How Trevor Noah went from biracial youth in South Africa to leading light on U.S. TV

By Karen Heller

Trevor Noah decided to become a stand-up comedian before he had ever seen one in his country. Photo / Washington Post
Trevor Noah decided to become a stand-up comedian before he had ever seen one in his country. Photo / Washington Post

Trump. Trump. Clinton. The Obamas dancing like dorks.

Such is the stuff of a recent pre-election morning meeting at The Daily Show headquarters. Trevor Noah enters, water bottle and orange in hand, and wedges himself in among the writers, his back never pressing against the sofa.

"Can we talk about Brexit?" he asks. "I find Brexit fascinating, because in the US, people see it as done and dusted."

They talk of Brexit, how British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resembles a Muppet. But then the discussion swiftly returns to the steady drip of Trump, Trump, Trump.

You may hire a guy for his global perspective, but comedy comes back to the familiar fast.

Last year, after a 16-year reign, Jon Stewart was replaced by a young comedian who is nothing like him: foreign, bi-racial, cool, GQ-photogenic and utterly unknown to Americans, having appeared on the show only three times before being tapped as the successor.

Noah was given six weeks to create his own version of the programme, all during a presidential campaign that became so absurd and unprecedented as to seem the work of deranged comedy writers. (When Trump won, Noah told his audience that "it feels like the end of the world".)

"I had no fears [about the job], because I was extremely ignorant. It was bliss," the 32-year-old says. "Only an idiot would take the job after Jon Stewart, and I was that idiot."

He took the job, continued doing stand-up on nights off and, oh, wrote an affecting memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which is also a love letter to his mother.

The "crime" was that his birth in 1984 violated South Africa's 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited "illicit carnal intercourse" between a "European male" and a "native female". As the child of a black mother and a white father in a society that kept the two races strictly separated, Noah has long lived outside rigid racial lines. "I never met any kids who were bi-racial," he says.

His defiant mother was jailed so many times for breaking apartheid's severe racial laws and frequenting whites-only areas that "I think she even lost count," Noah says.

Daily Show host Trevor Noah and girlfriend Jordyn Taylor attend Heidi Klum's 17th Annual Halloween Party. Photo / AP
Daily Show host Trevor Noah and girlfriend Jordyn Taylor attend Heidi Klum's 17th Annual Halloween Party. Photo / AP

Before apartheid ended when he was almost 6, young Trevor was kept mostly indoors, often staying in Soweto with his maternal grandmother, who told him, "I'm afraid they will steal you."

He thought she meant the people in the township where he lived with his mother. (He never lived with his father, a Swiss national residing in South Africa whom his mother, a secretary, met when she was living illegally in a Johannesburg apartment building that prohibited blacks.)

"I thought she was being paranoid. And it was only while writing the book," he says, "that I realised that she was afraid, rightfully so, that the police would take me."

He couldn't be seen in public with his parents. "In my head, I grew up running with my parents," Noah says. His mother, told him otherwise: "You were chasing your father down the street and I was chasing you because he couldn't be seen with you because of the police."

Because of his lighter skin, Noah was viewed as "coloured" by society and at school, a racial classification shared by no other member of his black family.

"I was the only kid who was getting sunburned, the only kid whose skin would show bruises the way it did. I was stared at whether it was a wedding or a funeral or a family gathering with extended members. So, if anything, I didn't see myself as whole or complete or part of a thing."

Noah decided to become a stand-up comedian before he had ever seen one in his country, or before he knew that he could make a living doing such a thing.

"Famous is an understatement. He's mega-famous in South Africa," says Ugandan comedian Joseph Opio. "He's basically the South African comedy industry personified."

Only an idiot would take the job after Jon Stewart, and I was that idiot.
Trevor Noah

Most of the writers and producers - as well as the work culture - from Stewart's tenure on The Daily Show were retained, but Noah asked Opio and comedian David Kibuuka, who was born in Uganda but later moved to South Africa, to join the writing staff. Says Opio, "We share an outsider's voice."

The show is fuelled by staggering quantities of caffeine and junk food. It still astonishes Noah and his African colleagues, who grew up viewing cake as a rarity. Noah's grandmother's house was "not a two-bedroom house. A two-room house," he says, with no running water, and an outdoor communal faucet and a toilet shared by multiple families.

Noah learned quickly that to work with a successful programme and a large production team, "you really have to go for evolution rather than revolution," he says. "Because anything you do initially is seen as incorrect."

Critics fault him for appearing too detached on-screen, where Stewart delivered arias of indignation. "But Trevor hasn't earned the right to be that angry about what's happening in America," Opio says. "And where we've come from, we've seen worse things."

Says Noah, "I understand that some people think of me as cold and somewhat dismissive, but the truth is I'm genuine.

"When I started, I had lofty ideas of what I was going to do," he says, "and I thought I would do it within 100 days, and I would change everything."

Fast and all at once wasn't going to work. "I learned," Noah says. "The show was my Guantanamo."

Nor is the writing staff's task easy. "It's very difficult writing for me," he says. "You are writing for a bi-racial South African, who is from a world you cannot lock down. You cannot understand my experience. It is the black experience, but it's a different black experience."

- Washington Post

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