Jon Stewart’s Daily Show replacement Trevor Noah performed an energetic 70-minute stand-up set full of racial observations Wednesday night in Santa Monica as part of the Television Critics’ Association annual press tour.
Noah has made a few appearances on The Daily Show in the past and has performed several dozen shows in the U.S. this year, but the South African comedian’s stand-up is not as well known among American audiences as it is internationally. Almost immediately following the announcement of Noah’s hiring, the Internet exploded with the discovery of some tasteless jokes he tweeted years ago. Noah has since clarified the controversial tweets, and Comedy Central has defended him as well.
Noah did not address the Twitter backlash, but his confidence and presence onstage bode well for his upcoming hosting duties, which start on Sept. 28. The audience loved him, giving him a standing ovation at the end of the night. He has a remarkable talent for voices and accents, and worked in some excellent bits of physical comedy as well.
Noah opened his set by dissecting etymology of “woo-hoo,” which he called “the sound of happiness — white happiness,” and noted, “black people can ‘woo-hoo,’ but it’s not a sound they innately make. There’s a moment in ‘woo-hoo’ where it sounds like a police siren.”
With that, he kicked off a set that was very concerned with race, especially race issues in America. Recalling an instance of being pulled over on the freeway, he says he realized in that moment, “I don’t know how not to die.”
He said there was once a time when black people and police had an unspoken, mutually accepted protocol, but now he can’t piece together the guidelines for not dying in America, as a black man. Running down the list of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott with increasing confusion and desperation, he said he learned such lessons as “no hoodies,” and “don’t be a big, black, scary man,” but could come to no certain conclusion of a good way to not die.
The comedian didn’t shy away from social issues but avoided discussion of politics, though he told press after the show that he would not do so when he takes over for Stewart in September. “We’re going into the elections; I would be naïve to not be covering the elections,” Noah said. “As somebody who, in essence, is bipartisan — I can’t vote, so I have no horse in the race, essentially — [that] opens it up to an interesting point of view, as an outsider.”
His set also played with his perceptions of the U.S. as an outsider, including a funny bit about flying into American airports from Africa in the midst of the Ebola scare and what he calls “charming American racism.” He claimed to be a “connoisseur of racism,” being from South Africa, “home of some of the best racism in the world,” and while most modern racism is “cheap and mass-produced, probably made in China,” his home country was a proud supplier of “handcrafted racism.”
He perhaps intentionally avoided talking too much about The Daily Show, only sharing his grandmother and mother’s reactions to the news that he got the gig (the former didn’t fully understand, while the latter put it on par with Noah’s much-younger brother being elected to his school’s student council). Talking to press after the set, however, he could hardly stay off the subject.
Noah assured reporters that the show would be the same — just different. “That’s the great thing about The Daily Show — it’s not The Trevor Noah Show,” he said. “The show has a voice… That’s something I love about it, so it definitely won’t lose that.” He’s excited to bring more diversity to the television landscape, saying that “the more diversity you have in everything, the more our conversations become rounded,” and he hopes to start a conversation that will help effect change in what he calls an increasingly black-and-white, faux-outrage-obsessed culture.
Above all, he emphasized that right now the focus is on Stewart’s last few shows rather than his first ones, and he made clear that he has enormous respect for his predecessor. “Politics are something that everyone considers for the elite, for the old, for the rich,” he said. “But really, if you look at “politic,” the word came from the Greek — it means ‘for the people.’ And that’s what Jon did for me in terms of pop culture.”
“In stand-up, guys learn from, let’s say, the Richard Pryors of the world,” he said. “In political satire, I learned from Jon Stewart.”