JFL NorthWest headliner Trevor Noah ponders race, identity, and how to make it all hilarious

In an exclusive interview, The Daily Show host muses on Africa versus America, political comedy, and Black Lives Matter.

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      When the Georgia Straight reaches Trevor Noah at Comedy Central’s world news headquarters in New York, the 31-year-old has a show to rehearse in six hours. And before rehearsal, he still has to write it.

      That’s a team effort, of course. But the new host of The Daily Show—still climbing a learning curve on America and the quirks of its politics—dispels the notion he relies entirely on veteran staffers left behind by long-time host Jon Stewart, who left the show in August.

      “You have to create a show in your voice,” Noah says in a telephone interview. “And so you have to be hands-on, otherwise it just doesn’t work.”

      After rehearsal, the episode will be rewritten within a tight, 90-minute window, and then taped in front of a studio audience at 6 p.m.

      It’s an intense schedule, Noah concedes, one that’s taken some getting used to. “I’m not a morning person,” he says. “But the day starts in the morning, so I have to start with it.”

      On-screen, Noah never appears anything but confident, at ease, and don’t even get me started on those dimples. But he’s conceded that a rapid rise to inherit one of late-night television’s most engaged audiences has come with pressures.

      Just as unnerving, he’s relocated from his birth country of South Africa to a nation engulfed in gun violence and racial tension (where some of his best jokes emphasize the two countries’ sometimes very similar challenges).

      All of that might lead Noah to reserve any time off for rest and relaxation. But when he does have a short vacation this month, he’s chosen to spend it on-stage in Vancouver.

      Noah headlines the inaugural JFL NorthWest comedy festival at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this Friday (February 19, the night before his birthday).

      “This is going to be my first time [visiting Vancouver], so I’m really excited,” he says, pausing to ask: “Is it cold there?”

      Ticket-holders for the sold-out show can expect a standup routine heavy on ethnic comedy, but with jokes that display genuine affection for the cultures Noah teases.

      His relatively recent but international fame allowed him to travel much of the world before he settled down in Pasadena five years ago. Since then, Noah says, a travel bug has stuck with him. Going back further, he’s long embodied South Africa’s post­apartheid character as a rainbow nation. Noah is fluent in six of the country’s 11 official languages (including “the one with the clicks”, he’s joked) and understands more than a smattering of several others, including German, Japanese, and Spanish.

      In the 2011 documentary You Laugh But It’s True, he revisits humble beginnings in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, where he grew up in a two-bedroom house crowded with extended family. Conceived by a Swiss-German father and a Xhosa mother in 1983 apartheid South Africa, Noah was literally born a crime, goes the punch line of one of his favourite early standup bits.

      In his standup routines, South African comedian Trevor Noah has long joked that he was literally born a crime.

      Yet Noah claims he doesn’t consider himself a political comedian.

      “I am a person that is living in a political world, and I comment on my world,” he says. “I think comedy is beautiful in that you can get a message across without directly seeming to go after that thing.”

      On the January 26 edition of The Daily Show, Noah did take a more direct approach, hosting DeRay Mckesson, a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement. During that interview, Noah played devil’s advocate to let Mckesson burn down just about every straw-man argument there is against the campaign that calls attention to African-Americans killed by police.

      “A lot of the time, you bring up Black Lives Matter,” Noah said in the bit, “and then immediately someone goes, ‘Well, white lives matter.’ And then someone else goes, ‘Well, all lives matter.’ How do you respond to that?”

      Of course it was a question Mckesson had heard before.

      “If you were at a breast-cancer rally and somebody yells, ‘Colon cancer matters’… We’re not saying colon cancer doesn’t matter,” he responded. “We’re not saying that other lives don’t matter. What we are saying is that there is something unique about the trauma that black people have experienced in this country, especially around policing, and that we need to call that out.”


      Does Noah consider himself a member of the Black Lives Matter movement?

      “I can’t say I see myself as part of that movement, specifically, because the movement has its members,” he says to the Straight, speaking slowly. “But I am a black person, and I hope and I believe that our lives matter. So I can rather say, ‘I stand behind the movement or the cause and what it stands for.’ That is what it is really about.”

      Whether you call specific jokes political or not, Noah’s funniest and most poignant moments since taking over The Daily Show—the instances where he’s approached Stewart’s laboriously honed capacity for laser-sharp indignation—have often focused on race, inequality, and injustice.

      Toward the end of his January 18 interview with the creators of Netflix’s megahit documentary Making a Murderer, Noah remarked: “I saw people getting so angry. And I think that’s what you were successful in doing, is getting people to realize that there are problems in the system. Getting white people to realize. Because white people were like, ‘This can’t be happening. Oh, my God. How is an innocent man being oppressed by the system?’ And black people were like, ‘Exactly! That’s the shit I’ve been talking about!’ ”

      Is that political?

      “Some would consider that a political point,” Noah answers. “I would consider that a general social observation.”

      Other standout moments have focused on the absurdities of American exceptionalism, with Noah pointing out ways in which the United States is not so different from a continent associated with endemic poverty.

      On January 15, he did a bit on a state of emergency declared in Flint, Michigan, where cost-cutting measures led to a degradation of the city’s plumbing so severe the tap water was poisoned with lead.

      “I want to call out to all my people in Africa right now watching The Daily Show,” Noah said with a look into the camera. “Because, my friends, for only a hundred dollars a day, we can save a village in America and get these people drinking the water that they so badly need.”

      For his very first appearance on The Daily Show, in December 2014, Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah played a game called “Spot the Africa”.

      Noah continues to play on both similarities and differences between his old home and his new one. Earlier this month, for example, he earned big laughs when he joked the Carolina Panthers’ “champion” T-shirts were on their way to Africa for the continent’s annual post–Super Bowl “free-T-shirt Monday”. But more often, Noah positions himself as a citizen of the United States, albeit one still curious about his new surroundings.

      Earlier in his interview with the Straight, before discussing Black Lives Matter, Noah delivered a telling response when asked to what extent he has come to identify with African-American culture. The first reference point he described was a hypothetical encounter with law enforcement.

      “I’m walking down the street, and let’s say there is a policeman or something,” he said. “It’s not like I feel any less in danger than an American black person walking next to me.”

      Does he feel less safe in Johannesburg—where the murder rate is down in recent years but still staggeringly high—or in New York City?

      “It is a different feeling,” Noah said. “When it’s crime, you just stay vigilant and you try and stay safe. When it’s police, you feel like you almost don’t stand a chance. It’s a scarier proposition. How do you avoid the law? It’s a very strange feeling.”

      It’s a revealing conversation about where Noah sees himself in America and how that has changed in the four years since his breakthrough appearance on U.S. television, on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, in 2012.

      “I’ve heard African-Americans, and oh, the way they speak, they pay no regard to punctuation whatsoever,” he said then, with Leno laughing behind him. “Just cruise through sentences like poetry. I don’t even understand half of it, but it sounds great.”

      Four years later, the pronouns they and them have been replaced with we and us, a transition that Noah said was not conscious but also not surprising.

      “It was about me realizing that the black experience was more universal than I thought,” he explained. “African-American culture, as the name suggests, has shared a lot in common with African culture. You must remember, I’ve grown up black, and the black experience in most parts of the world is very, very similar. So it is just about exploring a slightly different, almost a permutation of the black experience.”

      Noah maintained that sort of transition transcends race.

      “When you travel and you live with people and you are in their world, things are happening to all of you, and it becomes an ‘us’,” he said. “People try and make you believe there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. But you will find, in more cases than not, at the end of the day, it’s an ‘us’.”


      Trevor Noah plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (February 19) as part of the JFL NorthWest comedy festival.

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