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Photograph: Jake Chessum

Trevor Noah talks honesty and comedy in advance of Chicago Humanities Festival

Written by
Sara Freund

In his heart, Trevor Noah is a storyteller. Whatever platform—a stage, a screen, a conversation—he connects with people. In his first book, Born a Crime, to be released in November, Noah finds a new way to tell stories. The book is not a cathartic expression of extreme poverty and dark circumstances in apartheid-era Johannesburg, where Noah grew up. It’s about the small moments, his family and the politics that shaped him there. “You can be extraordinary in the most ordinary circumstances,” Noah says. “And I’m not talking about me. [Rather], the stories of my mom and what I learned from her, a powerful woman who went and fought against the odds.” 

In the book, the 32-year-old Noah, who took over The Daily Show in 2015 and appears at this season’s Chicago Humanities Festival, explains how he got his name—one you don't hear much in South Africa. In fact, it was more common to be named Hitler or Mussolini, he says, a phenomenon tied to how many black Africans were denied education during apartheid. People wanted famous names for their kids, and Hitler, well, he was well known. But Noah’s mom chose a name untethered to anything in her world. “She picked something that could shape itself; she was trying to set me apart,” he says.

In South Africa, Noah started doing stand-up on a lark when friends told him he should take the stage at a local comedy club. But he wasn't nervous. “[Comedy] is just something I understand. I can hear the rhythm of jokes like a musician can hear notes.” Since then, he’s focused on sharp social and political commentary, making him a perfect, if initially unexpected (at least for U.S. audiences), successor to Jon Stewart. “Comedy becomes an honest space I share with an audience. What makes comedy right for heavy issues is that people are open, they’re laughing and hearing what you’re staying.”

The transition from stage to TV is a change Noah is tackling quite well. He says the most noticeable difference is that, in television, “It’s more like you’ve been thrust upon people.” When writing material for the show, he tries to take topics like Donald Trump or police brutality and approach them in a way that acknowledges the problems while also aiming to help people work through them.

For Noah, comedy and truth are one and the same. Much of his material comes from his identity, which may seem ironic considering that's long felt uncertain. In South Africa, coming from a white father and black mother, he says he didn’t always feel like he fit in with any one group—even his existence as mixed race was breaking apartheid law. One of Noah’s early jokes was about just that, about growing up, wanting to become black and then coming to America only to have everyone tell him he already was. “Comedians who are really great know how to bring truth into their comedy. When you play in that realm, truth is often stranger than fiction.”

Trevor Noah speaks as part of Chicago Humanities Festival at the Music Box Theatre on Nov. 12

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