Jon Stewart is on a triumphant last lap at The Daily Show, relishing the gift of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, excoriating the disparity between America’s war on terror and its response to domestic terrorism in Charleston, and dissecting the hypocrisy of Fox News till the end.
Eight thousand miles from Stewart’s New York studio, his successor is limbering up in surroundings that would make Trump look classy. South African comedian Trevor Noah is playing to sell-out houses at Montecasino, a gaudy entertainment complex north of Johannesburg designed to look like Renaissance-era Tuscany complete with bell tower and piazza. Inside, gamblers play slot machines watched by fake pigeons amid fake Italian houses with fake balconies lining fake cobbled streets beneath a fake sky.
The good news is that Noah’s show, Lost in Translation, rises seamlessly above the kitsch and is riotously funny. It demonstrates his charm and polish as a performer, his surging self-confidence and his mercurial talent for accents, mimicry and physical comedy – a theatricality that perhaps invites comparisons with Stephen Colbert rather than Stewart himself.
“It’s his last moment on the small stage,” murmured one American in the audience just before the start of last Friday’s show, being filmed for sale on DVD.
The best, freshest part of Noah’s 95-minute set is the first, contrasting his new-found fame in America, where he ran the gauntlet of the paparazzi and sat beside actor Jennifer Lawrence at the Met Gala in New York, with the tribulations of South African life: he got home to find himself locked out of home because of a power cut. When he told his mother he had landed The Daily Show job, she pointed out that his 11-year-old brother had been made head boy at school: “I’m so happy, both my boys are doing big things.”
Noah also breezes through subjects ranging from the frustrations of South African call centres, the president dismissively rolling his eyes in parliament, the recent Fifa scandal, the British empire in India and the awkwardness of a current girlfriend bumping into an ex – admittedly some of the gender gags are old-fashioned fare more attuned to Montecasino than Manhattan.
Noah’s live stand-up shows have been winning audience around the world. But even ardent fans of both him and The Daily Show worry whether the two are a match. What if he’s like a big money football signing who looks ideal on paper but somehow can’t quite gel with the rest of the team?
Some have drawn attention to his lack of edginess. “The reality is that Noah has never been a shock comedian or a taboo buster,” wrote Geoffrey York last week inCanada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “His act lacks the anger and outrage that often fuel Stewart’s routines. He leaves his audiences feeling warm and content, rather than discomforted or challenged.”
But the producers of The Daily Show made clear they were opting for change, not continuity, when they overlooked the programme’s brilliant team of spoof reporters in favour of a 31-year-old from the other side of the world. Given the impossibility of filling Stewart’s shoes, and the taste for an outsider’s perspective established by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight on HBO, this was probably the right call.
Noah himself is no fool. He will be aware of all the comparisons and expectations. He is being thrown in at the deep end of a presidential election campaign and, even with the best scriptwriters in the business, cannot be expected to know, or feel in his guts, the intricacies of Chris Christie’s involvement in the scandalous closure of a bridge.
But comedians, like actors or journalists, are adaptable creatures and Noah, like most performers who make a thing look effortless, works ferociously hard between gigs. He has performed on stages from Dubai to Edinburgh to Sydney and fashioned his material accordingly. A student of languages – he speaks six – he has made a life-long specialism of being a chameleon. And he is uniquely placed to analyse the burning issue of the times in America: race.
Noah’s mother is a Xhosa-speaking black woman from Soweto township; his father a white man from Switzerland. The couple used to have to walk on opposite sides of the road because inter-racial relationships were still a crime inSouth Africa.
Noah once told a documentary: “I’ve lived a life where I’ve never really fitted in in any particular way. Even now, people still debate on what I am. People say, ‘Oh you’re black,’ And then someone will turn around and say, ‘But he’s not black, he’s coloured.’ And then coloured people will say, ‘But you’re not coloured.’
“And then when you get older it’s cool because you’ve lived everywhere and nowhere, and you’ve been everyone and no one, and so you can say everything and nothing and that’s really what affects my comedy and everything I say.”
Noah is a product of a society where apartheid ended only 21 years ago. Racial politics runs through his comedy like a stick of Blackpool rock. In one riff that hits home in his current show, he parodies white people who try to adopt a black accent in the belief that it will make them better understood.
“If you speak to someone in their accent in the wrong way, it may come across as racist,” he said. “Don’t speak down to a person, don’t patronise them, just learn the accent, that’s all it is.”
And in another lament, the culture gap between South Africa and America closed in an instant. “Whether you’re famous, rich, successful, as long as you’re black, you see a policeman, your heart starts to beat because you know there’s a chance you could go to jail,” Noah told the audience. “Whether you’ve done something or not, if you’re a black person, every day when you wake up you go, ‘Today could be the day that I could go to jail’.”