Arts & Culture

‘Je suis Trevor’ – Noah comes to America

‘Je suis Trevor’ – Noah comes to America
  • PublishedMay 7, 2015

By now, everyone in Africa and its diaspora has woken up to and probably moved on from the new that one of their own, the leading South African comedian and political satirist Trevor Noah, is moving to America to host The Daily Show, perhaps one of the world’s most influential late-night satirical TV news shows. Pusch Commey profiles the man Africa should still be celebrating. 

Last month, Trevor Noah entered a whole brave new world. Some international headlines said it all: “Trevor Noah: All the way from Soweto to the very biggest gig in comedy,” screamed the UK’s Independent. Social media was also ablaze with many tweets querying: “Trevor who?”

Noah, whom many western media houses decried as being “unknown globally”, will be the new host of the massively popular Daily Show, which boasts 1.5 million viewers worldwide everyday. The talented Noah will replace the Daily Show’s current presenter, the iconic Jon Stewart, who has been at its helm for 16 years. He is leaving later in the year.

But for those who have followed  his rise, the popular comedian’s reputation for hard work is finally paying off. Since 2002, when Noah entered the world of comedy in South Africa, he would appear anywhere and any time at short notice. He would do so before an audience of one thousand or two. He would perform on street corners, in bars, in  auditoriums and finally on TV. He would later make his own DVD for sale, the Daywalker. He is a young man hungry for success. He has kept performing whether everybody was watching or nobody and always loves what he does. And he does it with that unique and special African flavour.

But his  journey has not been all smooth sailing. He was born 31 years ago to a Swiss-German father, Robert Noah, and an African (Xhosa) mother, Nombuyiselo Noah (who happened to be half- Jewish). Being born of mixed heritage at a time when such mixed marriages were illegal in apartheid South Africa, Noah struggled with his identity in a country defined by race. He was raised by his mother in the black township of Soweto, and had to pretend to be an albino to explain his “strange” mixed colour, or so the story goes.

His mother had to play the role of a maid in order to enable him to visit his father in the then swanky, designated whites-only area of Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

At the age of 18 Trevor Noah started acting, and had brief roles in radio and TV soaps before trying his hands at driving a taxi (minibus) at the age of 22. He got a feel of the rough world of taxis (a violent industry, that comes with rivalries and even savage killings) when he was hijacked at gunpoint and chucked out onto the streets. It was on the streets that he would later find the lighter side of life – comedy.

Now with his big appointment, perhaps one of the most coveted roles in the world of satirical comedy, he is poised to become a multi-millionaire. According to some reports, Stewart earned in the region of $30m a year and Trevor would be all too happy if he earned half that amount.

Hot, but unfunny tweets

But perhaps unsurprisingly, controversy erupted soon after Noah’s name was announced as Stewart’s replacement.

For some unknown reason (maybe), someone with time to spare went hunting on Noah’s Twitter thread and dug up some material dating as far back as  2009, which sent the Twitter world into a huge uproar against his appointment, claiming he was anti-Semitic and sexist. Like some old sex tapes that come back to haunt their actors, some of Noah’s tweets from back then, would probably have not survived in today’s increasingly politically correct world: “Behind every successful rap billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man”. “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look before crossing but I still felt so bad in my German car”. In another he wrote: “Messi gets the ball, and the real players try to foul him, but Messi doesn’t go down easy, just like Jewish chicks.” He tweeted further: “Oh yeah the weekend. People gonna get drunk and think that I’m sexy – fat chicks everywhere.” Another said: “A hot fat woman with ass is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you’ll probably never get to ride one”

Youthful exuberance? Most likely. Noah’s response to the uproar was interesting. He noted “to reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”

And despite the vitriol and calls to drop his appointment, Noah will keep his job and his new employers, Comedy Central, have come to his defence: “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included,” Comedy Central said in their statement. “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.” 

Undoubtedly he will delight the world in a big way, as big brother Jon Stewart opined in defence of him: “My experience with him is that he is an incredibly thoughtful, considerate and funny, smart individual, and I think you give him that time, and it’s going to be well worth it. I am excited for where he is going to take this thing.”

However, the American Jewish Congress is not laughing, and they do not understand why Jon Stewart (Jewish), who has in the past poked fun at Jews, is handing over the reigns to Noah. They want to stop Noah.

But the Noah smear has been perplexing, especially when the perceived insult to the Prophet Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo was deemed legitimate satire, with a rallying cry, “Je suis Charlie”, in defence of freedom of speech. If the uproar against Noah continues as he heads towards taking up his new role, why shouldn’t his supporters, Africans and others, cry out “Je suis Trevor” in support of his freedom of speech? 

The attitude of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is enlightened. In a statement, May Kluk, the  Chairwoman, said: “Negative stereotypes of all people are potentially offensive. However the SAJBD believes that tweets made by Noah do not constitute anti-Jewish prejudice on his part. Noah’s style of humour is playful and is intended to provoke a response.”

And Trevor? Well, he has taken it all with a pinch of humour.  After all, his stated philosophy is: “I know how to be poor. If ever this comedy thing doesn’t work out, then I’ve got poverty to fall back on. And I am pretty sure I’ll be cool there.”

Trevor brings a special African flavour to the world stage, which had hitherto been oblivious to the fact that perhaps African comedy is among the most hilarious in the world, for the cognoscenti. The industry comedy nascent in Africa has made millionaires in Nigeria, with their special and most entertaining brand of humour. In South Africa, comedy took off amongst blacks only after the demise of apartheid. A group of black comedians, including Noah, banded together at the beginning of the new millennium and upped their game on the circuit. Locally, Trevor sells impressively to massive multicultural audiences, and that is his niche. And he has poked fun at every racial group. Of mixed race, he straddles the racial spectrum, hitting at everyone, including politicians, and the president. He even mimics a drunk Nelson Mandela, to laughter. Such is the extent of his poetic licence and repertoire, that the tweets seem very tame and uninspiring, as he himself admits.

A big plus to his digging at race as well as everyone, is that he has made a huge contribution to easing racial tensions as he expresses and pokes fun at what people think but are unable to express, across the country.

It was thus a surprise that nobody complained, until his potential rise to global stardom. Trevor Noah is very active on social media. He has over 2.2 million followers on Twitter and has posted over 8,800 tweets.


It took only three guest appearances on the Daily Show by Trevor Noah to convince Comedy Central that he was their man. In these shows he delighted the audience by irreverently poking fun at American ignorance, once complaining about tired arms he had had to constantly keep up from the airport (#Handsupdontshoot), scared more of the American police than the erstwhile apartheid police.

For the past five years, Trevor has travelled Europe and America, performing to audiences everywhere with his special African brand. He got noticed when he made guest appearances on the shows of Jay Leno and David Letterman, poking fun at African-Americans.

However for a man who has survived the life-and-death shenanigans of the taxi industry in  South Africa, the odds of success are heavily stacked in his favour. And it would be a big mistake to bet against him.

Written By
Pusch Commey

Pusch Commey is a Barrister of the High Court of South Africa, Award winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg South Africa. He is the author of 9 books including the best selling 100 great African kings and queens, and Tofi's Fire Dance. He is also the CEO of the South African based Real African Publishers, and the founder of the Real African Writers  series.

1 Commentaire

  • I always believe in immense African talent. Trevor Noah is just a tip of the iceberg of African talent. Deliberate efforts are required by African leaders to unearth the African talent.

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