In December, I had the good fortune of being gifted seats to Trevor Noah’s stand-up show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. No spoilers about his new material here, but I will say I was glad that Noah carried on his tradition of fanboying about President Obama. But this time, instead of a fictional tale, it was a true story: his own real-life experience of meeting the first Black president in American history. Noah’s Obama story feels like a sort of climax to the comedian’s swift ascent to late-night royalty.
The child of a Black mother and white father in apartheid-era South Africa, Noah’s biracial identity was a dead giveaway of his parents’ interracial crime. Noah was considered “colored” in South Africa due to his light complexion, and he remembers not being allowed to interact with his father in public during his childhood. Noah spent his youth absorbing pop culture and “training” to one day be considered Black in America. He would practice changing out his South African accent and imitating the African American figures he heard on TV. Noah’s mother also taught him the utility of learning languages, and he became fascinated by the way people speak.
This passion is perfectly exemplified by his “Nah Mean” bit from his 2013 comedy special African American, which also features Noah’s takes on the dramatized UNICEF commercials that always seem to feature flies landing on the eyes of African children, and why Africans love Oprah (“she gives us a lot of money”). As a polyglot, Noah’s an expert storyteller. He speaks six languages, including English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Tsonga, along with some German, Spanish, and Japanese. In addition to that near-perfect Blaccent, Noah can do virtually any other—British, Scottish, Mexican, Russian, Indian, you name it!—plus impersonations of Oprah, Obama, Nelson Mandela, and, as you’ve no-doubt seen on The Daily Show, Donald Trump.
Now, more than two years after taking over after Jon Stewart’s intimidating 16-year run, Noah has proven that he’s more than just a cute, light-skinned comic with killer dimples. He, like Stewart, has the perfect balance of world knowledge, comedic literacy, and emotionally intelligent satire. He’s worthy of any stage out there.
Last June, after Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty on all counts after fatally shooting a law-abiding Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016, Noah gave a measured-yet-incredulous read of the situation (and the jury). In a later episode, he called out the NRA for its silence on the case, despite the fact that what happened to Castile is everything that normally inspires the organization to take a fiery stand.
In his newest Netflix special, 2017’s Afraid of the Dark, Noah continues to showcase his ability to effortlessly switch between accents, using them to play a variety of characters, hash-out the silliness of colonialism, and take an unfortunate personal experience of going out for a “wee little drink” in Scotland to segue into explaining why the word “pussy” is a terrible way to imply weakness. “In my personal experience, I have found the pussy to be one of the strongest things I have ever come across in my life!,” Noah says, going on to call vaginas “virtually indestructible.”
“There’s a reason men have sought to oppress it for so long: The vagina is frighteningly powerful. A human being comes out of the vagina, and still it continues to work as intended! Do you know how impressive that is? You just sit on a penis wrong and it breaks.”
Noah’s comedy can be characterized more as goofy, smart, and sincere than pee-your-pants hilarious, but what I love about it is that it doesn’t make me feel like an asshole for watching. His material rarely involves profanity (not that I mind), and he doesn’t write jokes that make fun of easy targets like big-bodied or trans people, nor does he rely on misogyny or misogynoir to get laughs. Instead, Noah makes time to call out toxic masculinity and go on feminist rants.
Having been raised by his grandmother and Black mother, who was at one point jailed and fined for having an interracial relationship, Noah’s reverence for women makes sense. “Most people have a sign to protest government oppression. My mother had me,” he said in a recent interview with Oprah on her Soul Sunday series. Noah also discussed his bestselling memoir Born a Crime, which centers his mother as its hero. (In a film adaptation currently underway, she’ll be played by Lupita Nyong’o.)
“It’s funny how you sit down and you come to realize the people in your life who have shaped you and who play a big role in who you are,” says Noah, “and I cannot deny my mother was that person for me—who stood up in a time when many people were afraid to stand up, when a country was being punished for standing up, and she said, ‘No. As a woman and as a Black person, I will live the way I believe I am allowed to live whether you tell me I can or not.’”