, “I had the 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift,” he recalled. “My main job was talking drunk people safely home.” Noah also worked as a taxi driver, until his cab was stolen.
First TV show hosting gig: South Africa’s “Tonight With Trevor Noah” in 2010.
Making history: Noah was the first South African comedian to appear on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” In 2015, he became the first South African to host a U.S. TV show, after Jon Stewart and Comedy Central picked him to be Stewart’s successor on “The Daily Show.”
Quote of note: “I was, and remain, someone who doesn’t take anything so seriously that I can’t make a joke about it.”