Interview: South African comedian Trevor Noah on his new show, The Racist
‘I’m not confrontational... I think we can explore more things if we're not fighting'
With the assistance of an influential friend, South African stand-up Trevor Noah has taken his life story around the world. He tells Brian Donaldson that race informs everything
Everyone welcomes a helping hand in the early part of a career. It’s especially handy when that help is offered by one of the world’s best in your particular field: even if you’re not exactly sure at the time who that person might be. When young South African comedian Trevor Noah was a fresh-faced lad trying his luck in the UK, he stumbled upon a rather important mentor.
‘I was doing a show at the Comedy Store which Eddie Izzard saw and we chatted for a bit afterwards,’ Noah recalls. ‘I didn’t really know he was, we just hung out as comedians together and when he heard my story, he said “why don’t you tell that on stage?” I didn’t really want to burden people with all that but he said that I could have fun with it.’
Initially entertaining crowds with some observational comedy, Noah decided that he’d take Izzard’s advice and get his own particular story out there. The result is The Racist, in which we hear of his upbringing in South Africa during the final stretch of apartheid (Noah was ten when democratic elections swept the ANC to power). With a white Swiss father and a black South African mother, he was effectively ‘born a crime’, the three of them rarely allowing themselves to be seen together in public for fear of arrest.
With such a tough start to life, you could go one of two ways: rage permanently at the world or rise above it all and take every new challenge with a sense of perspective. Judging by both his humble phone manner and assured stage presence, Noah has plumped for option number two.
‘I’m not a confrontational person or comedian,’ insists the comic who is currently in negotiations with a US network about developing a sitcom loosely based on his own life. ‘I think we can explore more things if one of us is not fighting with the other. I take it easy. But I do like comedians who are very different from myself: I love dry comics with deadpan one-liners. I look on and think, “that’s amazing, why didn’t I think of that?"’
Aided by Izzard’s patronage, Noah brought his show to the 2012 Edinburgh and left with virtually unanimous acclaim ringing in his ears. He was due to return in 2013 for a brief re-run of The Racist, but a dose of hemorrhagic polyps on his vocal chords put paid to that. ‘During my New York run I injured my voice badly, I was getting increasingly hoarse and it finally gave up,’ Noah recalls. ‘The doctor said I had two choices. Either cancel things or try my luck and perhaps never speak again. That’s not much of a choice.’
When it comes to choosing whether to come to a show called The Racist, Noah has been amused by some confused reactions. ‘Some people don’t know what to expect, they don’t know if they’re coming to a show of racism or should you come if you are racist or is it just a show about racism. Some don’t really have a clue, and it gets people looking twice. I’ve always been a fan of issues around race and racialism and I’ve loved playing with it. People act as though it isn’t an issue, but it’s a recurring theme in our lives globally.’
Trevor Noah: The Racist is at The Stand, Glasgow, Mon 6 Jan.