When Trevor Noah was young, the biracial son of a black mother and a white father in Apartheid-era South Africa, his entire existence was a crime that needed to be concealed. Noah’s father’s name was left off of his birth certificate to conceal his identity, though that didn’t prevent his mother from being repeatedly arrested for being in a relationship with a white man. Noah’s family told their neighbors in Johannesburg’s Soweto Township that he was albino to explain his light skin.
“As a family we couldn’t live together, on the streets we couldn’t even be seen together. My father would have to walk on the other side of the road, and he could just wave at me from afar,” Noah recalled in 2013 before an audience gathered to hear his comedy.
He paused, his mouth twitching. There was only a faint rustle from the hundreds of people watching, like they weren’t sure what to do with this story.
“Like a creepy pedophile,” Noah concluded. And the Apollo Theater erupted with laughter. It was a joke.
This is what Noah, the newly announced successor to Jon Stewart at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” has been doing for nearly a decade: Mining tragedy, inequality and prejudice for laughs and attempting, mostly successfully, to satirize his subjects without trivializing them.
“You have two choices, two paths to take as a comedian,” he said in an interview with the Huffington Post two years ago. “You can tackle the difficult subjects and be harsh about it, be brash, be abrasive. But adding hatred to racism is not going to help everybody. So I like to have fun around it.”
The 31-year-old’s unforeseen rise to the top spot in late night comedy — he’s only appeared on “The Daily Show” three times — caught most people off guard. Nearly every headline about the announcement (including The Post’s) started with the phrase “Who is Trevor Noah?”
But Stewart and Noah have a shared perspective on comedy that might make the latter’s ascent to the host chair less surprising.
“Satire can still be relevant,” Stewart said last year in a conversation with Egyptian comic Bassem Youssef. “… It can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves.”
Noah echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Associated Press Monday.
“When you are honest in your comedy, you have to acknowledge the world that you’re in,” he said. “Through a comedic voice you’re talking about what needs to be talked about, whether it’s race relations or politics or anything that’s happening on a global or an American scale. That’s exactly the space ‘The Daily Show’ is in.'”
It’s a perspective born out of Noah’s experience living under apartheid. Laughter, he told NPR’s Neil Conan in 2012, was the natural response to oppression.
“If you look at it, the history of comedy has always been strongest among the nations who have been persecuted the most,” Noah said. “In America, the stronghold of comedy was always among Jewish people. And that’s what many Jewish families have said, is that without their food and their laughter, they wouldn’t have gotten through what happened to them as a people, you know? And that’s what happened to black people all over the world. As you learned to find joy in your pain.”
It’s a common attitude among South Africans: “We laugh so we don’t cry,” South African comedian Daniel Friedman told the Wall Street Journal in a 2013 feature on the country’s growing comedy community.
For Noah, who can still recall the time when black South Africans weren’t allowed to speak in public, let alone perform biting social satire, the right to perform stand up became synonymous with democracy.
“Comedy in itself was illegal” during apartheid,” he told Conan. “… So for us young-uns, we came up and it was just this free speech. … ‘I can say this now. I can say anything now.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Noah’s parents, who met while part of an underground movement opposing apartheid, were skeptical of his career choice. When he told his mother he was making a living by telling jokes, she responded, “I’ve never found you entertaining enough to pay you anything.” And his father, who Noah describes as stolid Swiss man with a stern German accent, is “even worse.”
“He says, ‘What do you say about me? There’s nothing funny. … I don’t like it. You need to find a job. That’s what you need to do,'” Noah recalled, laughing.
Though Noah has focused much of his stand up on his family and life experiences in South Africa, in his appearances on the Daily Show he took aim at America’s flaws including ignorance of current events (in one segment he gently coaches Stewart on the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria) and racism (“I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa”).
Noah’s politically aware worldliness appears to be what Comedy Central was going for in hiring him.
“He brings such a unique worldview and a deep understanding of human nature, which makes his comedy so insightful,” the network’s president, Michele Ganeless, told the New York Times Monday. “He’s truly a student of the world.”
The announcement also won praise from some TV critics and diversity advocates. In a lengthy essay for Rolling Stone titled “Why hiring Trevor Noah to host ‘The Daily Show’ is a great idea,’ film critic Tim Grierson argued that Noah’s promotion signals a trend in late-night comedy toward increased diversity in perspective and subject matter.
“It’s telling that each [of Noah’s previous ‘Daily Show’ appearances] took aim at the American audience’s myopia” he said. “The announcement suggests how a new breed of fake-news hosts is expanding the parameters of what gets satirized and from what perspective.”
But Noah has his critics too. Within 12 hours of the announcement, people had dug into his Twitter history and found jokes that would probably have been better left un-tweeted. Buzzfeed editor Tom Gara unearthed most of them.
And lots of critics also wondered why a woman hadn’t been tapped to take up Stewart’s mantle. Cast members Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams have both appeared on the show far more often and had ample support (at least on Twitter).
Noah’s not letting it get to him. ” I feel really confident,” he told the AP. “All I needed in my life was Jon’s blessing. That’s what I have, so I’m looking forward to being part of ‘The Best Damn News Show in the World'”