The 29-year-old comic Trevor Noah has been performing for only six years, but he’s already accomplished plenty: He’s toured sub-Saharan Africa, sold out a run at the Soho Theatre in London, made it on Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, appeared at comedy festivals in Edinburgh and Melbourne, and he will make his way to Montreal this summer. His recent show, called Born a Crime in the States, finds him contemplating his mixed-race status at home and abroad in America (home to “the coolest black in the world”).
Is all South African comedy in English? Do you tell jokes in Zulu?
The country’s only club is in English, the big shows are all in English. I have tried on a few occasions, but the humor is very different from one language to another.
Does the concept of a stand-up comic translate?
No, it’s more storytelling. It’s more of a “funny experience sharer.”
What are the challenges of touring in the U.S.?
You don’t want it to be a novelty. When people hear “South Africa,” they think [affecting an American accent], "South Africa? They have comedy out there?" You want the audience to go, “Yeah, yeah, we’re familiar with that,” so you can get to the comedy. You can feel that moment when they stop thinking, but you have to get them used to the idea.
The night I saw the show, you took the stage calmly and didn’t take the audience’s reaction for granted. Is that an attitude you cultivate?
I don’t treat it as a foregone conclusion. Whenever I watch comedy—and I only started watching comedy after I started [doing] comedy—
I never watched stand-up, but I was at a bar, a hole-in-the-wall, with some friends and a cousin. And there were some guys onstage telling jokes, and they were horrible. I’m eternally grateful for that. My cousin said, “You should go onstage and do it.” I said, “You’re crazy,” and he said, “You’re the funniest person I know, just do it.” And I went onstage and had an amazing time. I felt like I was home.
So what did you glean watching comedy retroactively?
Well, first, I had no idea how the hell these guys were doing it! I had a few things I would talk about, but I would watch them and go, How did he talk for an hour and carry on making me laugh the entire time? It was very daunting. Also, if a comedian was having a horrid set and just dying onstage, I never understood why they wouldn’t acknowledge it. Whether the audience was laughing or not, they’d just carry on. In my head, I’m thinking, Are we here? Is he a robot? Does he see that we are not laughing? And so I always acknowledge people: You are here and I am here and we are here together; let’s enjoy that. It’s a conversation.
What’s an aspect of it that you’ve taken to, something you’ve only discovered by doing it?
I love finding magic with an audience. In my shows, [audience members] account for at least 40 percent of what they’ll get. I can only do so much. Good audiences give you lots of rope. I’ve done shows where there’s literally 20 to 30 minutes of stuff that comes out of nowhere because the audience is just so into it. I’ll say, “I can do more tricks the more rope you give me.”
Which audience is more guarded about race: a New York crowd or one back in South Africa?
I’d say it’s a similar level. Some nights, people are very sensitive. Some nights, people go, “Is that it? Give us more!” Some people have a certain idea about what they’re going to get. Lisa Lampanelli came to my show, came backstage and said, “I’m so happy. I thought the show was going to be angry apartheid guy.” It’s different every night.
You’re learning German in part so that you can perform comedy in that language one day. You think your German-speaking father will want to come to the show?
My dad doesn’t do anything. I couldn’t get my dad to see a soccer match at the World Cup. These are tickets people are dying over, and his response is, “What time is it? Isn’t it going to be on TV? Well, I’ll just watch it at home.” I told him, “This is once in a lifetime. It’ll never be in your city again,” and he was like, “Nope.”
You toured the U.S. with Gabriel Iglesias, but your tone and subject matter are quite different from his. How did you get his fans listening?
That was the amazing thing. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy and stays away from politics and anything controversial. Not me: I think that’s fun. I even said to Gabriel, “Let me know if I ever overstep the boundaries.” And he said, “No, I’m a comedian, I’m not here to censor you. Do your thing. If the people don’t laugh, then we have a problem.” And it was very interesting to see how welcoming they were.
I read that you found doing solo club gigs in the States a little lonely.
Oh, it’s horrible. I’m fascinated that comedians can do it. You’re on the road every weekend, and you feel like a traveling salesman. It must have been what it felt like in the Old West, when you had a caravan and you had your goods and you went from place to place peddling your wares. I was like, I don’t know how people do this. I’m not shocked by overdoses anymore.
You’ve also said you feel American audiences are more interested in straight jokes than anything more substantial. How much has this feeling been reinforced here?
To a certain extent, on the tour, I felt that. But New York is so diverse, you can go from one end of the spectrum to the other. There’s the joke-joke-joke clubs and then there’s the alternative places—like Wyatt Cenac’s show [Night Train]—that you feel, We’re here to have a conversation and just explore each other’s minds.
I’d like to hear someone explain it like that: “Hey, come see the funny experience sharer. We’re going to explore each other’s minds.”
That’s all it is! [Laughs]
Trevor Noah: Born a Crime runs Wed–Sat through June 29.