Talking to Trevor Noah About Race, South African Comedy, and Going with the Flow
South African comedian Trevor Noah’s life story doesn’t immediately scream comedy. His standup explores his complicated relationship with racial identity, having grown up mixed race in apartheid-era South Africa, where neither his black mother nor white father were allowed to acknowledge their relationship with him in public.
He was a major hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer, and now his first American solo show, Born a Crime, has just extended its run in New York through the end of June. It’s not his first time in the States — he appeared on The Tonight Show last year, and toured the country with Gabriel Iglesias. I recently sat down with him in New York to talk about African comedy and why he doesn’t set goals.
How long have you been doing this show?
Well, this is a different version of it, but technically I’ve been doing it for the last six months. Let me think. Not really. I did six weeks at the Soho [Theatre] in London, and then four weeks in Australia, and now I’m doing it here.
So the show you did in Edinburgh last year was a totally different show?
That’s when I was just working on a show. I had no show. I had no idea what I was doing, so that was just the beginning. It was an hour of me working through a show, which still worked well.
How much has the show changed since you started doing it in the UK?
It changes everywhere I go. In the UK, for instance, I was doing an hour show, so at least the first 25 minutes was just UK stuff. And the same goes for Australia, the first 25 was Australian stuff. And then in New York, I’m slowly finding it. There’s things I’m doing here that are only US.
A lot of the show is about how you perceived race in the US. I didn’t know if you did that all over the world.
The core story is the same, but then everything around it can change, which I enjoy because then I don’t get bored of the show. I get to change everything everywhere I go. But really, it’s an introductory show. So if you’re watching it for the first time, you get to know who I am and where I’m from and a bit of my story. But then everything around it is constantly evolving. I never believe a show is perfect, so there’s always work to be done within that.
You’ve been sort of taken under Eddie Izzard’s wing.
Yeah. Eddie was kind enough to present me in London and in Edinburgh. It was fantastic, it just gave me just a little leg up. He’s always been a fan of global comedy, comedy traveling the world, so I guess this is a natural relationship. I helped him come to South Africa and then he’s helped me go into the UK.
Are you interested in following in his footsteps, doing mega tours around the world?
I’m not so much a fan of the grand scale of comedy. I don’t like big comedy. I love intimate comedy, so I don’t see myself performing in arenas. I don’t like arenas. I made the mistake in South Africa, after doing a long run, to try and accommodate demand, we did arenas at the end, and I didn’t enjoy it. There’s just too many people. It’s just not what I like. I don’t think comedy out of a theater should ever be where I need to be. I always want to keep it in a theater, and that’s probably where I’ll stay and I enjoy it.
What was it like coming up in South Africa? I think most people here really don’t know anything about the comedy scene there.
Well, it’s a very weird scene. It legitimately started about 13 years ago. There were a few guys doing it, really a few, and they did really well. They got the thing up in the country, they got it started, and slowly but surely more people started getting into it. I was sort of in the second wave of comedians that did it, and we were lucky. When I started doing it, we were able to take it more into the mainstream and make it more of an everyman’s thing, a popular entertainment destination, and so it’s really been growing at a great rate. It’s still a very young industry. We have one club in Johannesburg, and I think they’re gonna try and open a few more, but for now, it’s really just rooms everywhere.
Was there ever an underground comedy scene in South Africa?
No, there never was. It literally came about after democracy. It’s hard to make a rebellious scene when your audience can’t come out. You can try and do your little hipster thing in the corner, but if people can’t come out or they’ll get arrested, then you’re wasting your time. So until democracy started, there couldn’t really be any sort of movements towards comedy.
You also talk in your show about doing comedy around Africa, which is fascinating. There must be even less of a scene in other parts of Africa.
Yeah, it’s insane. In most places, there is no scene. There’s literally no scene. Africa’s very conservative, as a whole, so the idea of guys getting up and just speaking about everything is really not embraced fully in many places. You will come up against many obstacles. I would dare to say South Africa has the most liberal comedy scene on the continent. We have comedians talking about anything and everything – sex, religion, government, whatever it is. Whereas you go to Nigeria, you can’t talk about sex, you can’t really talk about the government. They have one the biggest scenes, but you still have to be very conservative. And then in some places the conservative levels just skyrocket to the point where people are just making very basic jokes, almost internet jokes, on stage. But comedy has to have a natural evolution, and I think that’s just the beginning. It will grow as time goes.
Do you think there’s a big future for comedy in Africa?
There is. There’s a big future for that. I think South Africa would probably be the first place. We used to have the largest comedy festival in the southern hemisphere. It was bigger than Australia’s. Unfortunately because of mismanagement, the festival didn’t do so well, but we’ve done it before so we can do it again. It just needs somebody to stand behind it and support it and it will come up again easily. It’s something that’s very achievable.
How have people at home reacted to your success globally?
They’ve been amazing. I mean, if it wasn’t for South Africans loving me first—I’m very happy that I was successful in my country first before I travelled. I know lots of people that have success out of their country, but I’m very lucky that home is my number one base. Home is still where my number one fans are, that’s where I really focus my efforts, and so when they see me travelling, I think they really enjoy it because I’m still their guy. I don’t live in LA, I don’t live in New York. I live in South Africa. Sometimes I go to another place for long, but I’m always in South Africa. That’s my home, so they get to see me on Leno or Letterman and then see me on the streets, which is really cool for them. So I think they enjoy it, and they’ve really been great to me.
A lot of your current show is about race, which is a subject that’s played a big part in comedy in the US. Where you influenced at all by the American comedy about race?
In South Africa, we have a very unique history with race. We have a very current situation with race. It’s part of our fiber; it’s part of what made the country. It really is our most prominent piece of history, so it’s something that many South African comedians talk about, which is really great. It’s definitely at the fore of what we do. So when watching American comedians, there were some things that did translate, because as a culture, black people share certain things everywhere. But then there were many things that are very different, so we still had to forge our own path when it came to this.
And you’re also incredibly good at accents. How did that come about?
Well, I grew up with that. My family’s very mixed—my father’s Swiss, my mother’s a Xhosa woman from South Africa—so you’ve got such a diverse range in the family, and then in the country. So I always learned how to mimic people. I found it was the easiest way for me to connect with them. If you sound like somebody, they’re less likely to judge you. You look different, and South Africa was all about how people looked—I guess everywhere in the world to a certain extent—and so when you speak like somebody, they immediately accept you, as opposed to somebody who sounds totally different to you.
What are your goals as far as doing standup in the US?
Oh no. I’m one of the worst person to ask when it comes to goals. I have no time for goals. I don’t know where the idea of goals came from. I don’t believe in goals. I’d rather believe in enjoying micro-successes in things that I do. I don’t plan something like that. I don’t go, “Oh in America, I hope this will happen.” No, I just hope people will come to my shows. No matter where I am in the world, if people come and laugh and have a good time, it really doesn’t matter to me if it’s a hundred seats or a thousand seats. If I can pay my bills and buy food and be able to live a normal life, then I’m happy. That’s all I want. Everything else is a bonus in life, it truly is. I think you set yourself up for just unnecessary pressure and depression when you work in the entertainment industry and try and set goals. This is not Wall Street. You can’t plan your promotions. It doesn’t work like that. The entertainment industry’s fickle. Some people struggle for forty years and then they’re a superstar. Other people are 13, they’re discovered on YouTube and the next thing they’re earning 250 million dollars. So, don’t worry about goals. Just enjoy what you’re doing, and then hopefully the money will come to you and then you’ll be able to enjoy your life while doing that.
That’s a really good attitude.
Yeah, I don’t stress about those things. I find it ridiculous. “Oh, and then in three years, I want to have a TV show.” No, I have no time for that. Because everything I’ve done up until this point, I haven’t planned. I never planned to come to New York, I never planned to do shows in the UK, I never planned to be a standup, so everything I have planned didn’t go according to plan. I planned to be a traffic officer when I was a kid, and that didn’t work. I planned to go to university, and I never did. I planned so many things. I planned to buy a Ferrari, that didn’t happen. If you go with the flow—live life like a river. Just follow the path of least of resistance, and you’ll find that’ll be the most enjoyable life.