When Trevor Noah first appeared on the U.S. airwaves, he did so, as he will before a sold-out Lied Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, as a standup comic.
Noah debuted on Jay Leno’s show in 2012, introducing himself to Americans by way of an autobiographical set that showed how the racist politics of his native South Africa shaped his worldview.
“As a family we weren’t allowed to live together,” said Noah, whose mother is black and whose father is white, a forbidden relationship in the country’s apartheid system during his adolescence. “When we walked in the streets, my dad had to walk on the other side of the road. He could just wave at me like a creepy pedophile. And then my mom could walk with me, but if the police showed up, she’d have to let go of my hand and act like I wasn’t with her. Every single time. It was horrible ... I felt like a bag of weed.”
Three years later, Noah was tabbed to become the third host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” after Jon Stewart announced that he was ending his 16-year run as the host of the network’s longest-running show, where politicians and pundits are oft-mocked. Then 31, Noah acknowledged from the start that he was the new guy in town.
“Jon Stewart was more than just a late night host,” Noah said in his inaugural address on Sept. 28, 2015. “He was often our voice, our refuge, and, in many ways, our political dad. And it’s weird, because dad has left. And now, it feels like the family has a new step dad, and he’s black.”
Noah’s now been the host of “The Daily Show” for a little more than two years, and he recently agreed to a deal to continue working there through 2022. In his time on the show, he’s used his viewpoint as an outsider, to not only his new show but also his new country, to reexamine concepts that he believes Americans have perhaps grown a little too accustomed to, like the every-so-often threat of a government shutdown.
“You shouldn’t accept that the people in power cannot do their job,” Noah said on an Emmy-winning “Daily Show” special that aired online. “There’s no other industry where we would allow that to happen. We would never be like, ‘Oh, pilots don’t know how to land planes. Well, that’s why we jump out before they crash.’“
He’s also gained praise for pointed, but civil, conversations with guests like right wing commentator Tomi Lahren, whose perspective Noah genuinely is interested in understanding. He also challenges her -- not an easy task with a partisan audience in the stands, ready to boo her.
This week, on the Oct. 2 episode, Noah opened with a somber monologue about the attack in Las Vegas, chiding the right for attempting to put off the gun control debate for another day.
“'This is not the time to be talking about guns -- sometimes I wish I had used this logic as a kid when I had done something wrong,” Noah said, introducing the lone joke in his monologue. “When my mom wanted to ground me, I should have just said: ‘Is this the time, mom, that we politicize what’s happening right now? This is not the time to talk about my lack of discipline. This is the time for us to unite as a family to focus on the fact that I’m stuck in the kitchen window trying to sneak back in.'”
But he ended on a humorless note.
“To the people of Las Vegas, I can’t give you thoughts and prayers,” Noah said. “I can only say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we live in a world where there are people who will put a gun before your lives.”
That’s a tone that has grown more commonplace in discussing political issues on late-night TV these days, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor Ari Kohen.
“Now, you have these comedians who are really sort of digging into the policy of things,” he said. “It's not simply that they're making a kind of joke about the way someone in the administration was speaking or something they did. They're looking in real detail. Jimmy Kimmel is the most obvious example, but you see this with 'The Daily Show' as well with Trevor Noah, where they're really digging into policy questions and issues that might come up in Congress.”
How that translates to Noah's current stage act remains to be seen Friday night. In his latest standup special, “Afraid of the Dark,” on Netflix, Noah weaved political humor into his set, but didn’t base his routine purely upon it.
He only said “Trump” once, for instance, and he did a whole bit on how he got accidentally hammered when some Scottish lads coaxed him into going out for a "wee, little drink."
But that was after he implored his audience to travel, specifically to places where they don't know the language. (Scotland, he joked, counts as such a place, even for English-speakers.)
“It changes your mind, your perspective, how you believe, what you believe,” he said, once again letting people know how more about his worldview came to be.