When he takes his seat at the anchor desk of The Daily Show next Monday, just as the 2016 presidential campaign is throttling up, Trevor Noah will be on the steepest learning curve imaginable.
South Africa’s King of Comedy has always lived on a learning curve of sorts—navigating the bizarre realities of apartheid and its aftermath, grappling with brutal violence (the shooting of his mother by an abusive ex-husband), and crossing back and forth between contradictory cultures as the son of a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss-German father—and thus, as Noah puts it in his standup routine, “born a crime” in a country where race-mixing usually meant fines and jail time (for black people, anyway).
Indeed, he has not only survived his life’s exacting experiments, but thrived on them—and has every reason to believe he can ace this one, too.
After less than 10 years as a working comic—a trade that often demands decades of trial and error to hone the craft—Noah has achieved the stratosphere, the only South African comic to have killed on both The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and The Late Show With David Letterman.
He is not only one of the more celebrated human beings in his home country, where his pending ascension on American television is making headlines every day.
He has also surpassed far more experienced (and whiter) colleagues in the tiny South African comedy community—and, much to their annoyance, he has made it look easy.
“The arrogance of this man is ridiculous,” complains an older white South African comic named Mel Miller, a grizzled journeyman in an art form that only began to flourish in 1994, when the authoritarian racist government gave way to genuine democracy with the election of President Nelson Mandela.
“I don’t mind self-confidence,” Miller goes on in an interview for You Laugh But It’s True, a 2011 documentary about Noah. “You have to have self-confidence. But there’s a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. When you step over that, that’s where the shit begins.”
Yet Noah is clearly cognizant that he needs to raise his game. It was only a scant eight months ago, shortly after he was named “senior international correspondent” of Comedy Central’s revered political satire franchise, that he admitted in a Daily Show podcast: “I’m not an expert in America. I never profess to be. I know nothing about your politics.”
Two months later, after Jon Stewart announced his surprising decision to retire and Comedy Central scrambled to offer the job apparently to anyone and everyone, from Louis C.K. to Chris Rock to Amy Schumer, the Viacom-owned cable channel settled on the neophyte outsider with the funny accent.
Noah is a far cry from the 52-year-old Stewart, who called himself a purveyor of “fake news,” and possessed a deep, detailed and impassioned knowledge of the policies and personalities of our democratic circus.
This bedrock not only informed the program’s comic sensibility, but also turned The Daily Show into a political touchstone that frequently made real news and swayed the debate.
He’s an undeniably clever and, at the tender age of 31, brilliantly precocious comic—whose sharp ear for speech patterns (not just white-bread American but also a variety of ethnic American and foreign dialects) is superior to Stewart’s.
Stewart unleashed a killer impression of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham as a fickle Scarlett O’Hara type in constant need of smelling salts; but his Donald Trump sendup was all but indistinguishable from his default impression of a generic New Jersey mobster.
Noah’s acknowledged inexperience with the vagaries of U.S. politics—The Daily Show’s bread and butter under his predecessor—can hardly be considered an asset, especially in a presidential campaign year (never mind Comedy Central’s attempt to make a joke of it in a promo in which an overwhelmed Noah pleads: “I’m gonna need till January”).
Noah’s attempt to mock CNN’s Republican debate during his appearance last week on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was not his best work—obvious and labored, as he impersonated a smarmy candidate dodging a question—although he understandably might be saving his primo material for his Monday night debut.
“He will quickly bring his own specific take to it,” Comedy Central chief Michele Ganeless predicted to me back in March when Noah was announced, projecting confidence in the future of his political acumen.
“He’s a student of our culture, as well as of the world, and, working with the deep team that writes for the show, he will have no trouble pointing out the absurdities of our political system,” she added.
Noah surely has an intimate relationship with the absurd. His parents, who never married (which, in any case, would have been illegal), met in one of Johannesburg’s underground after-hours clubs where people of various racial identities—white, black, Indian, and “coloured” (the South African designation for biracial)—fraternized and flouted the law.
The comedian’s mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, recounts in You Laugh But It’s True how she persuaded his grudging father, Robert, to get her pregnant. “Let me have a child, no strings attached,” she says she asked. “Marriage was not in my agenda.”
“I don’t think my parents considered me at all,” Trevor says in the film. “I don’t think they spent one second thinking, ‘What color will my child be?’ ”
Trevor’s light-colored skin was by no means a trivial matter on both sides of the government-enforced racial divide—especially in a grotesquely warped social order in which the lighter you were, the better your circumstances, and the darker you were, the harder your existence.
In the ultimate expression of the perverse nature of the South African caste system, Noah recalls that even when he was a toddler, his maternal grandfather, a gregarious man with an antic sense of humor, never addressed him as anything but “Master.”
While Trevor’s father lived comfortably in a nice neighborhood of Johannesburg, Trevor was raised with his mother’s family in the hardscrabble black township of Soweto; because he didn’t look at all like his dark-skinned mother and grandmother, the neighbors were convinced he was someone else’s child.
In his standup routine, Noah spins a yarn about joining up with a gang of “fellow” albinos in the township.
Whenever Trevor and his mother visited his dad in the city, she had to pretend to be his maid and dressed accordingly in a cleaning lady’s uniform.
If they walked on the street, Trevor would hold hands with a similarly light-skinned coloured friend who pretended to be his mother while his real mother, pretending to be the nanny, walked a pace behind them.
To avoid unwelcome attention from the authorities, Trevor’s father strolled on the opposite side of the street— “waving at me,” as Noah recounts in his routine, “like a creepy pedophile.”
As with many in his profession, a painful past provides rich material.
“You have to find it, otherwise you’d be angry about everything,” Noah said about his humor, as he schmoozed with Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Seinfeld’s moving-vehicle-and-caffeine-centered talk show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “You’d literally be angry about everything.”
Noah recounted to Seinfeld his experience with a boorish heckler during his first gig in London.
After a stunned silence—hecklers aren’t common in South Africa’s nascent comedy scene—Noah pulverized his antagonist and won over the crowd by retorting: “Where I come from, when white people come at people like me, they usually come with dogs and tear gas. Is that all you have?”
In his tween years, Noah lost touch with his father after the latter moved away to Cape Town and then back to Switzerland (although they have recently rekindled their relationship), and he was educated largely at a Catholic private school in Johannesburg.
Although he recalls briefly driving a taxi to earn money, he gravitated to showbiz early, starring in a South African soap opera at age 18, hosting a youth-oriented radio program, and trying his hand at gossip and game shows on local television a couple of years later. He attributes his current career to a chance circumstance a decade ago when he was out with friends at a comedy show, and a drunken cousin insisted he get on stage and tell his amusing stories.
Noah reluctantly obeyed, and quickly discovered in his maiden routine, ad-libbing as the audience began to laugh, that he had a knack for this thing.
After only a few years as a standup, he managed to fill the seats of one of Johannesburg’s more prestigious theaters with his own one-man show; his preparation for that risky performance serves as the dramatic narrative for You Laugh But It’s True.
Two weeks before opening night, Noah received terrible news.
As he tells it in the documentary, his 16-year-old half-brother reached him by phone one night, informing him that their mother had just been shot twice—once in the head, and once in the back—by her jealous ex-husband, the boy’s father, who’d learned she’d recently become engaged to another man and showed up with a gun.
Miraculously, the bullet that pierced her head missed her brain and exited through her nose, and she survived with only a paralyzed facial muscle, a barely perceptible injury. But that awful night, it wasn’t clear she would live.
“I was just freaking out,” Noah says in the film. “I drive to the clinic, get there, there’s blood all over her face. It’s, like, open. There’s blood everywhere. She’s trying to talk. I’m just—whoa, I’m gone.”
It was a shock of a happier kind, obviously, when Noah learned about his latest career move.
“I’m in Dubai—I’m literally driving the middle of the night, and my phone rings,” he told Seinfeld. “And my manager says, ‘How would you like to be the host of The Daily Show?’ And I get out of the car, and my legs—I didn’t have legs.”
He added: “You know those movies where there’s an explosion and instead of the sound of the explosion, you hear silence? The eardrums have all been pierced? That’s literally what happens.
“And then the worst thing is you’re in Dubai, which is one of the hardest places in the world to find a drink.”
It will, of course, be a lot easier for Noah to get a drink after Monday’s show on Manhattan’s West Side—either to drown some sorrows or to toast another triumph.