The moment I finished reading the last line of the final chapter in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, it felt like I was left sitting in a cinema after a really good film has played. You know those moments, when the credits are rolling, the lights are slowly coming back up, people are scurrying out to leave, but you can’t move just yet because you’re still thinking about everything you just saw. Only in this case, it’s what was just read. And instead of a cinema, I was in an Upper East Side coffee shop, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing coming back into ear-shot over the speakers, a woman across from me looking at me with that mix of should-care-but-don’t-want-to-get-involved New York attitude. I realised it’s because I had a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Tears I didn’t expect to shed reading a book about South Africa’s biggest comic star.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the scene with which Trevor ends the book is one anyone who knows his back-story will familiar with – the story of how his mother was shot by his stepfather, twice. Once in the head. But, if we stay with the film analogy, consider that the trailer stacked with the most dramatic part of the film’s action, intended to hook those with a passing interest. The full story, the way Trevor builds up to this moment through his collection of stories, give that moment its real meaning and significance in the life of The Daily Show host.
Born a Crime is dubbed as a collection of stories about growing up in South Africa on the brink of Apartheid’s end, but it amounts to an autobiography, detailing Trevor’s life as a kid with a with a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother. His life reflects some of the peculiarities of the country at the time, from living in township to a suburb.
More than that, it essentially is about his mother – the source of his comedy. Trevor’s often said in interviews his mom is the one who gave him his comedic outlook on life, and he explores that in the book, in between moments of great sadness and shame and empathy and, yes, entertainment (Toffee apples and fake Adidas shoes, nogal).
It’s a personal and honest account – Trevor shares stories of being so poor and hungry at one time he ate Mopane worms and not for the exotic culinary delight of it. But through it all, there’s the humour. Even with the embarrassing moments that arose out of his being an outsider, not just racially but geographically, and how he struggled to make friends, to the point that he would look in on other houses to see what they were doing: “I was like a Peeping Tom, but only for friendship.” From his days as a tuck-shop hustler to a stint in jail, his experience with hair relaxer and a Matric Farewell date gone wrong, he relays them all. Some parts lend themselves to humour much easier than others. But somehow, he – or his mother – would find it.
He himself admits time has given him the benefit of hindsight. He writes with an empathetic voice, and I found it made me willing to reconsider some of those who may have injured me in the past. And while it’s written for an American audience as well, some of the explanations will be useful to South Africans too. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know the origin of the word “cheese-boy” even though I had sung it as a lyric in kwaito songs over and over.
There are some really poignant moments, particularly when he talks about what his relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, taught him:
“I saw more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence, but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them…”
Oh, but did this part get to me! Especially as he goes into detail about what led to the realisation. I’m a fan of Trevor’s comedy, yes, but after reading this book I’m rooting for him even more. In tracing his life, and his comedy, backwards, he, in a sense, sets up his future: a life that can only go forward. It’s a great example for anyone to be inspired by.
Today is the day. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah begins its first new chapter under the South African comedian, who is about to sit in a chair occupied for 16 years by a man many Americans came to love and cherish as a custodian of critical thinking and on-the-mark jokes.
It was only December last year when Trevor Noah joined The Daily Show, sending a wave of positive news through a weary South Africa, drained from the drawn-out coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial. Still a few months into the joy of that good news, the following February, Jon Stewart, after making his first feature film Rosewater,announced he’d be leaving the show and making way for someone new. The unlikely and surprising news that Noah would be taking over from him came a few weeks later. Then, it took some time before we knew when Stewart’s last show would be, and conversely, Trevor’s first. And now here we are, the day has come.
An audience-full of TV fans will line up outside The Daily Show studio for the taping at 6pm on Monday that goes out on air on Comedy Central at 11pm. For South Africans and those European fans Noah has gathered along his many international tours, the episode will air on Tuesday.
I visited the studio on Friday afternoon – along with a host of other international and US journalists. We had some time to talk to Trevor and he seemed cool and calm and in control of how things were playing out. Except he isn’t. And he knows this.
Trevor has likened this experience to sky-diving. “You can do all your preparations on the ground, train, practice, know as much as you can, but then you get into the plane and reach the height you are going to jump and stand at the door, ready, and at that point you have lost control. You control none of the elements, not the direction of the wind, not the bird that may fly into the plane. All you know is the ground is coming towards you and you have to rely on what you’ve done up until now.”
I’ve spoken to friends here about the switchover. One told me he doesn’t think it will work because “The Daily Show is American so The Daily Show host needs to be American.” He doesn’t believe someone from the outside will understand the nuances of being from here and won’t be able to play off of those during the show. Salon, too, believes this and goes further to say the outlook looks “grim.” Indeed I spoke to other journalists from the UK and we shared concerns over whether America will give him a chance to make his own name and way, under the Jon Stewart shadow.
But others I’ve spoken to have welcomed the fresh approach. Comedy Central has said it’s looking to reach a younger, “millennial” audience, but even friends who are a little older than that have told me they like his humour and playing on jokes about things from outside America. Trevor says he intends to use his being an outsider as a way to question many things about politics that Americans take for granted. At Friday’s press event, the news of John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, resigning just broke. Trevor was asked about his reaction, and he brought the team of writers who are working with him and were sitting with him into the answer. He says he will miss Boehner because he used to cry so freely (as evidenced in him meeting the Pope) but what they would do in a situation like that is talk about their favourite John Boehner moments, and he would learn from the writers about things that happened in the past, before he lived in the US, and use that as a springboard to perhaps raise a few questions about a man Americans have become very familiar with. In essence, as he is learning, he wants the audience to re-think those things they take for granted that they know about US politics.
Or so it seems that will be the approach. Trevor assuredly said on Friday the style of the show will change (he wanted more music guests) but it will retain being political, because he still wants to play a part in keeping politicians, no matter where they come from, accountable. “We’ve created this thing, all over the world, where politics is somehow exclusive, politics is show reserved for the political elite,” he says. ” ‘I’ve very smart and so I’m involved in politics,’ whereas the very origins of the word, in Greek, is ‘for the people’, and that’s exactly what it should be: for the people and by the people, and in some ways, many politicians have successfully convinced people it’s not by them or for them, but that it’s the politician’s job to dictate, and that’s not the angle that I come from.”
Trevor has brought with him David Kibuuka from South Africa, who was part of the Late Nite News show nominated for an International Emmy, and Joseph Opio, who ran the Daily Show in Uganda, to New York to join the team of Emmy-winning writers that drives the show. He says that is a continuation of something Jon started, an aim to try and get as many broad voices, different perspectives, into the show as possible.
We’ll see if it works. I for one, as a South African who has reported on Trevor’s career from the start and can’t help but be proud, hope American TV fans at least give him a fighting chance to show them what we’ve been privy to all this time.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah airs in the US on Monday nights, and in South Africa on Tuesday nights on Comedy Central at 9pm.
Entertainment news, in the US particularly, tries too hard to be entertaining. It almost entirely relies on gossip and name-dragging and, now with useful technology at our fingertips, screen-grabs of celebrities’ faces so we can read made-up stories about things they surely were thinking while attending an awards ceremony. It would be funny if it wasn’t what passed for actual news.
More and more it seems, vindictiveness is playing into this too. With the Internet as a tool, tweets or mistakes or gushes are blown up and out of proportion to levels meant to elicit some kind of rage or outrage or scandalous response. Never mind that it’s a thing of the past to actually read a tweet or link before commenting or re-tweeting. It’s all a race to get involved, and add to what’s “trending.”
Last week, a friend of mine who interviews movie-stars for an Australian TV show had a snippet of his interview with Cate Blanchett go viral. It was a fun and silly interview, no doubt in line with the format of the show that he works for. But snippets were taken totally out of context – it was an interview he was doing with Cate for the very serious business of talking about Cinderella, and she seemed to be going along with his light-hearted approach for most of the time. He was strung up for all to see on the worldwideweb, while “news” stories played into the narrative that likes to get pushed out about how uptight Cate can be, but in this instance it was warranted. I don’t have to defend his questions or approach to still feel uncomfortable by these attacks.
It’s like the Internet has become an open field to throw eggs at someone as they pass by. In a column for the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey quotes Jon Ronson, who’s written a book about online shaming, and talks about how we’re trying “to define each other by the worst tweet we ever wrote.” It’s not just tweets though. It extends to anything that can be screenshot, grabbed or GIF’ed it seems.
It all happened to get closer to home this week, with South African Trevor Noah becoming the target. It was to be expected, though, with a job the size of the one he landed, and even he pre-empted the scrutiny, telling the NY Times, “we live in a world where some still say Beyonce can’t sing, so why should I be exempt?”
A few Conservative Americans dug through his 8000 tweets to find the most offensive ones, some in 2010 and 2011, to label him anti-Semitic and sexist. Again, you don’t have to make excuses for his stupid jokes to be fed up with this up-and-down-and-up-and-down hamster wheel of what constitutes a news cycle now. But the level to which the response, mostly in tweets, stooped didn’t need to be put on a public platform, hashed over and over again.
It feeds into this greater cycle where there seems to be a constant need to all day, every day, find the next viral video, and then all the news outlets must talk about it for fear of being left out. There is so much music, so many great films – short films, long films – artwork, theatre and stage shows, TV series, all these incredible things being created all the time. Are they not enough? These are the things that should constitute entertainment news. These are the things we could be talking about, carving out snippets of time to take them in.
I know we’re pushed for time, all the time, but surely bite-sized content doesn’t have to mean consuming repeated and hacked-up bits and peaces of stuff that isn’t really entertainment news. Or even news, really. If you want all that, you know where to go. Me, I’ll be over here, carrying on with the business of finding out just what Jay Z’s new streaming service actually means for the way we consume music nowadays, and which movies I should catch up on now that British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has been added to the Suicide Squad cast.
Oh, and the statement from Comedy Central, who finally gave in and responded to the Trevor criticism:
“Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”
Two years ago, I jumped into a cab with Trevor Noah, on a hot and oh-so-sweaty NYC night, to grab a quick interview with him as he dashed from one show at the Culture Project to another at the Comedy Cellar. It was but one of the adventures I’ve covered of his, as he’s made his way through stand-up shows, late-night TV appearances on Leno and Letterman and then becoming a contributor to The Daily Show.
Today, the next adventure has been announced. On Friday, news came that Trevor Noah had made a shortlist of possible candidates to take over from Jon Stewart when he leaves Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Jon, who has been a fan of Noah’s for a while now, is set to leave any time between July and the end of this year. Today it’s been confirmed Noah will indeed take over the reigns. He’ll be third person to host, since the show premiered in 1996.
The New York Times reports Jon saying, “I’m thrilled for the show and for Trevor. He’s a tremendous comic and talent that we’ve loved working with,” adding in the statement that he “may rejoin as a correspondent just to be a part of it!!!”
Trevor, meanwhile, is on tour in Dubai, but he tweeted out his response:
No-one can replace Jon Stewart. But together with the amazing team at The Daily Show, we will continue to make this the best damn news show!
In taking over what The Daily Beast calls the hottest job in America, Trevor’s job will be to helm 160 shows a year, with 20 or so minutes of fresh material every night of the week. It’s not known yet exactly when Trevor will take over, and the news is somewhat unexpected, if very welcome by South Africans. He had only been on the show three times. But it seems that’s all it took. Comedy Central told the NY Times it drew up “a shortlist of possible successors and Trevor checked off every box on that list and then some.” No doubt Americans will have their opinions on the matter – does he have the experience or the profile? But as Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless says, “You don’t hope to find the next Jon Stewart – there is no next Jon Stewart.” They were looking for someone who brings something exciting and new and different, and they found him.
It seems no official word has been made about this, as is the usual case with things of this nature. I imagine we’ll only hear about it when it is officially made known in some kind of press release leading up to the end of Stewart’s tenure, which is set to be anytime between July and the end of this year. But it’s still great buzz for Noah, who’s been steadily making his name known over here in the US.
He joined The Daily Show late last year, and has only been on a few times, which is in keeping with his job description there as a contributor to the show. American TV viewers have watched the late night landscape change over the past few months, as it will continue to do, with Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Stewart moving on, or in the case of Colbert and Fallon, up. British actor, producer and one-half of the force behind Gavin & Stacy, James Corden just made his solid debut this week, taking over from Ferguson.
Now, as a South African, I may be biased, but I think having Noah take over would be an inspired move. During each of the numerous stand-up shows that he’s been performing here over the past couple of years, he has been finding that sweet spot between his unique experience of being born and raised a South African with a black mother and a white father, and the universal “oh-yes” moments that surpass borders and genres, names and labels. I would hope that if he were to be in the role, he may offer a perspective that would take up the lead that Stewart set, by opening Comedy Central viewer’s eyes to issues beyond the borders of America’s immediate concerns. As we’ve seen from stories that have made headlines recently, the issue of race is one that America needs to confront, and comedy is a good way to start. Really, it’s a conversation we all could have a little more often.
So, here’s hoping the news is true. We are cautious to note, as in the Variety report, that nothing is confirmed or guaranteed at this stage. But the fact that he’s being written about it in this way is a good step forward for Noah’s profile here in the US of A, nonetheless.