On Oct. 28, Trevor Noah will take the stage at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Less than two weeks before Election Day, his stand-up, like his satirical news show, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” will likely be the most pertinent and hilarious way you could spend your evening.
Like many others, I bought my ticket months ago. You should too, if you want to laugh instead of cry as our country limps across the finish line of this bizarre campaign season.
I didn’t get to interview Trevor Noah for this article. I tried, believe me. Alas, he’s a busy guy. I did, however, get to read his memoir Born a Crime, which will be released Nov. 15 by Spiegel & Grau. You can reserve a copy on Amazon or, better yet, ask The Twig Book Shop to pre-order for you.
Watching “The Daily Show,” reading his memoir, and scouring the internet for his stand-up, my Noah-appreciation grew. Here is a funny man whose comedic posture as the perpetual outsider landed him in the chair of the ultimate insider.
Because we’d rather laugh than cry, more and more Americans are turning to satirists for our news.
Noah’s generation of satirists –Samantha Bee and John Oliver, to name just two – follow in the serious and seriously funny tradition of Mark Twain, Erasmus, Jonathan Swift, Geoffrey Chaucer, Steven Colbert, and Jon Stewart. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, they make us laugh as they tell us the truth. Otherwise, we’d kill them.
So prominent is the satirical voice in our national discourse that several of my classmates at the London School of Economics wrote their dissertations on “The Daily Show” (when it was hosted by Stewart) and “The Colbert Report.”
Noah is currently sitting first chair among his peers, having been handpicked by Stewart as his successor.
The 32-year-old’s success is more compelling when you learn that he grew up in the waning days of apartheid in South Africa as the “colored” son of an illegal mixed-race union. He had to pretend his white father was his black mother’s employer so that they wouldn’t be arrested.
“Born a Crime” explains, in no uncertain terms, that Noah’s identity hangs on his outsider status. Likewise his stand-up, when he took his show on the international road, is based on friendly irreverence. He makes it safe to laugh as he plays the unwitting observer rather than the angry interrogator.
Had I gotten to interview Noah, I would have asked him if sitting in the insider seat at “The Daily Show” has generated a righteous anger. The more you identify with a place, the more personal its issues become.
In Born a Crime we see the source of Noah’s heat, especially in later stories of the abusive stepfather who eventually shot Noah’s beloved mother in the head. His pain and frustration are palpable. Not only is he angry at the man with the gun, but with the system that gave it to him and encouraged him to pull the trigger.
With many celebrity biographies, we come hoping for salacious behind-the-scenes tales of Hollywood lives, or hilarious vignettes of misadventures in showbiz. The most exotic thing about most celebrities is celebrity itself.
It is not so with Trevor Noah. His days in show business might be the least fascinating thing about him, or at least the most familiar to his American audience. The surreal world of celebrity cannot hold a candle to the mindf— of apartheid.
If post-apartheid is the setting, adolescent Noah himself is an ideal protagonist. The book opens with his mother pushing him out of a moving minibus to save his life. From there he hustled world famous ghettos, regularly pushed his mother’s broken down car through traffic, and sold pirated CDs to make money to buy food at McDonalds.
Noah deftly wins us over with tales of a chubby little troublemaker, the “Dennis the Menace” of Soweto, South Africa. His familiar and disarming voice helps us laugh with him even as our hearts break. He’s an awkward, sometimes hungry, kid whose mother defies injustice in ways that don’t always make his life easy. As he ages across the chapters, the language gets more raw, and the man on a mission emerges.
That mission appears to be shining a light on the absurdity of racism and injustice. The United States has given him plenty of fodder on those topics as he has exploded to international fame.
His memoirs reveal a Trevor Noah conversant in Christianity, thanks to a deeply religious mother. He speaks five languages, and code switches with ease. He also taps into postcolonial theory with a natural hand, unafraid to refer to “our oppressors” and the South African colored population’s search for lost fathers.
Born a Crime gives you a small insight into what Jon Stewart must have seen in Noah.
Noah’s comedy doesn’t seem to waste time with banalities of bad sex and body functions, unless they serve the sharper point. He’s too smart for that, and his life has given him richer material and a more unique voice. He’s got more to say than most people.
I do wonder if Donald Trump’s rise has been a certain kind of gift for the South African comic. He cut his satirical teeth on egomaniacal politicians. Noah himself has pointed to the similarities between the Republican presidential nominee and various African dictators. He probably never thought he’d be able to recycle those Jacob Zuma jokes, and yet, fate has afforded him a chance.
So I didn’t get to interview Trevor Noah. I was bummed, but I also was so happy. What does it say about the power of comedy that a scrappy boy who grew up hustling in Johannesburg would one day be on the cover of TIME Magazine, too busy for interviews? I can live in that world.
If you want a breath of fresh air in the midst of this yucky season, watch a few episodes of “The Daily Show,” grab a ticket to see Noah at the Tobin, and then read Born a Crime. It’s a hopeful story for a rather grim time.