Trevor Noah’s World

Trevor Noah’s World

The Atlantic

Douglas Foster, Associate Professor of Journalism
Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

What makes The Daily Show’s new host unique—according to South African comics

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—When word circulated on Monday that standup comic Trevor Noah had been chosen to succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, South Africans hailed Noah in hyper-caffeinated terms as the country’s “next great export” after Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Charlize Theron. On that day, I happened to be in Johannesburg shepherding students through the newsroom of The Star, where the lineup of stories at the morning editorial conference included a series of firefights between gangsters and police on public highways, allegations of corruption at every level of government, and the teetering condition of the state-run utility company, which regularly plunges the country into rolling blackouts. It was no wonder that news of a major U.S. television show hiring a 31-year-old mixed-race South African phenom as anchor had proven so welcome.

By now, the basics about Trevor Noah are well-known. He’s the young, super-cool comedian with the cherubic face and itchy Twitter finger who, beginning in 2012, achieved global recognition by way of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart. In a series of solo performances around the world over the last three years, he has blown up in ways that cultural figures from South Africa haven’t since the 1960s and 1970s, when musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba packed music halls during the height of racial oppression back home…

…What makes Noah’s comedy unique? “He’s slick as fuck!” Evans replied. “But also super charming,” added the young comic sitting next to him. He was a slight, Afrikaans-speaking man named Schalk Bezuidenhout, who sometimes opens for Noah when he’s performing in town. Only 22 years old—the same age as Noah when he jump-started his career as a comedian—Bezuidenhout had just come off stage after a set about the hazards of dating a flight attendant (“a non-smoking fuck”) and the unintended consequences of imposing a non-racial ideal on young people from South Africa’s 11 different language groups (“There’s nothing more messed up than a bunch of Afrikaans kids singing an African song”).

Both men said Noah distinguished himself from other comics by resisting labels and “genre-based comedy.” Bezuidenhout noted that Noah always identified himself as a mixed-race South African raised in straitened circumstances in Soweto without “using it as a crutch.” Contemporaries who have shared the stage with him say he’s unusually attuned to the audience, shifting direction based on the feel in the room, and Bezuidenhout has seen Noah drop chunks of material based on the city he’s performing in. This was a quality that a number of immigrants in South Africa had already mentioned to me. Omega Chembhere, a waiter, told me that when he had arrived from Zimbabwe 10 years earlier, much of South African pop culture had seemed inaccessible. “Trevor’s different, so good at it,” he said. “His strength is that everything springs from his experience in life, but you understand his reality because he makes an effort to explain.”…

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