We chatted to South African comedian Trevor Noah about why he doesn’t need to justify basing his comedy on race; his plans to do stand-up comedy in German and about bringing his critically acclaimed show, The Racist, to Hammersmith Apollo later this year.
Fresh from a record-breaking season at London’s Soho Theatre and another sell-out season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Trevor Noah will present his critically acclaimed show, The Racist, on a UK tour from November 2013 to January 2014.
We sat down with the South African funnyman on his recent visit to London to ask some burning questions.
How did Trevor Noah start? When did you first realise you were funny?
In Standard 2 I was playing a tortoise in the school play. It was a very serious play about animals but I remember doing the funniest things and the school was cheering and I was falling and tripping, it was all about clowning. Everyone loved it – they were like “this is the funniest show we have ever seen” and I was a celebrity for about a week. That’s the first time I remember making people laugh.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A traffic cop, more than anything in the world. I used to watch Leon Schuster acting as a traffic cop and I thought “this is the best job in the world” because I hated taxi drivers as a kid. I used to think we need to arrest them all because they don’t stop at the traffic lights. I was militant. I was the cheesiest law-abiding kid – when we drove past taxi drivers I would roll down my window and shout out “indicators are for communicators!” And then ironically, years later, I became a taxi driver and now I understand them a lot more. With the money I had earned, I thought a good way to invest it would be in a taxi so I bought a taxi and became a taxi driver which is a horrible job but it made me understand them a bit better. Once you live in that world you know that maybe you also wouldn’t stop at the lights if it means the difference between getting an extra passenger and getting food tonight.
Your upbringing meant you had personal experience of poverty and prejudice. As a comedian, do you feel you have a role to play stirring debate about politics and social issues like corruption?
It’s not really my job but I have a wonderful platform to do that. Comedy is one of the areas where people listen to you, because you aren’t there preaching – I don’t tell people to not be racist, I’m just there to offer more options. I even tell people I am not political – I try and talk about politics the way the man in the street does whereas when you get too smart you lose touch with the people. That was Thabo Mbeki’s downfall. Jacob Zuma wins votes because he is charismatic – he makes mistakes and then he giggles and dances.
I always tell people that South Africa is actually a very functioning democracy, the reason we know about the corruption means we live in a good place. I have been to countries where they don’t speak about that kind of thing at all; in the news in Zimbabwe there is nothing bad. We know about Zuma’s house; I know countries where presidents will build palaces but nobody is allowed to talk about it whereas we still have that privilege.
A lot of people have criticised the fact that a lot of your comedy and South African comedy in general is race-based. Your current show is called The Racist. Is it time to move beyond race or is it an issue that still needs to be explored?
I don’t think anyone needs to move past anything in comedy, they will move when the country is ready to move. Most South African comedy is based on race because most of the country is still based on race – that is still one of our biggest challenges. Comedy in every country is a snapshot of what society is going through at the time.
Most people who have problems with the ANC, deep down have problems with the black ANC, and most people who have problems with the DA have problems with the white DA. Only when we get to a point where it’s just political parties will anything change. We have to let it happen naturally.
When I first started comedy some people used to say ‘Oh SA comedy is sh*t, you know who’s great, I love Jimmy Carr, British comedy is great, you guys are not’…and I believed them – until I came and did comedy in the UK and people here say ‘Wow you guys are different, I have never seen comedy like that, what a fresh perspective.’
You’re not bad you are just different. South Africans have low self-esteem and tend to think foreign things are better, but now I realise it’s not better, it’s just different.
Britain has had stand-up comedy for many years but in South Africa it’s only been 20 years since a black person has been able to sit next to a white person in a venue and laugh together. It’s not something that will change instantly because culturally we are very different. But over time it becomes less about colour thing and more about culture — that’s when the sky will be the limit. In time, comedy will change with the people.
I am seeing fantastic things now like kids who come to my shows, and it’s just the most mixed group of kids and they don’t see themselves by the colour of their skin – they just see themselves as a bunch of ‘skater boys’ or ‘punk rock kids’.
In South Africa we are and always have been evolving but after 20 years of democracy we are at a crossroads where we can choose to be better or we can dwell on why we are not good and that’s really our challenge. And slowly as we evolve we have the opportunity to, not forget, but rather build on it, and that’s what I like to do in comedy as well.
I never want my audience to be one-dimensional. If my audience becomes “too black” then I think well, we need to find a way to get more white people in and vice versa if it becomes “too white”.
I like to have a multicultural audience because when you laugh at the same things, you realise how similar you are, whereas in South Africa for many years we were taught to focus on what makes us different.
I try to celebrate similarity as well as diversity. What makes South Africa unique is our cultural diversity – go to a braai and look at the food eaten there! I mean a braai is traditionally Afrikaans, but pap is an African staple. It’s amazing to see how we have adopted each other’s cultures without realising it. A lot of people think we are still very segregated in South Africa but then you look at all the things we share.
You have done a couple of big US TV performances, last year The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and recently the David Letterman Show. Are Americans starting to know who you are?
No no, America doesn’t know you at all – you have to do a thousand things before they know you, or maybe one big thing. Getting known there is not easy. But that’s not why I went there, my goal was never to be famous – I love comedy, and that’s why I go to places where I can enjoy comedy.
You lived in the States and have toured around the world — has this changed your perspective on South Africa?
That’s interesting, I never thought of it that way. Your perspective doesn’t change, you just start to get an idea of alternatives. When you stay in your country you only know one reality.
For instance in South Africa you have slow internet and this is normal, this is the only option you know. The more you travel the more you learn, which can be good thing and bad. For example there is nothing harder than going from the UK back to South Africa in terms of public transport, you can’t just hop on a train and go somewhere.
Did living abroad change you?
Yeah I think in a good way. It made me appreciate South Africa more, genuinely. As much as I appreciate so-called First World countries I also appreciate that South Africa is a very cheap place to live — it’s First World living at Third World prices. People tend to focus on the bad things, but there are a lot of good things like the people, languages and the lifestyle. So when you come to places like UK, you start to miss those things – which is why a lot of South Africans here are always trying to recreate that life – ‘Come join us for a braai man’…
You mentioned in your London show in January that you were learning German because it’s your father’s home language [he is Swiss].
Yes, it’s going well. I really enjoy the language and I want to start doing shows in German.
Eddie Izzard, who has produced your UK shows and is something of a comedy mentor to you, is now doing shows in French and other languages — were you inspired by him?
Yeah, it’s a challenge. He’s lucky because his brother is a linguist so he has a head start on me but at the end of the day comedy wins.
Is German comedy really such an oxymoron?
No, it’s a stereotype! Some people say South African comedy is very stereotyped, but in fact all comedy is stereotyped — it’s just that some stereotypes have become more acceptable than others. In the UK, every second comic will say that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour but the truth is, Germans are some of the funniest people I have ever come across. I’ve been to Germany many times and they party harder than most, they drink more, they dance more, they laugh more…they are crazy.
It’s just another stereotype. Chav jokes sound just like jokes about coloured people in Cape Town… everyone is commenting on the same thing, we just identify it differently.
You have a big UK tour coming up and your biggest gig is Hammersmith Apollo – is this the biggest overseas venue you have performed in?
I think it may be the biggest venue I have ever done! In South Africa our biggest theatre seats 1,800 and the Apollo is double that size.
Trevor Noah performs at the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday 7 December at 7pm.
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