Ground-breaking South African comedian Trevor Noah talks.
In just six years, Trevor Noah has risen from never having taken the stage before to being South Africa’s biggest comedian. Still only 29, Trevor has sold more DVDs than any other stand-up in Africa. Fans quote his performances verbatim, share his clips globally and have friended him in their thousands on Facebook and Twitter. His ascent has been nothing short of meteoric.
He has fronted many TV shows in South Africa and was also the subject of the award-winning film, Township to the Stage, which recounts the story of his astonishing career in post-apartheid South Africa. Now Trevor, who has a black mother and a white Swiss father, is embarking on a pioneering tour of the UK, including a date at Bimingham’s Glee Club on Wednesday 27th November.
Trevor is the first South African stand-up to mount a major, ground-breaking tour of this country. “I never thought this was possible. No African comedian had done it before. I didn’t have a role model. I couldn’t say, ‘I’ll do what he did’. Any time in the past that a comedian came here, he had been sanctioned by the South African government. I had never seen a success story where a South African stand-up had gone to the UK with a bag on a shoulder and said, ‘I’m here to tour’.”
Trevor clearly has a particular bond with British audiences. The comedian affirms that, “I really connect with audiences in the UK. I’ve always had a fantastic relationship with people here because all South Africans are children of Britain.
“The influence of the English language is also immeasurable. In South Africa, we have 11 different languages, but English is unique. It’s completely humour-filled, it naturally lends itself to comedy. African languages might rely for humour on alliteration or funny sounds rather than puns or sarcasm but English has humorous tools that are just not available in any other language.”
He proceeds to underscore just how much he loves performing live. “The rapport with the audience is everything to me. I love the buzz of stand-up. It’s the sheer immediacy of it – I really like the fact that I instantly know how you’re feeling.
“When you’re working on television, you can hope it’s funny, but you have no way of really knowing. But every night on stage, you can see the audience reaction. It’s incredible. It gives you immediate gratification – or immediate disappointment! You can fix it on the spot.”
Trevor felt that strong relationship with the audience the first time he stepped on stage. He recalls that, “I never dreamt I could become a stand-up, originally I wanted to be a traffic cop. I loved the idea of shouting into a microphone – which I did end up doing!
“But six years ago, I was out one night at a dingy bar in Johannesburg. The guys on stage were doing an open mike night. It was a horrible, horrible show. It had no structure, rhyme or reason. One of my companions said, ‘You should be doing this’. I’d always loved making people laugh, so he managed to convince me.”
Trevor goes on, “The moment I got on stage, it just worked. I didn’t know beforehand that I was going to do it, but people were immediately cheering me. I felt instantly at home. I felt like I understood it. Everything else – even video games, which I love – I feel like I’ve learnt. Stand-up is the one thing I have never been taught. It’s the one area where I intuitively knew what to do.”
The comedian is happy to discuss the title of his new show, ‘The Racist’. “I chose that provocative title because I knew it’s what the show isn’t. I also knew that anyone brave enough to come to a show with that title would be the sort of people I’d want in the audience.”
Trevor explains that, “I’m not at all an abrasive person. Growing up in South Africa, many people on both sides had a huge amount of anger. Many black people have never learnt to trust white people, and many young white people are getting angry about black people hating them.
“But my father was white. So when I see a white person, I don’t automatically think, ‘Bad guy’. I think,. ‘He looks like my dad. Maybe he’ll buy me a bike!’ My mum is the love of my life. So I’ve lived in both worlds, and I’m in touch with both worlds.”
Trevor goes on to emphasise that, “The show is about more than just race. It’s about identity. It asks: who are we? The issue of identity comes up repeatedly all over the world, regardless of race. In the show, I’m just playing with that.”
“I love talking about apartheid. It’s a terrible, ridiculous system and perfect fodder for comedy. Apartheid was pro-stupidity. They took an idea that was ludicrous and said, ‘Let’s make it official’. It was a sad time, but looking back, it’s ridiculous.
“For example, prisoners were given different food according to their race. White prisoners got meat three times a week, black prisoners got it just once a week. Even as criminals you weren’t equal.”
Trevor contemplates whether you can change anything through comedy. “All I see of South Africa on the news in the UK is horrible. They make it look like a war zone. Does that depress me? No, it inspires me to challenge that view. Simply by being here, I’m overcoming those stereotypes. By engaging people in a subject that they think they’re familiar with, you can make them think, ‘I guess I didn’t know everything about South Africa’. You can help to change their perception.”
Finally, I ask Trevor what he thinks of the South African President, Jacob Zuma. He comes up with a typically brilliant answer: “Zuma has been the most fantastic thing for my comedy. I’m really hoping he carries on as President!”
Details of Trevor Noah’s UK tour of The Racist can be found at www.trevornoah.com