If the 90 minute performance on the 5th of September at University of Maryland's Cole Field House is any indication, Trevor Noah isn't going to hesitate in rolling on the tough turf when he takes over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart later this month. The performance to a majority student audience and teachers was saturated with the unavoidable issue of race. I remember he was the presumptive heir to Jon Stewart when I first encountered Trevor Noah on the Internet. I sat through pieces of his stand-up act and was rather surprised at how easily he brought out layering and nuance on complex thorny issues and yet left one with a feeling of mental delight. One of my favourites, though, is his comparison of sports coverage on America TV peppered with statistics, angles, graphs, permutations and combinations versus coverage of the markets and the economy where anchors and experts tumble out phrases of uncertainty and clueless bullish and bearish scenarios
(I say it terribly, see it here).
From the word go as the 31-year old South African comedian stepped on to the stage in a dapper black leather jacket (though I'd prefer the steel grey formal suit he was photographed in) and joked about the balmy African weather the premises reminded him of, he pushed the pedal on race and identity. I believe it's something he has done before in his performances at Santa Monica, California when the first 20 odd minutes were focused on the police brutality in America, killing of unarmed black men. He rattled names mentioning Michael Brown and ending with Walter Scott, the 50-year old who was shot in the back five times while running away from a policeman in the city of North Charleston in South Carolina. By the way Kim Kardashian found a way into that quip. The riff threaded apart the media coverage and how the 16,000 dollars that Scott owed his wife in alimony or the hoods that the boys wore circumscribed the coverage and the media narrative of Scott and the others. 'I don't know how not to die' he said numerous times in that chunk and we all laughed, knowing it's true.
'Those sketch artists make all the black people look the same', he said and I was reminded of what Claudia Rankine, the Jamaican poet and playwright wrote in her book, Citizen: An American Lyric about the 'all black look alike moment' and the many 'micro-aggressions' where racism passes freely, the acts of everyday racism-remarks, glances and implied judgments.
"The power of comedy to provide voices where once voices were marginalized or make others laugh about the absurdity of reality is a great achievement and of course great entertainment."
Noah brought out many of these, examining race in his unique perspective. There is no denying he has considerable talent but equally important is that he made one and all laugh not through one-liners and punch lines but meticulously scripted and witty scenarios. Comedy as a political tool is not just for laughs. The power of comedy to provide voices where once voices were marginalized or make others laugh about the absurdity of reality is a great achievement and of course great entertainment. But it takes a special kind of 'social comedy' to fit that role. There is wordplay, storytelling, wit, observation and sharp commentary. It helps that Noah's jokes have happened, have been lived in. They smack of the grime and dirt and the lived-in racial and ethnic experience. There were stories of his life growing up in South Africa and his view of USA, a land where the beautiful game gets fringe support never mind the over-confidence of Team USA, where grammar is tossed out of the window if you are from Kentucky (he got called the handsomest N-word by a seemingly voluptuous belle while on a visit there) and his view of New York where he now lives and walks non stop 'because you cant stop if you are walking in New York'.
His stand-up stew simmered through much of the evening with identity politics, opinion, jabs, outrage and at the end of it no subject was prickly enough. He dabbled with humour that some may say borders on the offensive. I will admit to some parts being difficult to stomach, perhaps those are the prejudices we live with and keep close to ourselves, not even willing to let out a laugh. Half way in to the show post the wisecracks on police brutality Noah drew hammering holes at Oscar Pistorius's lame defence of how he ended up shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his Pretoria home because he mistook her for an intruder hiding in the bathroom. He even managed to cock a snook of sorts at the blade runner with no legs.
Then there was the part where Noah spoke about why he preferred airlines originating from the Middle East to others (they are less chances those will come down, he quipped). In a jumble of words but with a perfect accent (he speaks eight languages) he replayed a scene of a possible suicide bomber on plane. I was cagey, shifted uncomfortably on my seat and have to admit turned around to see whether I was the only one trying to be politically correct (the kind Trump hates). But soon the alchemy of humour did its bit and I couldn't control but laugh out loud. My defences were lowered and even though I remained resistant to that kind of messaging I came out feeling ok, not negative for sure. The man had once again successfully used humour to get his point across, to show the foolery and effectively simplifying a complex situation.
"[H]e made one and all laugh not through one-liners and punch lines but meticulously scripted and witty scenarios."
I kept hunting during the course of the act for my alarm to buzz on something inconsiderate or a jibe that pushed a stereotype. Sometimes I thought he was partly lecturing race to the audience, his tone a tad preachy but he never turned pundit, remaining a comic. 'Anger doesn't make you racist', he repeated a few times giving examples of excuses offered by people who made racist comments. He called himself a 'connoisseur of racism' and preferred the straight kind who gave it to people straight to their face instead of the 'subtle racism', he encountered often.
I have often heard Americans lack a sense of humour or irony. That itself is odd given the line up of the likes of Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Garry Shandling and the list is endless. To me the fact that jokes on blacks, whites, Russian accents, Arabs, halal, suicide bombers, the sign language interpreter at this show, Oscar Pistorious, the fake sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial, deaf groups who would have watched the telecast, were all possible in public was a welcome change from what happens back home. The efficacy of comedy to get the point across was on full display. The night was Noah's and he had brought to the house his bag of jokes (perhaps some were recycled as I learnt from the Internet) and an absolutely refreshing new way of talking about race, if not a radical new way. The Daily Show has found a very worthy successor.