Back in SA for a sold-out tour, Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian Trevor Noah spoke to Helen Herimbi about roasts, racism and refusing to relocate.
Trevor Noah is bigger than the last time I saw him. Not in the sense of his fame (which has skyrocketed) or his perceived arrogance. The stand-up comedian who has become one of SA’s most recognisable exports is just looking a little, er, round. According to ’hood laws, the accumulation of weight is indicative of the accumulation of success.
Top-selling DVDs, a Malcolm Hardee award at the Edinburgh Festival (where he was introduced by his newfound friend, Eddie Izzard), an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (the first Mzansi comic to do so) and a 42-date SA tour for his newest one-man show That’s Racist.
Phew – when would he find time to fit in gym?
When I sit down with him in a clandestine booth at a swanky hotel bar in Joburg it becomes clear that he cares more about becoming a successful comedian than his size.
Chosen to be the roast-master at the Comedy Central Roast Of Steve Hofmeyr – the first televised comedy roast in SA – Noah told me he was interested “to see whether it will be a racial roast or a roast-roast. Will there be a roasting of a person or a people?” You’ll have to tune into DStv’s Comedy Central on Monday to find out.
Back at the hotel, the former faux CEO of Cell C tells me that although he doesn’t miss the internet connectivity issues in SA, when he’s in Los Angeles – where he has been based for many months – he does “miss aboDarkie [black people]. You don’t understand how much you’ll miss a culture until you’re no longer a part of it.”
Just then, a waiter discreetly pops into the booth, bearing a bowl of sweets. He looks up momentarily and is beside himself that Noah is right in front of him. Much to the waiter’s surprise, Noah assures him he remembers him from another one of his visits to the hotel a while ago.
“You’re my hero,” says the waiter.
A suddenly bashful Noah manages a smile and the waiter backs out of the booth saying: “I have all your DVDs,” and chuckling that he has to often replace the Daywalker DVD copies that his friends borrow and never return. While his star is on the rise in the US, Noah clearly doesn’t get such a warm reception in LA. But that’s not his home away from home, he insists.
“I never moved,” he tells me. “I happen to work in the world, but I’m a South African. I’m like the Thabo Mbeki of comedy, not that I’m the president of comedy, but I just mean I go and I come back.”
Whether he’s been in or out of the country, the topic of Noah being a gag-thief is one people in the industry don’t tire of. Recently, Noah was awarded the Comic of the Year award in absentia at the Comic’s Choice Awards and there were a couple of jabs aimed at him in the ceremony. Some of these jabs were from frank funnyman John Vlismas, who is also one of the founders of the awards.
“I’ve actually confronted John,” Noah is surprisingly candid, “and asked him if he’s ever seen me doing someone else’s jokes. I worked at his [Comedy] Underground in Melville for years, why was he booking me? Why am I nominated for an award at his show? Quality sells, but some guys will find any reason to talk s**t about you. People will say Seth McFarlane took from The Simpsons, they say Jay-Z stole from Biggie…”
Vlismas isn’t the only comedian who has taken issue with Noah.
Of the opinion that young comics should hone their skills before attempting a one-man show, veteran comedian Mel Miller appeared in You Laugh But It’s True, a documentary directed by American filmmaker David Paul Meyer about Noah’s rise to fame.
Although it leaves out the bits about Noah beginning as a graveyard shift DJ on YFM and starting out as a promising upstart at the forefront of comedy shows like The Just Because Comedy Festival which gives back to charity, this documentary does paint a peculiar picture of his relationship with his mother and insightful commentary from the likes of veteran comedian Miller and former manager, Takunda Bimha. But Noah hasn’t seen the doccie because: “I can’t watch anything about my life, it’s just a snapshot anyway.”
For the most part, what Noah has allowed the world to see of him seems like more than a snapshot. For instance, on stage, he’s told us about growing up half black and half white and in describing what a gorgeous baby he was, his black grandmother called him “delicious.”
But one gets the sense that he’s not willing to delve further than that or talk about race.
However, he insists: “The same guys who will lecture you about young comics talking too much about race never work in the world. In reviews overseas, reviewers write that they loved the talks on race, but hated the stupid ones about toasters – the jokes about nothing.”