It's pretty hard not to be moved by the story of Trevor Noah, the South African wonder-boy comedian who climbed many mountains before most Americans even knew his name.
Noah, who will visit Sugar Land's Smart Financial Centre on November 10 (tickets go on sale 10 a.m. tomorrow via Ticketmaster), is the only child of a black Xhosa mother and a white European father. As the 33-year-old notes in his book Born a Crime, his mere existence was against the law because of the apartheid laws in his birth country in the early '80s. Yet as the (uncomfortably named) South African Immorality Act of 1985 helped end the criminality of mixed-race sexual relations and marriages, Noah's mother was jailed and his father fled to his native Switzerland. The comic's early years would be tough.
But the creative kid soon found his craft: stand-up comedy. At the time, the profession was relatively new to South Africa, thanks to some relaxed free-speech laws that allowed for the birth of satire under the nation's blooming new democracy. After performing with fellow South African comics like DJ Darren Simpson and "The Cousin" Barry Hilton, Noah developed relationships with touring headliners Gabriel Iglesias and later Russell Peters, and began opening for them in amphitheaters across his home country before headlining those same venues himself. Noah worked festivals and comedy jams, as well as both South African and American TV. But it was those comics with international status that no doubt helped Noah parlay a move to Los Angeles, which he made in 2011. He was ready for prime time.
A notoriously aggressive touring comic, Noah has managed to release nine hourlong specials in the past eight years: The Daywalker (2009); Bafunny Bafunny (2010); Crazy Normal (2011); You Laugh But It's True (2011); That's Raciest (2012); African American (2013); It's My Culture (2013); Lost In Translation (2015); and his latest offering, Afraid of the Dark (2017), which launched exclusively on Netflix in February. That level of output is what launched Louis C.K. into the comedy stratosphere almost ten years ago...so why hasn't the same halo been offered to Noah?
But on December 5, 2014, after memorable sets on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and David Letterman's Late Show, Jon Stewart's Daily Show snapped up the young prodigy, adding him to their illustrious team of correspondents. Three appearances later, Noah was asked to host the program himself.
To offer the understatement of the decade, this is not commonly done. No doubt some hurt feelings were involved — other candidates seemingly vying for the position included longtime Daily Show players like Wyatt Cenac and Samantha Bee, the show's 12-year "field reporter." But no tears should be shed. Both were almost instantly invited to host their own versions of the show across the humor-sphere: Bee landed TBS's weekly Full Frontal, and Cenac developed a filmed version of his stage show, Night Train, for the NBC-owned streaming service SeeSo. (Both are great, by the way.)
After the Daily Show changeover, the company line seemed to be that Noah's "global perspective" helped land him the job. Michele Gainless, Comedy Central's president at the time, and Noah discussed new initiatives for the new Daily Show to further engage millennial viewers and push the confines of the Monday-Thursday half-hour into a constant conversation with audiences — over social media and Comedy Central's digital arm.
The show itself was imagined as less of an indictment of cable news and would feature heavier use of Noah's vocal abilities: different languages, character voices and impressions. Noah's premiere episode on September 28, 2015, was simulcast across all Viacom-owned stations, including Nick at Nite, MTV, BET, VH1 and TV Land. (No pressure.) Reviews were generally mixed, but growing pains at new talk shows are practically a given.
In the intervening year and a half, American politics has never been more talked-about, and American political comedy has never been so overexposed. Between Stewart's direct progeny (Bee on TBS, Stephen Colbert on CBS and Jon Oliver on HBO), and those deeply influenced by the Daily Show's teachings (Seth Meyers on NBC, SNL's expanded "Weekend Update" segment, Anthony Atamanuik's scathing Trump sendup on Fusion and the litany of podcasts hosted by W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu, Jimmy Dore and more), it has been tough for Noah to find some breathing room.
But the show's ratings have stabilized, and its current stable of correspondents are developing their own identity as well: Roy Wood Jr.'s no-nonsense grump frequently offers some counterbalance to the perky host; Hasan Minhaj's delivered a manic, emoji-heavy sendup of the Muslim travel ban; and Jordan Klepper has been to more Trump rallies than most people who voted for him.
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But it's Noah who has begun to get his show legs. Gone should be the criticism that the comic is simply a smile in a suit; his post-election direct address on Trump's racism and inherent white privilege is full of the ethos and charm that made his stand-up a must-watch. Ignoring the superficial alterations of the show (Noah tends to stand in his first act, where Stewart always sat), his focused anger and condemnations recall the former host's passion for the issues, while offering a perspective not seen on any of Noah's oft-compared challengers. That's something to hang your hat on, and a goal to keep chasing.
Plus, it's easy to forget Noah himself is mostly new to the American system of government. Each of the apparatuses Noah now mocks nightly — the super-PACs funded by dark money, the gerrymandered state and local systems, the powers of the Presidency itself — are complicated and hardly user-friendly, but are soaking into the soil of his fresh-faced immigrant's comic voice. And like a grad student making up for lost time, Noah has put his nose into the news and found the new-eyed perspectives of an outsider. The Daily Show is really starting to become his, which is becoming clear to the folks who stuck around post-Stewart, as well as to Noah himself.
Heavy is the head that wears another man's crown, but it looks like Noah has finally learned to put Stewart's down.