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Trevor Noah: a very serious conversation with a very funny man

Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show with Trevor Noah' Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, is funny. Very funny. Professionally funny.

But what surprised me when I sat down with Noah for a recent episode of my podcast is just how serious he is too. In a conversation that ranged from what America could learn from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to why the Obama era has worsened racial polarization to how tragedy gets absorbed into partisanship, Noah didn’t crack many jokes. He didn’t destroy or eviscerate anyone. But he made a lot of good points — points, in many cases, that I’m still thinking about, weeks after our discussion.

You can listen to our full discussion by streaming it here or by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes. What follows here are edited excerpts from a very serious conversation with a very funny man.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, subscribe to my podcast!

What Obama’s presidency didn’t change about race in America


Ezra Klein: You had a great line that I’ve been thinking about since I read it a number of months ago where you said, "If you’re black in the United States, even after two terms of President Obama, you still feel black."

Do you feel like, watching the Obama presidency go forward, it has also shined light on what hasn’t changed?

Trevor Noah: Yeah. It came with the illusion that everything would change. It came with the illusion that everything would become different.

Ironically, what happens with every single black person is that black people are black people until they achieve a certain level of excellence, and then they become their name.

I’ll give you an example — Will Smith. Is Will Smith black, or is he Will Smith? He’s Will Smith. Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods — yeah, black golfer, but he was Tiger Woods.

I find it strange that the bad apples in the black community will be used to tarnish the black community as a whole, but then the stellar performers will be somehow given a name that is outside of race. They will be given a position that is somehow precluded from race.

So it’s almost like Barack Obama, yes, that man has become the first black president. But in terms of black people, in terms of the country as a whole, people felt like that would extend everywhere. I know this because the anticipation and the excitement spread into Africa.

EK: So if you get arrested, you’re the example that proves the rule, but if you get out, you’re the exception that proves the rule.

TN: Exactly. That’s what often happens. That’s why they always say in black families everywhere that you have to be twice as good. Because you genuinely do. You have to be good for yourself, and you have to be good for the community as well, because if you fail, the community fails.

It becomes, "Ah, you see! Black man can’t get a job," "Black man can’t get his shit together," "Black man can’t look after his kids," you know? But then if you do well, it’s like, "Oh, wow, look at that. A black man who does look after his kids," as opposed to, "Oh, black men do well."

EK: How exhausting is it to have these expectations and fears in your head all the time?

TN: Black people are always living race. When you are driving or walking down the street and you hear a police siren, I do not know a black person who does not have a feeling, just for a moment, of, "This could change my entire day."

I’ll be driving in my car, a police siren goes off behind me, and in that instant, I go, "I don’t know what’s going to happen." Then it drives past me and I’m like, "Oh, okay." And everything is fine, I have my driver’s license, I have no problems, I have a car that’s licensed — but that sound could signal a change forever in my life.

That is being black. You live with it at all times. You know that at any moment, it can happen to you by mistake. And that’s a scary place to live in.

EK: This seems like a reality we have trouble getting at in journalism. We can cover the big things, like the Fergusons, but we don’t really have a way to talk about that moment of fear when the sirens turn on.

TN: Imagine if you come from a world where you have no interactions with the police other than good interactions. You only know the police to be protecting and serving. You even know the police maybe by name. You live in a community where these are never issues for you. For somebody to come and tell you that a policeman would go out of his way to harm another person, I do not blame someone for thinking that is a complete lie. Why would the police ever do something like that? It makes no sense.

But as a black person, you feel crazy when people are like, "You just can tell the officer they don’t have the right to do that." You say, you know, "I wish I had your guts. I can’t believe you can just say that." And they’re like, "Yeah, you say, 'I need to see a warrant. You have no right!'"

It’s like, man, we don’t live in the same world. We genuinely don’t.

Should America have a South Africa–style Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

EK: I saw you’re writing a book.

TN: I am. It’s just me writing a few stories — and how they pertain to the world today, growing up in apartheid South Africa with my mom, and living in a post-racial society that was forged through racism.

EK: What do you mean when you say a "post-racial society"?

TN: That’s what South Africa aspired to. It’s sort of the same thing America aspired to,

South Africa, to a certain extent, has done that. It’s moving to a place where most of your issues are not pinned back to race. Right now in America, a lot of the issues really do center around race. Over time, I think, in South Africa that became less and less [the case]. They were still dealing with the effects of that government, but it’s becoming less and less so. Now it’s more about income and inequality.

EK: It’s interesting the way you say over time there, because apartheid in South Africa is both more extreme and ends much later than Jim Crow.

So it doesn’t seem intuitive that you would have a quicker path to a society where these issues do not pin back to race.

TN: I think we are moving faster, yeah. One of the factors is that we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — we sat down, as a country, to come to grips with everything that had been done during the most oppressive time in our history.

It was the oppressors and the oppressed sitting in a room together, with the whole country watching, and talking through everything that had happened. And it wasn’t about punishing the people; it was about exactly what the name suggests — truth and reconciliation.

It left us in a place where no one could deny what had happened. I see that in America where people ask questions like, "Oh, was slavery that bad?" "Does slavery really have effects?" and "What is the worst thing that happened?" There’s some people who don’t even believe half the stories of lynchings or police brutality. It’s still an issue of, "Well, I don’t know if that’s all true."

I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission really helped us do that, so we’ve progressed. It’s a different country, in that black people are the majority so the minority was oppressing the majority, as opposed to America’s history.

EK: I’m gonna expose the vast acreage of my ignorance here and say that I don’t know that much about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So when you say that everybody was watching, what were they watching? Were you watching this on television as a kid?

TN: It was more than news. It was primetime television.

Imagine if Americans sat down and said, "We are going to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission." You would sit down with all of those who had instigated slavery or who had implemented Jim Crow — all of the people who ran police departments where they specifically set out to abuse minority groups.

You sit down with those people — even white extremist organizations like the KKK — and you sat with them and you said, "Listen, whatever you say now will be not held against you. If you tell the complete truth, it will in essence be forgiven, but the truth will be out there. Everyone out there will know what has happened, and you will talk through it. People will talk about how they set up housing so that black people couldn’t live in good areas. They set it up so that loans couldn’t be given to people of color; they set it up so that police departments would specifically target people of color for infractions that didn’t exist."

And that’s what you’d have to do as a country, and everyone would be watching that — and because it is the perpetrators who are confessing, and there’s really no reason to lie. The truth is essentially what sets you free, and that’s what we had to do.

EK: Is there a story that you remember striking you with force?

TN: There was one member of the police force who told us the story of how he would train his dogs on actual black people who had been arrested. And so he would get the dogs to basically eat the black people in front of him.

He would set them loose in a field, and the black people had to run. And the dogs had to chase them down, like Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. The way he talked about this, and the way they couldn’t defend themselves — and the way the person would try to fight the dog and he would beat them or he would shoot them. Over and over and over again. And that’s how they trained their dogs.

I remember that story stuck with me because the imagery was something I could almost see. I feel like I saw the actual event taking place.

How The Daily Show tries to turn tragedy into comedy

The Daily Show's Trevor Noah talks about police. The Daily Show/Comedy Central

EK: Something that I’m feeling acutely lately is the gruesomeness of the news cycle. This is a very depressing election, and of course we recently had a maniac drive a truck through dozens of people in France.

Covering this stuff even in a fairly straightforward way takes an emotional toll. What does it take to go out and be funny about it?

TN: You know, what I’ve come to realize in almost a year of doing The Daily Show now is that it’s not about what you find funny in the situation.

I use comedy now as a pressure release valve. So I dive in; I explore what is happening, I respond to the true emotion of it, and then I use comedy as my release valve, because that’s all I can do.

Sometimes I use comedy as a catharsis that just helps me get through the anger, the pain, the dismay, the disappointment that I have in what’s happening. But it’s less and less about finding the funny.

One of the things that broke my heart the most after this truck incident was the fact that it feels like every time these attacks happen, it feels like these people [the Islamic State] are winning — not because they’re winning in terms of a body count or in terms of a war, but because they are successfully making us turn on each other. An attack happens, and within 15 minutes, maybe even 10, people online are fighting with each other? It’s like, "Really, guys?" Is this the time? Is this really what’s gonna move us forward?

It’s now as though we are waiting for these attacks to help us prove a point — as opposed to working together to find a way to preserve human life. It’s just a tool that we use to be right or wrong in an argument.

EK: I’d love to hear about this in a very operational way. Walk me through a joke that you’re particularly proud of having appeared on air and how it went from you seeing a news story to you expressing something that felt true and made people laugh.

TN: One was when we were talking about the shootings that were happening — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — and it was around the notion that these cops’ body cameras at the moment of the altercation both became dislodged. "Oh, they both became dislodged in the scuffle."

I had said during the morning meeting, "I call bullshit on that, because I’ve seen white people cameras and they never come off." And then we just played a trailer of those GoPro ads, where people are falling down mountainsides and snowboarding and crashing through waves and mountain biking, and in every video they come out on the other side and the camera is perfectly intact and people are cheering and screaming.

And that was one of those moments where you get to inject comedy in the right way, aiming at the specific thing you’re trying to comment on, while at the same time not taking away the gravity of your argument.

EK: It’s become very clichéd to say that The Daily Show and places like it are the only outlets able to tell the truth about what’s going on. Without backing that sentiment, I feel like there’s this very interesting exception to the structure of opinionated versus objective journalism that has emerged within comedy. You can say things that are clearly quite pointed, but they evade a normal set of defenses, so you can say things that don’t really have a place elsewhere in the media but often need to be said.

It always felt to me that that has to be a somewhat tricky thing to balance — the balance between what is the best joke or what is the funniest joke tonight, and what do I want to say that feels important with that platform? Is that a tension you feel?

TN: I’ve come to the realization that the most important thing for my show is for me to tell the truth. That’s honestly it. For me to tell the truth. It’s the same thing you’re trying to do at Vox. It’s what you’re saying to your writers.

If you cannot be critical to yourself or to the side you say you support, then how can you expect the people you are arguing against to do the same? That is a big problem that I notice, especially in American politics — both sides gloss over their problems and then quickly pivot and turn to the other side.

Ask Paul Ryan if he supports Donald Trump and what he’s saying, and Paul Ryan will within a few sentences pivot and say, "I think the bigger question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Will Hillary stick to conservative values and will Hillary represent conservative voters?’" And it’s like, we didn’t ask you that. We said, "Do you think Donald Trump will be a good president? Do you think Donald Trump represents your views?"

And both sides do it. Both sides do the exact same thing. People aren’t critical of their own sides. You saw it with the Bernie Sanders movement. If you dared question the numbers of Bernie’s campaign, if you dared question his policies on trade, you would enter into a war where you would dread the day you ever mentioned his name. And yet you were going, "But I thought we were all working in the same space. I like Bernie Sanders. But doesn’t that mean I should hold him to a high standard?"

It’s the same thing essentially that goes for the police. If you are pro-police, wouldn’t you want to hold them to a higher standard? Wouldn’t you want them to be beyond reproach or as close to that place as possible? Because you are a fan of what they do, you respect the position of what they hold — why wouldn’t you want that?

The best advice Trevor Noah got was from Dave Chappelle

EK: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

TN: The best piece of advice was probably from Dave Chappelle. It was before I started the show, and he said to me, "Whatever you do, don’t let them steal your joy."

And that I have applied not just to my show but to life. Don’t let people steal your joy. Don’t let people convince you that you are not happy. Don’t let them try and bring you into a world where you are miserable with them.

EK: How are you able to do that?

TN: Just by remembering. Going home, talking to friends, realizing that a lot of the time these are champagne problems.

If I have a problem with a TV show in the United States of America, that’s a champagne problem to have. Twenty years ago my problem was the fact that I didn’t have a flushing toilet. That was a problem. Twenty-five years ago my problem was the fact that I couldn’t be seen in the streets with my mom or my dad, because one of them would be arrested and I would be taken away to an orphanage. That was a problem.

So for me, it’s reminding myself of the level or the degree of problem. I go, "Oh, man, these are not things for which I will allow someone to steal my joy." Someone tweeted me something horrible, it’s like, yeah, whatever. I would worry more if the real people in your world were saying horrible things and Twitter was saying nice things. Then you should worry. But in my world, real people are good people and Twitter people can be whatever they want.

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