Noah’s arc: from Apartheid to biting jokes about race

Having grown up in South Africa with a black mother and white father, comedian Trevor Noah has a wide perspective on life

Trevor Noah: a firm believer in the dictum that a comedian’s first and last purpose is to make people laugh and not be a hectoring, socially relevant buzz-kill

Trevor Noah: a firm believer in the dictum that a comedian’s first and last purpose is to make people laugh and not be a hectoring, socially relevant buzz-kill

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 09:24

‘I was born a crime,”says the fast rising South African comic Trevor Noah. The personable 30-year-old means it literally. Born to a black South African mother and a white Swiss father in apartheid South Africa, his criminal status as a mixed-race child from a legally forbidden liaison has informed his worldview and his comedy.

When he was a child, he observes, his mother would walk ahead of him in the street, pretending not to know him – “I felt like a bag of weed” – while his father walked on other side of the street, waving to him “like a creepy paedophile”.

But his mordant riffs on race and ethnicity form just one part of his comedic repertoire. Noah is the next big thing. With material that travels well, a developed sense of stage performance, an edgy undertow to his work, and, having conquered South Africa as the country’s first comedy mega-star, he has now made dents in the US and UK markets. He makes his Irish debut tonight at the Vodafone Comedy Festival in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens.

Noah became the first African comedian to land a slot on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, which led to a rash of bookings stateside. On this side of the pond, his 2012 debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival led to a sell-out London theatre run. The producer of his Edinburgh run was one Eddie Izzard, who had caught an early club date of Noah’s and was impressed enough to step in as an unofficial mentor.

Noah didn’t know who Izzard was when they first met. “It was just a meeting of two comedians in a club that had no clue who the other was, which was great,” he says. “His endorsement has always been great because I can blackmail the audience with the phrase ‘Well, Izzard thought that joke was hilarious’.”

 

Reclassified racial identity

That breakthrough Edinburgh show was called The Racist. He used the hour-long slot to lay bare his slightly surreal upbringing whereby his family had to lie to their Soweto neighbours to cover up his light- coloured skin: “I was an albino, although an albino that never got sunburn.”

Because of the hateful stupidity of Apartheid, Noah’s racial identity has been reclassified three times during his lifetime. Growing up, he couldn’t be seen in public with his parents as they would have been arrested.

How he deals with race material in his South African set is different from how he will treat it in Ireland. In his native country, race relations are still a hot-button topic; in Europe, it tends to be news-dependent.

“For the Dublin shows, people will find out that, as a comedian, I am shaped by where I’m from and who I grew up with. In my case, that is growing up in Soweto,” he says.

“But when I first started doing stand-up, I just wanted to make people laugh. That hasn’t changed, but over time I’ve come to realise that, while talking honestly on stage to your audience, you start to share your views and opinions on matters of the world, and that becomes a great way to connect with like-minded individuals in your audience.”

 

Cultural chameleon

There is no brow-beating in Noah’s work – he’s not the sort of act who gets people walking out on him. He is a firm believer in the dictum that a comedian’s first and last purpose is to make people laugh and not be a hectoring, socially relevant buzz-kill.

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