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Trevor Noah Didn't Come From Nowhere

How being everyone and no one defines the new Daily Show host’s comedy

Comedy Central

The first time Trevor Noah did stand-up it wasn’t a formal booking or even an open mic—it was on a dare. He and some friends had gone to a comedy show in Johannesburg, and as it closed, Noah’s drunken companions coaxed him on stage. Noah, who rarely drinks and says he usually regrets it when he does, soberly awed the crowd. Within a few years he would become South Africa’s most famous comedian and one of its biggest celebrities.

Noah’s ascent has been rapid—he’s only 31—but in many ways his path to comedy stardom has been typical. After being dared into stand-up, Noah began performing regularly. After a spate of corporate events and low-paying gigs, his home base became The Blues Room, an upscale jazz club in Johannesburg that occasionally hosted comedians, where he worked with Ugandan comedian David Kibuuka to entertain the suburban crowd for no pay.

In August of 2008, David Paul Meyer, a young American film student, came to South Africa in search for a subject. Meyer was looking for an overlooked story, and had been drawn to the South African stand-up scene. “I’d heard of people from various parts of Africa having a sense of humor about their often dire situations to help them cope,” explains Meyer as we sit in a coffee shop a few blocks from The Daily Show studios, where he recently started as a field producer. In South Africa, black comedians could only legally perform after the end of apartheid in 1994. “The first two shows I saw in Johannesburg were horrible,” Meyer recalls.  “Guys were literally reading jokes off of a page they printed from the Internet.” On Meyer’s third day in the country, he’d wrecked his rental car and was ready to write off his trip as an expensive vacation, however that night he went to a jazz club in the ritzy Sandown suburb expecting nothing. He left with plans to shoot a documentary about a young comedian named Trevor Noah.

Meyer would soon discover that Noah was different than other South African comedians. Most typically catered to one audience: David Kau to black crowds, John Vlismas to hipster whites, and Casper de Vries to the Pretoria Afrikaans elite. Noah speaks eight languages at various levels of fluency, which has helped him relate to many of South Africa’s cultural groups. (The country has eleven official languages.) Noah's good looks, charm, and spot-on accents and impressions earned him steady laughs, even as he continued to learn the basics of stand-up. Meyer was drawn to these qualities, yet his documentary ultimately focused less on Noah’s comedy and more on his quest for an identity. Meyer seemed to implicitly recognize that Noah’s enormous well of charisma–and the ease with which he shifts into different impressions and characters–often obscure the question of who Noah really is.

Understanding Trevor Noah will require his audience to grasp the apartheid-era classifications that shape his identity as an outsider. Noah was born and raised in Soweto, a neighborhood in Johannesburg that was the epicenter of political protest in apartheid South Africa. Eight years before Noah was born, the Afrikaans government killed 13-year old Hector Pieterson during the Soweto student uprising, and launched the country into an intense period of violent political struggle.

Noah often refers to the fact that he was “born a crime” to his black Xhosa mother and white Swiss father, but he leaves some biographical details out. His mother and father never married, and his father left the family when Noah was a child, moving first to Cape Town and later to Switzerland. Noah grew up at a time when the government would often impose a 9 p.m. curfew for non-whites—he and his mother could only visit his father if she dressed as a maid. His parents always had to walk on opposite sides of the street, and there were times when, to avoid trouble, both parents would feign to not know their own child; they’d drop him “like a bag of weed,” Noah jokes.

Life meant sleeping in a cramped room with five cousins, peeing in a bucket, and learning to accept a steady presence of Casspirs, the 12-foot tall anti-mine vehicles that roamed Soweto’s streets, ostensibly to promote order as menacingly violent children walked to kindergarten.

Trevor’s lighter skin makes him look “colored,” a mixed-race racial classification under apartheid. The apartheid label “colored” is itself confused, lumping the Khoe San descendants of the Cape Flats with the Cape Malay, mixed race people, and any other groups that didn’t fit neatly into black and white. Culturally, Noah identifies as black, but that never stopped people from questioning why he looks the way he does. In the opening scene of Meyer’s documentary You Laugh But It’s True, Noah explains his outsider mentality:

I’ve lived a life where I’ve never really fitted in in any particular way. Even now, people still debate on what I am. People will say, “Oh you’re black,” And then someone will turn around and say, “No but he’s not black, he’s not black; he’s colored.” And then colored people will say “but you’re not colored.” And then when you get older it’s cool because you’ve lived everywhere and nowhere, you’ve been everyone and no one, so you can say everything and nothing, and that’s really what affects my comedy and everything that I say. And if ever this comedy thing doesn’t work out, I’ve got poverty to fall back on, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be cool there.

The end of apartheid granted South Africans freedom on paper, but it was not an end to the country’s problems, or Noah’s. The comedian has kept quiet regarding Ngisaveni Shingange, his abusive former stepfather who would beat his mother with a bicycle frame. Noah’s mother divorced Shingange in 1996, but they continued to live together until 2002 when the persistent abuse forced Patricia and Trevor’s step-brother, who was 18-months-old, into a shack behind their home. As an adult, Noah stopped visiting his mother, unwilling to continue to see her subject to abuse. Then in 2009, his mother moved out and became engaged to another man. Shingange tracked her down and shot her in the back and head, ignoring the pleas of their 8-year-old son. Noah recounted much of story to GQ in July:

One night, while he was preparing for The Daywalker [his one man show], 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.”

Patricia Noah miraculously survived. One bullet ricocheted off her skull, just missing her brain. Noah paid her hospital bills and helped her through her recovery. He successfully premiered The Daywalker to a sold out audience and over the next few years became the most famous comedian in South Africa. He hosted awards shows, and starred on his own version of The Daily Show show, Tonight With Trevor Noah. But by 2012 it seemed Noah had outgrown the South African comedy scene, telling GQ that it only took two seasons of his talk show for him to interview everyone “famous enough” in the country. This realization allowed Noah to seek new opportunities in Europe and the United States, and led him to join comedian Gabriel Iglesias’s Stand-Up Revolution tour.

In 2012, Noah left South Africa, where he was a celebrity, for America, where he was just one of many comedians on a 68-show blur of a tour. On the road, Noah received an abridged education in American life and culture. Often playing to half-full rooms, he’s spoken in interviews about his touring days as being exhausting and depressing. The towns he visited did not look like the America of Hollywood exports, but he paid attention and slowly began to work his experiences into new jokes that were much more personal.  

Iglesias would open each show before ceding the stage to any number of his rotating cast of comedic protégés, which created a competitive and often hectic environment. “Trevor was such a natural,” tour veteran Shaun Latham told me on the phone from Puerto Rico. “It was amazing to watch how quickly he could write and adapt,” he continued. “Each city we went to he would write new jokes. Like we had a large Latino following on tour because of Gabriel, and that’s where the taco joke came from.” The joke is a protracted conversation between two misunderstanding people, and showcases Noah’s ability to slip in and out of characters with such ease.

Impressions and impersonations are by no means unique to Noah’s comedy, but his admission that he has lived as “everyone and no one,” was what allowed him to use his status as an outsider and to serve as South Africa’s comedic, cultural, and political ombudsman. But Noah hasn’t yet approached his role in America the same way. He smiled and laughed through his early American media interviews, but no matter the question, he would steer the answer into one of his stand-up jokes, shepherding new audiences towards true, yet scripted descriptions of his life. This was fine then, since Noah’s primary job at the time was simply to make people laugh, but as he steps into a role that blends politics and comedy, and takes control of a show that 12 percent of Americans say they rely on for news, he’s going to have to provide answers. Noah’s comedic strength is his delivery and his ability to mimic and satirize other viewpoints, but Daily Show viewers will demand he give his own.

Noah’s friend Loyisa Gola, an early comedy partner at The Blues Room and host of the South African show Late Nite News, challenged this assessment. “People like him because he’s hilarious. At the end of the day you have to be super funny, after that we can talk about everything else–at the end of the day I don’t want to entertain these other narratives, and just want to focus on the idea that he’s really, really funny.” Gola is right that Noah’s performances are funny, but that’s not enough to satisfy The Daily Show’s audience, who long ago stopped turning to Jon Stewart for George Bush impressions, and instead looked to him for his opinion on world issues. There’s no doubt Noah is talented and smart, but as he shifts to American late-night, he must prove he’s ready to move past being “everyone and no one,” and be comfortable as “someone.”