Trevor Noah interview

The South African superstar stand-up talks to Time Out ahead of his London run

With a little help from Eddie Izzard, South African stand-up Trevor Noah stormed the Edinburgh Fringe. He talks racial identity with Ben Williams.

Expectations for Trevor Noah’s Edinburgh Festival debut earlier this year were sky-high. Not only is he a megastar in his home country of South Africa, but our national comedy treasure Eddie Izzard was so impressed by the 28-year-old comic that he donned his producer hat for the first time and flew him to the UK. ‘Trevor Noah is the new face of South Africa,’ Izzard told Time Out. ‘He is one of the up-and-coming black South Africans coming through the stand-up scene, which is brilliant.’

Luckily, Noah more than lived up to the hype with a slick, intelligent, blissfully funny show about racial identity: ‘The Racist’. The son of a black African mum and a white Swiss dad, Noah has tales of growing up in apartheid South Africa that are as fascinating as they are funny. I spoke to the Izzard protégé over the phone ahead of his Christmas London run.

Has race always been a big theme in your comedy?

‘Race is a big part of what South Africa is today – we’re still dealing with race relations, and it’s a huge part of what we are. I’m a product of that existence, of that world. My racial identity has been reclassified at least three times just in my lifetime, so it’s a very important to me.’

Does the show change depending on where in the world you’re performing?

‘Oh, in South Africa it’s one variation of the show and in the UK it’s another. Obviously racism is the most normal thing here; we deal with it every day. Whereas you go to the UK and it’s such a foreign thing that when it happens it’s front page news. It’s an interest of mine; people and their views.’

Despite some of the subject matter, you never get angry on stage. How do you balance serious and funny?

‘I always believe that funny is serious and serious is funny. You don’t really need a distinction between them. If I’m doing something on stage and it evokes an emotion, then I might show that emotion, but I also don’t believe in being a preacher. If you have a point, that’s a bonus. But the funny has to come first, otherwise you shouldn’t call yourself a comedian.’

How did your relationship with Eddie Izzard start?

‘I met him years ago. I was in London, performing at the Comedy Store, and I met him there one night. I had no clue who he was – I felt horrible afterwards. He said he wanted to come to South Africa and I said I’d help him come out. And then later he asked if I wanted to come to Edinburgh, and I said, “I’d love to.”’

Did you feel under pressure when audiences knew you come with the Izzard seal of approval?

‘Not really, no. I felt pressure when he came to the show. But if anything, it takes a bit of the pressure off because I’m going, “Look, Eddie says I’m funny, so you should maybe trust Eddie.” If an audience doesn’t laugh at a joke maybe I’ll say, “Just so you know, Eddie said that joke was very funny,” and then they’ll feel really shit that they didn’t get it!’

You have your own TV show in South Africa – is it strange to come to the UK where you’re unknown in comparison?

‘Oh no, not at all. I’m used to that. In fact, that’s the best thing that can ever happen to you as a comedian. I don’t think celebrity and comedy mix. You get those weird situations like Jimmy Carr; he was in the news, but he also comments on the news, and then what do you do? They don’t mix because then you think: Are people laughing because you’re funny, or are people laughing because they’re fans? I like the anonymity, the fact that you’re a stranger making strangers laugh. You aren’t forcing them to laugh – it’s involuntary, and that’s when they give the most honest response.’

Do you see yourself performing more in the UK in the future?

‘I would love to. The UK has always been my number one influence of comedy. I’ve never loved comedians the way I love UK comedians. I think what I love about the UK is I’ve seen audiences there where they’re almost over the idea of just jokes. They want something more. You get audiences that really want you to say something; they really want to listen. Whereas America is very joke, joke. They’re like, “We want a joke every 20 seconds! What are you doing?! Just do jokes!”

You’ve performed all over the world. Is there anywhere you haven’t played that you’d like to?

‘I really want to do stuff in Germany. I’m writing a set in German, which is taking me forever, but I’m slowly doing that. So I definitely want to do Germany – that’s my new passion country that I want to perform in. And then? I’ll see from there…’

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