(Comedy Central)

"A nastier Jon Stewart for a nastier age": South African writer weighs in on Trevor Noah

Johannesburg-based author Richard Poplak considers Trevor Noah in his unique cultural context


Anna Silman
April 2, 2015 10:24PM (UTC)

As the immediate frenzy over Trevor Noah’s Twitter history has died down, a number of smart takes have emerged examining Noah as a quintessentially South African comedian in a unique cultural context. Specifically, South African journalist Richard Poplak had an insightful piece in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, explaining that instead of thinking as Noah as a postnational comic, he ought to be considered a someone who "comes from a very specific place during a very specific time…. as a South African of both white and black parentage born during the apartheid years.”

Poplak explains that Noah has long been ubiquitous in his native South Africa, from having his own show “Tonight with Trevor Noah” to starring in cellphone ads, and that “no one mistook him for a great political satirist. He was comedy-room tone.” Still, Poplak acknowledges that Noah is an “uber-South African,” whose comedy is specifically concerned with the country’s history and its complex preoccupation with race.

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While Poplak doesn’t excuse Noah's racist, unfunny tweets, he does allow that "his black/white heritage allows him a somewhat unique perspective from which to pronounce on them all.” Meanwhile, when Noah speaks of his own family's traumatic history in his routine, there "an edge of real bitterness to these reminiscences, an extended moan of genuine pain that pushes them into the realm of performance art."

He goes on:

So perhaps Trevor Noah will be a nastier Jon Stewart for a nastier age. When the news of his hiring was formally announced, Noah was in Dubai for three days of sold-out shows. He plays everywhere, all the time. This isn’t because he presents as a citizen of the Global Nowhere, but rather because the South African experience is not as exceptional as South Africans like to make it out to be. In Thomas Piketty’s re-upped version of the gilded age, we’re all South Africans, divided by race, class, outlook, experience, hatred and the species of unnamable nastiness and self-loathing that runs through Noah’s comedy like a bad cold…. What he’ll bring to The Daily Show – to America, to Bahrain, to Britain, and everywhere else that watches – is nothing less than a slice of the South African condition, with all its social messiness and complexity.

The New York Times also examined how Noah's unique half white Swiss, half black Xhosa parentage, and the traumatic experience of growing up during apartheid, came to inform his comedic sensibilities, writing: "the result is a strain of comedy distinctive to him, in which race is often dominant but rarely in the way Americans experience it."


Anna Silman

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Apartheid Comedy Jon Stewart South Africa The Daily Show Trevor Noah Tv Twitter




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