In December, when The Daily Show introduced its newest correspondent, Trevor Noah, audiences did not realize they were meeting Jon Stewart's eventual replacement as host. Many Americans likely did not know him at all.
Comedy Central, which is appointing Noah to take over as The Daily Show's new host, is banking that Americans will not only forgive Noah for being quite different from Stewart, but will come to love the comedy style that has already earned him a large following abroad.
What follows is a brief introduction to Noah, as well as to some of the work that has made him so popular and that will make his tenure at The Daily Show a fresh and perhaps invaluable contribution to how we talk — and joke — about race and nationality.
The one clip that shows what makes Trevor Noah great
Watching this bit from Noah's 2013 show in London, where he talks about his upbringing and about coming to America for the first time, is by far the best way to understand his comedy and what makes it both great and potentially perfect for The Daily Show.
Noah, in just a few minutes, jokes about being a South African, about growing up during apartheid, and about having a white father and a black mother, all of which then becomes the lens through which he — and his audience — see the US for the first time. (He also does the greatest Adolf Hitler impression I have ever heard.)
As a foreigner, someone with no stake in American racial identities, Noah's different perspective lets him talk about American racial issues as the hapless but curious outsider. He uses this to wonderful effect in the above clip (about three minutes in) when he anticipates how when he comes to the US, he'll be treated as simply black rather than as "mixed" or "colored" as he was in South Africa. "I'm gonna get a piece of that black," he says.
Noah riffs at length about issues of race and identity, topics that are not exactly new to American comedy, using his personal background as the premise. It's less threatening because he doesn't have as much of a personal stake. And he's looking at American issues from a totally different angle. That allows his viewers to see them from a totally different angle, and that's powerful.
You'll also notice something: the more Noah wades into his personal history or into highly sensitive issues (what could be more sensitive than the legacy of apartheid?), the lighter his comedic style becomes. He gets sillier and more self-effacing, and the audience responds by letting its guard down. That's been essential for allowing Noah to take on such thorny topics, and it'll be even more important for him as he takes over The Daily Show's now-institutionalized platform for satirical political commentary.
Teasing Americans as a foreigner could help them see what they otherwise might not
Americans love to hear themselves mocked by foreigners. It's a low-stakes way of talking about American problems and weird habits, and there's also a real degree of narcissism to it: people just like hearing about themselves.
Noah has been doing this for years; the above clip shows him recounting an over-friendly (everyone thinks Americans are weirdly friendly) surfer woman in California who asks him if he's "ever had AIDS." He's making fun of this woman who may or may not actually exist, but he's also lampooning American perceptions and misconceptions about the world.
Along the same lines, here is one of my favorite Noah bits, from way back in 2009, about the tropes aid organizations use when soliciting donations for work in Africa — and what it feels like as an African to watch those ads:
He often reverses the formula, joking about his own misconceptions about the US and about Americans. Expect to hear this from Noah's Daily Show, particularly when it covers foreign news, which Stewart has struggled with, calling out how Americans see the world and how the world sees Americans.
Another clip from London shows Noah using the pose of a befuddled foreigner to contrast his South African experience with that of his host country, in this case the UK:
It's just about traffic lights, so not exactly as high-stakes as discussing race in America. But first mocking his own country's approach to traffic lights does let him lightly tease his British audience for their British habits of rule-worship and obsessive queuing, which is often the same two-step routine he uses on more sensitive issues.
Post-racial comedy about race
There are many things that make American comedy about race tiresome or outright bad (go back and watch any American comedian's clips from the early '90s and you'll cringe at how insensitive it can get).
But perhaps the worst is the habit of classifying the jokes as either white comedy about race or black comedy about race. It's an awkward division that is unenlightening and often lame. (30 Rock skewered it brilliantly with a fake standup bit on the difference between how white and black people dial a phone.)
Noah isn't restricted by that division. It's not quite his racial identity that allows him to rise above it — although it helps; having a white South African tease black Americans would be pretty awkward. Rather, it's his status as an outsider.
Playing the wide-eyed foreigner allows him to take on highly sensitive subjects in a way that is much lower-stakes than it would be for an American comedian. In this bit about President Obama, for example, he mocks the American practice of classifying anyone of partial black background as categorically black:
In America, this practice is known as the "one-drop rule" — in which blackness is defined as anyone with "one drop" of black blood — and it has an ugly history that is not very funny. Noah, as a foreigner, can pretend to simply wander into the conversation and call out what makes it weird.
Noah also engages in both the white and black American conversations about Obama's race — allowing him to be "in" on both sets of jokes and also allowing him to show what makes those two conversations both similar and different. What the Zimbabwean writer Fungai Machirori called Noah's "fluidity of identity" is liberating in an American racial context that's all about rigid racial lines.
And there's a serious message in this bit: the degree to which racial identities are constructed. Noah is the same person in South Africa and the US but considered to be a different race in each. He also gestures at something I've encountered in South Africa and other parts of the continent: a reverence for black Americans as cool and successful. It may not be obvious, but Noah is engaging with the very idea of what it means to be black in America. That's a topic with a lot of salience in the United States right now.
How apartheid South Africa explains Trevor Noah's comedy
Noah's personal history, along with the years of international travel that have given him a wider context, have made him remarkably thoughtful and candid when it comes to joking about race.
He was 10 years old when apartheid ended, in 1994. Noah has a black South African mother and a white Swiss father; his mere existence was illegal under apartheid. The stakes are real for him, so he handles racial issues with nuance and insight. But it was the end of apartheid, perhaps more than the fact of apartheid itself, that explains his comedy.
South Africans of Noah's generation grew up at a time when racial identities were rapidly changing. A decades-old system of brutally enforced white supremacy was ending, and South Africans had to ask what sort of society they would have after it.
The idea of what your race and heritage meant was changing; so was the idea of what it meant to be South African at all. That process was personal as well as political. South Africans of Noah's age were forced to grow up examining their own racial and national identities, asking not just what their country and race were, but how they fit into those communities.
That self-examination comes through in Noah's comedy, but so does the optimism of leaving the era of apartheid for something that no one thought would be paradise but everyone hoped would be better.
All of this comes through in his 2013 appearance on the Late Show, in which Noah introduces himself to American viewers:
He does not actually mention apartheid and only mentions his South African nationality in passing. But the whole premise of the bit of Noah searching for his own identity, asking himself who he is, and dealing with a world that wants to classify him as "African" or German or even Latino. It's all very personal and takes on some pretty weighty issues, but manages to remain both lighthearted and, ultimately, optimistic.
The dangers of playing the outsider
South Africans of Noah's generation can be blunt when they talk about race, both because they've had to and because the taboos against it were, for better or worse, softer. That bluntness can read as insensitivity, and as Noah transitions from standup comedy to The Daily Show's somewhat weightier satirical news coverage, it could cause him and the show real problems.
To get a sense for that, scroll back up to the first clip on this page. One thing that's really striking is the British audience's reaction when he employs black American accents; they're not sure if it's okay to laugh. Noah uses lots of different accents, often ones associated with racial groups, with a degree of specificity that can be unnerving.
This speaks to what's awkward about Noah's role, performing as a South African, and sometimes explicitly identifying as a black South African, for an American audience that is heavily white. It's easy for him to veer from race and identity on his terms to race and identity on his audiences' terms.
The idea of mostly white Westerners asking a partially black South African to perform blackness and Africanness plays on some very ugly and not-so-distant history. It's also easy for white Western attempts to show respect for Noah and his heritage to veer into condescending fetishization.
"Americans have done something with the English language, you've put 22's on the language, it's like, 'Pimp my language," he said, leading in to a joke about his struggle to understand a black woman he met in Atlanta. His impression of her ("look over thurr") would be considered out-and-out racist if Noah were a white American. Does the fact that he's a partially black South African make it okay?
Noah's approach could backfire in other ways. Machirori, the Zimbabwean writer, worried with good reason that Noah's frequent use of Africa as a comedic foil for America would end up further muddying and simplifying American views of Africa, rather than expanding or complicating them.
How Trevor Noah will make The Daily Show different while keeping it the same
You can glimpse how Noah will remake The Daily Show in his first appearance from December. Noah joked that when coming to America, he found police racism, basic infrastructure, and the threat of Ebola were all worse. He played off of American stereotypes of "Africa" as a way to highlight American shortcomings; Americans, for some reason, love hearing their insecurities about the US indulged.
That's not new for Noah, and it's how he's likely to approach running The Daily Show. Unlike Stewart, who takes the pose of an exasperated and disappointed American shaking his head at his country's foibles, Noah plays the befuddled foreigner confused and amused by the US not living up to its reputation.
He and Stewart ultimately arrive at the same destination — calling out American shortcomings to comedic effect — but take very different routes to get there. Where Stewart scolded, Noah questions. That will allow The Daily Show to remain The Daily Show, while freshening up a formula that had grown a bit tired.
More importantly, Noah's approach is ideal for issues of racial and national identity, which are attracting ever more attention. It's less confrontational and thus less threatening. Playing the confused foreigner makes it easier for him to take on topics that might otherwise be too sensitive. And his home country of South Africa provides a ready-made comparison.
As Daily Show host, Noah can bring this approach to any number of sensitive issues in the US and not just those related to race. A recurring theme of Stewart's tenure was the divided national conversations in liberal versus conservative America, but Stewart focused almost entirely on championing the liberal side.
Don't expect Noah to drop that liberal voice beloved by the audience, but his ability to rise above divisions by commenting on them could bring a fresh perspective and overcome the show's annoying habit of partisanship.
All of this lets Noah flip American views of race and nationality upside down, particularly when it comes to ideas of whiteness versus blackness. He can apply that to how Americans see the world as well to how they see themselves, asking his audience, however gently, to question the mental demarcations they've made. That could have the potential to be a real, and quite valuable, service.