In Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire Gulliver’s Travels, a young, middle-class Englishman looking for adventure joins a crew bound for the East Indies. But the ship breaks apart somewhere north of Tasmania. When Gulliver washes ashore in a mysterious, isolated kingdom populated by tiny men, he becomes an unplanned anthropologist, recording both the awe with which the men receive him and the faint absurdity of their pride: In exchange for the freedom to walk around the kingdom, the emperor demands Gulliver validate his claim to be the “delight and terror of the universe, monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men…whose head strikes against the sun.” The emperor is six inches tall.
I think of Gulliver sometimes when I watch Trevor Noah, the 38-year-old comedic sensation. Born in segregated South Africa to a Swiss father and a Black mother—a match that was illegal at the time—Noah grew up a stranger in his own country. His mother converted to Judaism, even rarer, and nobody came to the bar mitzvah she planned for him. But just a few years after his 2011 move to the United States, he joined the inner sanctum of the American political conversation, taking over the incredibly influential Daily Show from Jon Stewart, writing the bestselling memoir Born a Crime, and becoming one of the most-watched commentators on world affairs.
Given Noah’s meteoric rise—this year he emceed the Grammys and will host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a podium previously presided over by Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno and Wanda Sykes—not all that much has been written about what really makes him funny. I’ve lived in South Africa for 12 years, and most of the South Africans I know predicted he’d bomb as The Daily Show host because they assumed Americans would be congenitally unwilling to accept a comic with an unfamiliar accent bearing stories from a faraway country. Many Americans presumed the same. But friends now send me more of Noah’s sketches via text and email than of ones done by veterans like Jimmy Kimmel or John Oliver.
The simplest explanation, besides innate talent, is that Noah is an outsider to America. Gulliver is effective satire in part because the trope of a voyager in a foreign land is so ripe for the comedy of misunderstandings and surprises. Noah draws on this trope all the time, joking about his disappointment with the turgid “Happy Birthday” song—“Someone from another culture who’d never experienced it, they would think it was, like, a death song”—and the ways he never anticipated he would be treated because of his skin color. But more than that, he’s an outsider’s outsider, somebody who grew up on the margins in a very unique place and time, when almost everybody suddenly felt like a foreigner in their country of birth. America has other foreign-born comedians: Oliver and James Corden from the United Kingdom; Canada’s Samantha Bee. But it might only be a comedian from South Africa who can do what Noah’s done.
When I moved to South Africa in 2009, I was immediately struck by the popularity of live comedy shows. Stewart and Stephen Colbert were already big on TV in America. But most of the lawyers, journalists and congressional interns I knew in Washington, DC wouldn’t have hit an actual comedy club on a Saturday night unless the act was somebody really, really famous. In South Africa, comedy was way more formally integrated into daily life.
The biggest city, Johannesburg, had such a rich comedy scene people categorized it not by club but by neighborhood (“Brakpan” vs. “Sandton” comedy). Major law firms and corporations—even some government departments—had comedians emcee their otherwise staid semiannual conferences and trainings. People even hired comedians to host their weddings.
Lawyers became comedians; doctors became comedians. Maybe it was because of the disorientation people lived with every day. Riaad Moosa, an internist and comedian of Indian heritage, told me that it’s poorly understood abroad just how farcical apartheid, South Africa’s all-penetrating system of racial segregation, was, as well as inhumane. His parents were granted a waiver to attend an all-white medical school in the 1980s, but the administrators did not allow them to dissect dead white bodies.
Extra layers of incongruity were piled atop that absurdist substructure after apartheid ended in 1994. Moosa recalled to me how bizarre it was to enter medical school in 1995. “You’d experience such strange racial incidents from the [white] doctors.” But what was hilarious was how blissfully unaware the doctors seemed that they were saying offensive and, most of all, stupid things.
It was a thrilling time, too. In the second half of the 20th century, white supremacy was more firmly legally entrenched in South Africa than it was in America. But in the 1990s, South Africa experienced a much more dramatic and sweeping power inversion. All of the country’s institutions suddenly opened to Black and Brown people like Moosa, who constituted nearly 90 percent of the population and rapidly came to dominate those institutions demographically.
And comedy took off. To be a comedian became radical, exciting. White-run South Africa was influenced by puritanical Dutch Calvinist thought, and it had both official political censorship—DJs couldn’t play some Bob Dylan songs on the radio—and strict social mores prohibiting vulgarity. Famously, under apartheid, a Black mechanic was imprisoned just for holding a coffee mug with Nelson Mandela’s name printed on it. Now, suddenly, the Black comedian Tshepo Mogale could dare to stand up at a comedy club packed with white patrons and say, “You whites are full of shit!” He could make fun of white people’s fear of him and note how quickly many of their Black peers were starting to exceed them. In one sketch, he recalled stopping at a red light beside “a battered old Datsun carrying a white family.” The family had locked their car doors when they saw him. “I’m going to hijack a Datsun?” he joked. “Get out of here. I drive a Mercedes.”
Chris Mapane was born in 1984, the same year as Trevor Noah. He still has dark memories of apartheid: “When I was six or seven, my parents woke me and my sister up in the middle of the night and we had to flee our house. I still don’t know what we were running from. As a kid, I knew my line, the line I must walk. I knew my position. I had to adapt to what white people wanted of me.” By contrast, his teens felt like an experience of constant disorientation and shock.
He came of age in the second generation of post-apartheid South African comics, a generation that entered their teens with no firm blueprint for what to expect out of their country or other people. After discovering his talent for comedy doing impromptu stand-up sessions on the bus that took him to his college dorm, in his early twenties, “I mostly booked white-run comedy clubs,” he remembered. “Black people were starting to have power, but we still felt like visitors.” He found it was still easier to get bookings if “I got a friend who could do a good ‘white’ accent to make the bookings for me. She would say, ‘I have this guy that I’m managing that is so talented!’” He laughed.
It was painful to have to do that, but the funny part was that the white club-owners bought the ruse. You see, things were complicated. Mapane also found that many of the white comedians who performed alongside him tanked, even in front of audiences that included white people. Their jokes weren’t as funny because their position of power had allowed them to be insulated from a lot of their country’s realities. A self-righteous or disdainful attitude didn’t go over well. “The Black comics,” he says, “were not performing from arrogance.”
Julie Seirlis, an anthropology professor who has studied the role of comedy in democracy, remembered attending a comedy show in South Africa where a white comic did a cutting routine about the haughtiness and ineffectiveness of foreign aid workers in Africa—the kind of scathing monologue that might be a hit for John Oliver or Jon Stewart. The South African audience was stony-faced. All of the comedian’s points were quite obvious to them, since they had lived the grand promises and mixed impact of foreign aid. They didn’t need to be lectured about what they already knew.
Noah’s mother and father met in the 1980s in a bohemian, whites-only Johannesburg neighborhood. People of color were beginning—illegally—to rent rooms and apartments there. When his mother gave birth to a light-skinned baby, she had to lie to the obstetrician about Noah’s paternity, and she kept on having to lie, claiming his father was from the neighboring country of Swaziland. Noah hung out with his Swiss-born father a little, but only in private settings. When he was a toddler and the three took a walk outdoors, he called out “Daddy!” His father ran.
So even South Africans themselves weren’t quite sure what to make of Noah in the beginning. In his memoir, Noah recounted how his grandmother’s neighbors in her Black township exoticized him as “white” while he got dumped by the first girl he asked out because he wasn’t white enough. One of the distinguishing features of apartheid was an obsession with categorizing every single person by race or, within the Black community, by tribe. Technically, Noah was “colored,” or mixed-race. But by the time he was born, “colored” had become its own identity as well as an ID-card classification. The majority of colored people in South Africa had colored parents and spoke Afrikaans at home. There wasn’t a clear role for a child with one white and one Black parent, because that pairing was illegal.
Somebody in a position as uncategorizable as Noah’s had to protect himself, and he came to be known as opaque. Early in his comedy career, South African commentators fetishized his looks or probed for personal details. “Describe your parents,” one mid-2000s South African interviewer commanded him.
“One is female and the other isn’t.”
“Name three things your fans don’t know about you?”
“I’m secretive, private and evasive.”
But what I most often heard about Noah when I got to South Africa, well before his U.S. rise, was that he was an extraordinarily good observer—as alien and uncanny an observer of South African society as he was to become of America. “His accents are just unreal,” Jenna Donian, who writes on South African comedy, told me. “Whenever he imitates someone”— such as Mandela or Jacob Zuma, who was president of South Africa at the turn of the 2010s—“it’s absolutely perfect.”
It wasn’t easy even for Black comics to mock Zuma—a corrupt, trolling figure who bears comparison to Donald Trump. Soon after apartheid’s end, some Black South Africans became powerful enough to abuse their power. But directing mockery at Black people after they had endured centuries of white mockery was difficult.
Noah, though, “had been marginalized on so many levels, which gave him the freedom to offend,” Donian remarked. There was a hierarchy in South Africa between racial categories, but there was another hierarchy between those who fit into any category at all and those who didn’t. Mapane, the Black comedian, remembered being bullied as a child to speak Sesotho, his community’s language, instead of English to show his tribal pride. He found it was a relief to watch a comedian who felt unconstrained by any sanctities at all.
“It’s very, very evident that in America you can’t find any common ground,” Riaad Moosa, the doctor-turned-comedian, told me recently. But what he finds more significant about the American discourse he watches on TV or comes across on Twitter is that “everybody’s saying the other side is stupid. You have this distinctive situation where everybody feels like they’re punching down.” Humor becomes “claughter,” a word coined to express the smug enjoyment you get from hearing your disdain for the other side put into words.
But most comedians know punching down isn’t really funny. If you have a culture where everyone claims to possess “an almost unreal confidence” in their opinions, Moosa reflected, nobody can actually be funny. You’ll have a society with a lot of laughter but very little real humor. And that society may need an outsider—not any outsider, but a South African who came of age when Noah did, when so little was certain and so much was shocking as soon as you walked out of your own front door.
One American friend who loves Noah told me she appreciates “his combination of sarcasm and tenderness,” in the way he reveals his own mishaps as a boy and as a newcomer to the American media scene. An analyst who compared linguistic patterns in comedians’ sketches found Noah’s routines contain strikingly few “imperatives,” instances when he tells the audience what to do from a position of expertise or authority, and also very little disdain. Disdain comes from punching down. Noah has always been punching up.
The key to Gulliver’s Travels is that it sends up not only the fantastical communities Gulliver encounters after his shipwreck—whether midgets, giants or horses who talk—but also Gulliver himself; in his haplessness and confusion, he is self-mocking. It’s a quality that makes a comedian seem vulnerable and generous, and it’s also one that’s exceedingly hard for a contemporary American—reared on the necessity of holding your beliefs fiercely lest you let the other side do you violence—to pull off believably.
Seirlis, the professor who studies comedy and democracy, believes Noah works in America because he brings the same perspective Black comics brought to South Africa after apartheid’s end—an account from the periphery to the United States. “What you’re experiencing are the consequences of empire,” she told me. “America struggles to see itself as imperialist. But when you come from the periphery, you know and see much more about the center than the center sees about the periphery.”