“I may not be American, but I am black,” Noah says simply. “It’s not like I had to learn how to be black.”
Trevor Noah is in Irvine, California. Not even Los Angeles. Irvine. Forty grim miles south through strip-mall country and the Orange County suburbs, where Noah is doing a three-night, five-show stand-up comedy run here at the Irvine Improv, home to your host Friendly Frank and some upcoming Bob Saget shows. Noah is trying, without a lot of luck so far, to get a rhythm going with a roomful of suburbanites—grinding through a seventy-five-minute early-evening set, the first of two he’s on the hook for tonight, like he’s not about to start hosting The Daily Show in September. Like he’s not arguably the most famous comedian in his native South Africa—in all of Africa, full stop—which he is and has been for the better part of a decade. Like he didn’t just come here from the Met Ball in New York City, where he hung in the corner with Joel McHale and Seth Meyers, watching Rihanna sing and marveling at whatever his life has suddenly become.
Why is Trevor Noah in Irvine? Maybe because he’s a workhorse who has spent large parts of the past decade in semi-depressing solitude on the road. Maybe because he’s saying one last good-bye to the road and the solitude and the stage. Maybe because Irvine is not Los Angeles or New York or any other place where he has to be on—bright, shiny, new, ready for audiences one or two thousand times bigger than this one. Maybe because Irvine is not South Africa.
Let’s not talk about South Africa just yet.
Set two goes better. It’s dark outside now. Inside, everybody’s laughing. American comics have learned to weigh down every joke with cement shoes of irony—that sleepy, self-aware delivery, that vaguely self-hating stage presence. But Trevor Noah comes from a place where audiences barely understand what stand-up comedy even is. So he’s up there working. He does a bit about how cell phones are making us all hunchbacked ape-people, and when he does the joke, you can see it, the reverse march of progress, proud man bent over his phone, shrinking back down to monkey. He’s moving all over the stage. Mostly he’s doing the same material from his first set—observational bits about Ebola in Africa and freeway culture in Los Angeles—but then he goes rogue and starts in on new stuff, high-degree-of-difficulty jokes about the senseless deaths of Walter Scott and Eric Garner and the charming, genteel bigotry of the American South (“racism with a smile and a tip of the hat”). Some of the things he’s talking about only happened a month ago, and they’re still beyond sad and/or fucked-up, but he’s making us all wince and laugh in the precise wince/laugh ratio you’d want from a comic talking about police-involved killings.
Afterward he’s backstage, sprawled out on a couch in weary content, and a few other comics crowd into the little room. He’s got the well-proportioned features of the television host he’s about to become. His smile is like something you might see during a job interview. Everybody’s showing him the kind of deference reserved for someone who is supposed to be the next Jon Stewart. By the door is a tired-looking comedian named Gene Pompa, whom Noah knows from his road days, and Pompa soon starts in on Stewart, who advertised himself as this lightning rod of enlightenment but was in fact a white guy with a bunch of white boys writing for him, and how enlightened is that, really? Pompa says he’s excited for Noah to take over, because he’s going to do comedy that’s authentically “ethnic.”
There’s a little silence. Then Trevor Noah smiles politely and begins to explain himself.
Noah’s earliest comedy bits were autobiographical, and to a degree, they still are—his life has been so strange and so singular that he can relate it more or less as it happened and watch people laugh. Not that much of it was funny at the time. But Noah learned a long time ago that the only tolerable way to tell his story, even to himself, was as a joke. If you want to understand his comedy—the fundamental apartness of it, the way it comes from the outside looking in—you need to understand this first.
“My family is black on my mom’s side, white on my father’s side,” Noah says over lunch one day. “Then there’s me.” He was a mixed-race kid in apartheid South Africa, which is to say his birth was evidence of a crime; one early Noah routine was about how he learned to tell kids in his neighborhood that he was an albino, an unlikely story that was still more plausible than the truth. His parents were never truly together, and on the occasions that Noah’s mother visited his father after Noah was born, she did so dressed as a maid. “So I would see my dad’s life, but it’s like visiting Disney World. Even though you visit Disney World, you don’t go, ‘That’s how life is.’ You go, ‘No, I live my normal life, and Disney World exists.’ ”
Noah’s normal life was in the township of Soweto, a bunch of relatives in a two-room house. “All the adults slept in one room, all the kids slept in the other room.” This is the part of the story that Noah has since told many times, often for laughs. “In the streets, my father couldn’t walk with us,” went one routine. “He would walk on the other side of the road and wave at me—like a creepy pedophile.”
But what happened next is something Noah has barely talked about at all.
After the end of apartheid in 1994, Noah’s father moved away, to Cape Town, and his mother—Noah’s partner in mischief, a voluble and funny woman who was fiercely protective of her only child—meanwhile had married another man. Noah was only 9 or 10, but even then he regarded his new stepfather with suspicion. “I just saw something behind the smile, you know? But as a kid, people don’t take you seriously—they’re like, ‘Hey, calm down. Everyone doesn’t like their stepdad.’ ” The man moved in, and so commenced a violent and unhappy time in Noah’s life. “Over time, his true colors came out. He was an alcoholic; he was an extremely angry drunk person, very abusive.”
His mother and stepfather had two children together, Noah’s little brothers, even as his stepfather’s abuse became steadily worse. “He was sporadically abusive. I could count the abuse—in a twelve-year marriage, I could say, three times, probably. Three or four times. But the scale at which the abuse—like, the first time was slaps, a few slaps. The second time was slaps that turned into punches. The third time was basically using a blunt object or whatever.” Noah finally moved out of the house when he was 17. His mother stuck it out, until she didn’t, leaving with Noah’s brothers a few years later.
By then Noah was living on his own in a cockroach-infested apartment. He was 22 and began telling jokes in his spare time, dodging an older generation of angry white comics who thought guys like Noah were arrogant just for getting onstage, let alone for doing so and then talking about apartheid or their own complex racial identities, as Noah did. “A lot of the white comedians were feeling aggrieved. They were like, ‘Why are the black comedians getting more laughs?’ And then they started hating on the fact that, I guess, we had experiences, we had a culture, we weren’t just talking about the weather or escalators. We were going, ‘This happened with my family,’ and, ‘Let me tell you about the time I got arrested by the cops.’ We had experience; we had texture; we had layers; we had life.”
There was no way to get paid for the work, really, but it led to things, being onstage—television work, mostly. By 24 he was hosting the South African Film and Television Awards, “and then I was hosting our version of the Grammys, basically.” Suddenly he was famous, if not necessarily for comedy, but for just being ubiquitous, around. Soon, because he finally could, he leveraged that fame into a book and a stand-up special, The Daywalker, among the first of its kind in South Africa.
One night, while he was preparing for The Daywalker, his phone rang. “It was funny in hindsight, because it was my little brother, and he’s like, ‘Hey, Trevor.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He’s like, ‘Are you busy?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m sort of sleeping. What’s going on?’ He’s like, ‘Mom’s just been shot.’ ”
Noah relates this story in an even tone, here in this brightly colored restaurant in the suburban bouncy castle that is Irvine, California, and that somehow makes it even more heartbreaking, his steady, deliberate march through the details. His mother and his brothers had just come home from church. Since she’d left Noah’s stepfather, she’d become engaged to another man, and when her ex-husband found out, he’d returned with a gun. Noah’s brothers—the man’s own sons—pleaded with him to leave. Instead, “he started shooting, and my brothers ran for their lives, and my mom ran as well, and my uncle, and everybody who was there at the house—everybody just ran for safety. My mom got shot, shot once in the torso, and another bullet went in her head. She got shot in the head, you know? And my brother—to this day, the hero—he grabbed my mom, threw her in the car, blood gushing everywhere, drove her to the hospital”—a 15-year-old kid who’d only learned to drive two or three months prior, racing his dying mother to the hospital, which is in the end what may have saved her life.
When Noah arrived, doctors told him it was a “miracle” that his mother had survived—”that’s the word the doctor used, which doctors hate using, and I understand why. The bullet missed everything, went into the back of her head, missed her spine, missed all the nerves, everything, went through, didn’t hit the brain, just went through the bottom, just under the brain, just smashed into her eye socket, which then deflected the bullet, and it came out of her nose.”
There is a point to this story beyond the obvious, and for Noah the point is this:
Two days after it happened, Noah was by her bedside, crying. His mother asked him to stop. “She says, ‘No, no. Please, look at the bright side. I’m still here. Just be grateful that I’m still here.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but still.’ She says, ‘And on an even brighter side…look at my nose. I’ve got half a nose now. So now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family. There’s no contest.’ And then I start crying. Everyone’s laughing and crying. You know? But that’s who we were as people; that’s who we’ve always been.”
There are platitudes about situations like this, laughing to keep from crying, whatever doesn’t kill you making you stronger, etc. Comics often claim that the fat-nerd misery they’ve experienced in life gives them license to tell jokes about whatever sensitive subject they want. But this point of view is not an abstraction, or a moral convenience, to Trevor Noah. It is a simple hard-earned fact.
“It was one of those turning moments in life where I was like, ‘You know what? No one can ever tell me that line of ‘There’s nothing funny about X.’ If you can’t laugh, you have nothing.”
Call that a cliché. Tell that to Trevor Noah.
When Noah takes over The Daily Show on September 28, it will mark the completion of a rapid and disorienting transition at Comedy Central, which has spent the past couple of years turning the much beloved trio of Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver into two relative unknowns, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah. It’s maybe the biggest gamble in late night since NBC hired Conan to replace David Letterman. The Daily Show! Probably the most beloved modern comedy institution this side of Saturday Night Live. And Comedy Central is turning it over to a 31-year-old kid who most Americans haven’t even heard of. Ask Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless how she feels about this turn of events and she will not bother to spin you: “I will not lie. Yes: I have moments of great anxiety.”
The network had good reasons for choosing Noah, Ganeless says. “He is a student of our culture. But he looks at it from a very different perspective.” Also, he is “super, super funny.” Perhaps just as crucially, he is a generation removed from the older white men he’s replacing. Noah “really understands our audience, because he is one of them,” Ganeless says, which I take as her way of saying that Comedy Central would be happy to discover, or rediscover, a younger and more demographically appealing audience than the one that was aging in lockstep with Stewart.
His youth, his background, the outsider nature of his comedy—all of that made him an appealing choice to the network. But it’s also where the risk comes in. Noah has been telling jokes for a decade now, but much of that time was spent in South Africa, where audiences lean broad, rather than in America, where we’ve long since honed our taste toward hyper-specificity and knowingness. To date, neither has been Noah’s strength. And The Daily Show, in particular, is a temple to this type of humor, panning through our broken politics and broken cable-news channels for subtle nuggets of comic gold.
Soon after Comedy Central announced that it had hired Noah, the network found itself defending him after people discovered old jokes of his on Twitter that, to put it gently, did not quite land. “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” was one. “‘Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!’ – fat chicks everywhere” was another. Many people found the tweets offensive. But maybe even more problematic, at least for Noah and Comedy Central, was that very few people found them even remotely funny.
Less discussed but perhaps just as inflammatory was Noah’s breakthrough performance in the United States, which came in 2012 on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. By then, The Daywalker had already made him a comedy icon in South Africa; he’d hosted his own late-night talk show there, which he describes as “a fusion between The Daily Show and The Tonight Show,” making it through two seasons before running out of worthy guests. “You go, ‘Wow, we’ve interviewed all twenty-six people who are famous enough right now, and there’s literally no one else.’ ”
It was a moment when he could’ve done more or less anything he’d wanted, but it was also the moment when he began to feel South Africa closing in on him. So he decided to move to Pasadena, where a friend of his lived in this “little white suburban world,” and do stand-up all around the country for American audiences who had absolutely no idea who he was. For two years he toured tiny clubs in places like Lexington, Kentucky, and Erie, Pennsylvania, living on the road, surviving on gas-station food.
It was a weird time. “Depression is probably your closest companion on those travels,” Noah says bluntly. He estimates he made it to forty states in that time, more America than many Americans will ever see, moving through his adopted country like a ghost. “You’re people-sick. You’re human-being-sick. You just want someone in your life. You want a friend. You want to know you exist.” It was after he’d done that for a while that Leno called.
The Leno performance was a sort of proto-version of the first bits Noah would later do on The Daily Show: a quick-minded South African guy marveling at American culture and being astounded by what he finds. On Leno it’s specifically African-American culture that he zooms in on—a culture, Noah says now, that he was always in awe of. “In my world, honestly, we grew up idolizing black Americans.”
But in the Leno routine, there’s something weird and dissonant about the pronouns; watching it again recently, I felt myself cringe. Maybe you would’ve needed to grow up here to understand how certain jokes about American black culture—about the names people choose, about the way people speak—have long served as a comic veil for unvarnished white racism.
But in 2012, Noah clearly didn’t know that yet. “I don’t even really know where some of these ‘African’ names come from,” he jokes at one point. “There’s so many consonants so close together! It’s almost like they lose their minds with the Scrabble pieces while giving birth. Like, ‘What are we going to name her?! Oh snap—Tanequa!’ ”
Later in the same bit, he says: “I’ve heard African-Americans, and oh, the way they speak, they pay no regard to punctuation whatsoever! Just cruise through sentences like poetry. I don’t even understand half of it, but it sounds great.” Then he does an imitation of what he’s talking about, and over his shoulder you can see Leno and that evening’s guest, Glenn Close, dying, two older white folks bent over with laughter.
Noah still defends this bit, but only to a point. “I look back on it and I go, ‘Had I known, I would’ve done it differently.’ Because when you come from a different place, you don’t realize the minefield you’re walking into,” he says. “I do know this: I continued doing the Leno bit after I’d done it on Leno. But the way I did it slash would do it today is completely different. I’ve now learned how to be emotionally aware of how people may use your joke in a negative way. And that’s something that you’re always trying to navigate in comedy. You know, Dave Chappelle talked about it as well—if you’re not careful, someone can use your words to hurt somebody else.”
He says he particularly regrets one joke in that routine that was addressed specifically to African-Americans. “I said: ‘You’re not African, but we play along.’ ” The problem was, “I had given some people ammunition to oppress those who had already been oppressed.” Now he feels that he’d taken the wrong side. “I hadn’t fully understood the African-American experience. I hadn’t read the books; I hadn’t met the people; I hadn’t traveled the country.”
In Irvine, three years later, the pronouns had changed—when he talked about Eric Garner, or Mike Brown, or Walter Scott, or getting pulled over by Los Angeles cops, it was “we” and “us” and “I,” not “you” and “they.” The jokes were considerably more deft—more funny, too. On the posthumous smearing of Walter Scott—who was shot in the back as he ran from police in South Carolina—by various news organizations, some of which made a point of bringing up an irrelevant 1987 assault-and-battery charge: “What happened, did he punch this guy into the future?”
I ask Noah if he felt like he had to learn how to talk about this stuff.
“I may not be American, but I am black,” Noah says simply. “It’s not like I had to learn how to be black.”
He’s still figuring out what The Daily Show will be, once they hand him the keys. “I have a very vague picture of the show right now,” Noah says. “It’ll be like a face-lift. Because, don’t get it twisted, I’m a big fan of The Daily Show, and that’s what it’s still gonna be. It’s still gonna be The Daily Show. It’s the same way, when Fallon took over from Leno, it’s still The Tonight Show.”
I point out that Fallon has in fact completely changed The Tonight Show since taking over, turning a relatively staid talk show into a viral-video factory, and Noah agrees but says basically: The shift was natural and gradual, and he hopes to do the same thing. “Just the mere fact that I’m gonna be there in the chair changes a whole bunch of the show, you know?”
He is, as he’s always been, the unknown—so much of his comedy has depended on that, the fact that he doesn’t look like the people in the audience, the fact that he doesn’t come from where they come from. And while Comedy Central is clearly excited about the demographic possibilities of the new Daily Show—”It is going to be really reflective of a millennial audience and a millennial point of view,” Ganeless says—you get the sense that for Noah, the challenge is more personal. It’s about bringing us to him, not him to us; he’ll conform, but only to a point. He’s been winning over skeptical audiences his entire life—why stop now?
In that respect, he says, the controversy that occurred after his hiring was necessary. “A guy doesn’t leave and another guy comes in and there’s no backlash. That never, ever happens. When Michael B. Jordan got cast as the new Human Torch in Fantastic Four, there was backlash, because they were like, ‘How can this fictional character be a black man?’ The new storm trooper from Star Wars, when he took his helmet off in the trailer, people lost their minds. ‘This is ridiculous. How can there be black people in space?’ I didn’t know what the backlash was gonna be, but I knew there was going to be backlash. The same thing when Larry Wilmore took over from Colbert: ‘Oh, this is never gonna work. This is horrible.’ ”
Is it coincidental that every example you just gave is a black man?
“That’s a good question,” Noah says, and then repeats it again in that way you do when you’re still waiting for an answer to arrive. “Because there probably is something that plays into that, you know? I’ve never considered it too much, but people are afraid of change.”
Noah is more worried about whether he can change fast enough. He has been a quick study all his life—by nature and by necessity. “You show me half my jokes from even two years ago, three years ago—I hate them. Because you see, like, a young version of yourself. You’re like, ‘Why would you say that? You idiot! That makes no sense.’ Or, ‘That’s just stupid.’ Or, ‘Ahh, I can’t believe I said that about a woman.’ You should not like what you did back then, because that shows that you’ve grown. If you’re still doing it, that’s a scarier place to be,” Noah says.
Trevor Noah learned a long time ago, in circumstances far more terrifying than the ones he finds himself in now.
“So that’s a great thing for me. When I get a chance to look back and go: ‘I was an idiot.’ ”