Trevor Noah: Africa’s global ‘King of Comedy’

“The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, in his Comedy Central Special, “Lost in Translation.”

Trevor Noah is definitely riding high these days.

With an improbable rise after surviving apartheid South Africa and a childhood of debilitating poverty in Soweto, within a few short years Trevor Noah has taken global pop culture by force and ascended to one of the pinnacles of the entertainment world. After Jon Stewart spent 16 years building Comedy Central’s The Daily Show into a news, satire and social commentary institution, there was intense speculation about who his successor might be with his retirement. Names like Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Tina Fey, Amy Pohler and Jessica Williams were bandied about, but in the end, on September 28, 2015, The Daily Show was unexpectedly taken over by the 30-something, soft-spoken, and at the time relatively unknown biracial South African comedian.

At first, it seemed that the media world and television audiences were bewildered at the African newcomer and weren’t quite sure what to make of him. With a personality that was notably more subdued and less colorful than Stewart, Noah seemed to be striving to find his own voice and expression within the show’s reputation and format. But not long after his debut Hurricane Trump blasted through the national media spotlight, vanquished his competition and beyond all expectations claimed the mantel of the Republican Presidential nomination. The new incarnation of The Daily Show then appeared to take off, as audiences sought an urgent sense of humor and comedy insight with timely, fresh perspectives on the Trump phenomenon. Noah and his team provided that voice.

In the midst of talk of Mexican rapists, drug dealers and criminals, building a border wall, Muslim bans, anti-immigration rants, climate change denial and support for “Alt Right” white supremacists, Noah and The Daily Show provided America and the planet with a dose of much-needed comedic sanity. Comedy Central and The Daily Show’s producers had gambled on the idea that Trevor Noah would attract international viewers and help create a wider global audience for the program – and their gamble paid off, in a big way.

With Trevor Noah at the helm, The Daily Show dramatically increased its international viewership and is now seen in 176 countries, up from 70 nations in the Jon Stewart era. In the United States, The Daily Show has also become the most popular talk show among millennials, i.e. young adults between the ages of 18 and 34. By February 2017 The Daily Show reached its largest audience ever, averaging 1.5 million broadcast viewers. Along with Video on Demand, digital and mobile viewing, The Daily Show reaches a weekly audience of 7.5 million people.

As The Daily Show continues its rise, Trevor Noah himself shows absolutely no signs of slowing down; in fact, he seems to be everywhere, as he expands and purveys his unique perspectives as a comic, author and social commentator. Africa’s most prominent and successful comedian – the first to make an appearance on the Tonight Show, back in January 2o12 – has a lot to say to the world.

In February 2017, Noah debuted his 9th comedy special, “Afraid of the Dark” on Netflix, which follows his one-hour special his 2016 Comedy Central, “Lost in Translation” and his 2013 Showtime standup show, “African American.” His award-winning memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” became an immediate New York Times Bestseller and the Audible version has been one of its top selling titles since its release and Audible’s most commented title, as well. “Born a Crime” is a gripping and hilarious narrative of Noah’s early life and youth living through the racial, social and political conflicts of apartheid South Africa as its institutions were dying and a new society was being born. In his book, Noah uses his personal experiences to analyze many telling observations of the human psychological drives behind race, language and culture.

One of the big factors that has influenced Noah’s character, thoughtfulness and personality is his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Nombuyiselo was fierce, intelligent, shrewd, resilient and completely determined to give her son a life that extended beyond the limitations of apartheid. And even though she bore a child by a white man – which was considered a crime under the apartheid anti-miscegenation laws – Nombuyiselo kept a low profile but feared no one. She had a brilliant flare for languages; growing up, young Trevor watched his mother change people’s attitudes towards her through her ability to speak back to them, eloquently and graciously, in their own tongue.

Nombuyiselo carried herself with tremendous dignity and never allowed other people to demean or dishonor her, although at times she faced many different kinds of dangers. While she was raised in a deep rural, impoverished region of the Transkei homeland for the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape, Nombuyiselo managed to become masterful in her English lessons. She eventually parlayed her language skill into a secretarial job in Johannesburg, a prized position for an African woman living under apartheid. With time she was able to buy a small VW Beetle and drove Trevor everywhere she could to expose him to scenery, neighborhoods, parks and communities outside the restricted black townships. She bought her son books and a used encyclopedia, stimulating and nourishing his mind.

At heart, since Trevor Noah spent so much of his childhood in Soweto, he is truly a product of that wild, raucous, enchanting and diverse community where Africans are exposed to many languages and ethnic groups – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Pedi, Shangaan, Venda, Afrikaans and others. Noah managed to pick up several of these languages, and he learned to change people’s perception of him by speaking to them in the language and even the dialect that he heard them using. This also speaks to Noah’s natural ability to portray various characters and do impersonations as part of his stand-up performances.

“I always identified and aspired to be to black American. In South Africa, growing up in the townships we knew that we were poor and we didn’t have, but one of the first experiences I had of seeing somebody glorify the nothingness of what they had, was black Americans.  It was the first time when “the hood” was cool,” Noah said in an online interview with the New York Times.  “It was the first time when people seemed like they an ownership of this identity, instead of having it thrust upon them… From the time I was a young man I thought, “I want to be a part of that culture. That’s something I can identify with.”

Through The Daily Show Noah gives his audiences fresh takes on racial issues, in a way that would not have been possible for Jon Stewart.  But on the other hand, Trevor Noah is also more subdued and nuanced in many of his positions and that draws criticism from the left and some African-American commentators. This was evident when he invited conservative Fox personality Tomi Lahrens on The Daily Show. Many resent Lahrens as a racist provocateur that should not be given an interview or granted a platform to empower her inciting style of antagonism. Noah saw Lahrens appearance as an opportunity for dialogue and diffusing the extremism that is becoming a common feature of public discourse in the United States.

“It’s important to expose the flaws of their argument. When I can sit across from Tomi Lahren and she says black people are protesting because they’re crybabies and Colin Kaepernick shouldn’t kneel during the national anthem, that’s not the right way to protest, then I get to ask, ‘When is the right time for black people to protest?’ Noah pointed out in the Times interview. “And when she can’t answer that question, whether she likes to admit it or not, she has now realized the irrationality of the position she is in or put everyone else in.”

South Africans, Noah maintains, are better able to “meet in the middle” and find common ground, despite vast racial and cultural differences. In the constant stimulation of the today’s social media environment, it appears that American society is going in the opposite direction. That may be precisely why Noah, with his outsider appeal, is such a popular figure and his comedic perspective is so intriguing to American and international audiences in the current milieu.

Trevor Noah will be performing in Denver at the Bellco Auditorium on March 3, 2018.

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Categories: Apartheid, Comedy, Culture, Music, Entertainment, South Africa, Soweto

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