Newsmaker – Trevor Noah: The insider outsider

2015-04-05 15:16

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‘I am sorry, no statements,” reads the final, terse email from Trevor Noah’s American publicist, Jill Fritzo, when I request an interview – or at least an email message from the nation’s biggest entertainment sweetheart since Charlize Theron clutched her Oscar.

As the week progressed, the chances of chatting to Noah had become about as likely as getting a ticket to one of his shows in Dubai or Washington, sold out for months, even before it was announced that the “unknown” comedian had landed one of the planet’s most attractive and lucrative TV gigs, to replace Jon Stewart as host of news spoof The Daily Show.

He then ran headfirst into a media bus.

American actress Roseanne Barr started the engine, calling out Noah’s Twitter gags about “Jewish kids” and “fat chicks”, and the headline count rocketed.

Liberals and comedians sprang to his defence. Some pleaded to give the kid a chance; others, like the right wing Fox News, declared him “mortally wounded even before he starts the gig” and that this isn’t like “doing stand-up at some Johannesburg joint”.

For liberals, Noah was too undefined politically. For conservatives, he was too un-American (read black).

The 31-year-old, Soweto-raised funnyman returned to the scene of the crime, posting a brief defence about being judged by a handful of meh gags on his Twitter account, now graced by a million-odd new followers. Then he went shtum, and Fritzo turned terse.


It was this way even before Noah became the most famous South African comedian. He was never easy to get an interview with, always placing himself in a different league. Whereas other comedians charged R20?000 for a corporate MC gig, he charged twice as much.

This week local comedy stars sent messages of congratulations. But Noah was not particularly loved by his peers. They thought fame had gone to his head; they resented his million-buck Cell C campaign; there were mutterings about him using other people’s material.

The last time I interviewed him four years ago, I asked about his “overnight success” – from Isidingo actor to comedy superstar.

“I’ve been lucky enough to experience overnight success for five years. I’ve been on TV for 10,” he quipped.

The same can be said of the “lucky” call out of the blue a year and a half ago that ultimately put him in the world’s headlines this week.

“I didn’t know who the number was, obviously, and it was just a person on the other end saying: ‘Hi, I’m Jon Stewart.’ And you’re like, this is a cool prank. I’ll play along,” he said in a Daily Show podcast earlier this year.

Stewart said he loved Noah’s voice and wanted him on board. Noah said he really appreciated it, but couldn’t because he was working on booked-out stand-up shows. Stewart invited him to watch a taping and Noah was blown away.

“My first time at the desk, I was all kinds of nervous. I was genuinely shitting myself,” recalled Noah.

But then Stewart looked him in the eye and carried him through the routine. It’s Stewart’s mentorship – and willingness to act the patsy to Noah’s often pretty average gags, as the young man gained confidence – that has paid off big time.

Stewart backed Noah as his successor and Comedy Central backed an outsider – a young, black one – for its emerging global audiences.

America, however, didn’t come calling for Noah.

He took a risk. By 2014 he had a regular circuit of 15 countries, from Australia to Dubai, America to Botswana. He had appeared on a bunch of UK TV shows, done The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman, and secured an extended stand-up run in New York with Born a Crime. Of course, Stewart was interested.


It’s Noah’s story as much as his repertoire that found him at Stewart’s desk. Growing up, he always had itchy feet but, according to the man himself, was directionless until he decided on comedy.

When he told a girlfriend he wanted to be a stand-up, she said: “But you’re not funny.”

Noah knew he could package his story, and make it funny and relevant. He had survived a turbulent childhood. His Xhosa mother, Patricia Noah, never intended a nuclear family with her white Swiss partner during apartheid.

“I wanted a child and I said, let me have a child – no strings attached. He didn’t like it, but he did it. Marriage was not on my agenda,” she says in David Paul Meyer’s 2013 documentary, You Laugh But It’s True.

Noah lost his father and later risked his life to defend his mother when she was beaten and shot by his stepfather. He felt he never fitted in anywhere.

“You’ve lived everywhere and nowhere. You’ve been everyone and no one. So you can say everything and nothing,” he says in the film.


The young man worked through his anger, travelled the world and learnt about it.

He has presented himself to America as the bemused outsider, making critical observations about American life. He’s also presented himself as the biracial everyman, a manifestation of the Obama age. And he’s a simmering comedic bomb – the perfumed immigrant stealing the American Dream.

He may not have Stewart’s political fire, but he’s walked through fires of his own. People who say he can’t crack it underestimate the army of excellent writers and producers on The Daily Show.

And they don’t know Trevor Noah’s burning determination to make the best career he can for himself.

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