South Africa donates comedian to fill American satire void

The United States and cable network channel Comedy Central are looking south – all the way to Africa – for the person to replace an iconic satirist.

Five months after making his debut on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah will now take the host seat occupied by Jon Stewart for more than a decade. The New York Times broke the news that the South African comedian will lead the popular satirical news show.

“He brings such a unique worldview and a deep understanding of human nature, which makes his comedy so insightful,” said Michele Ganeless, president of television channel Comedy Central, to The New York Times. “He’s truly a student of the world.”

That perspective was put on display during Noah’s debut segment. In it, he compared his experiences in South Africa to that of the United States. He told Stewart that his arms were tired following the long trip to the U.S. Not because he was flapping them – as the tired joke goes – but because they were held up in the air to surrender.

“I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa. It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days, back home,” he says.

The segment continues as he expresses fear over Ebola in the U.S. and invites Stewart to consider side-by-side photos of U.S. poverty and progress in Africa. He manages to swiftly subvert the idea that Africa is a monolithic place of suffering and the U.S. is a great land of progress.

Noah was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. His comedy is derived from his experiences growing up in Soweto township as the biracial son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss father – “You know how the Swiss love their chocolate,” he jokes in one routine. He found success on television shows and doing stand-up in South Africa.

The new position and Noah’s more fine-tuned jokes are big steps forward for the comedian. His 2012 debut as a guest comedian on NBC’s Late Night with Jay Leno did not go so well. As New School international affairs professor Sean Jacobs blogged in Africa is a Country, the well-regarded Noah managed to fall flat on some of his jokes about black America.

After doing some decent jokes about the economy (comparing America’s economy to the “credit of a black man”) and riffing on his background — his mother is black, his father white –Noah, oddly, proceeded to tell jokes about what he called “the whole African-American thing.” What followed–in what was supposed to be a mock “African-American accent”–were some tired generalizations and stereotypes of African Americans about language, black people’s names and of African Americans “trying really hard to reconnect with Africa.” Halfway through I could not bear it anymore with the exaggerated mannerisms, including “walking” like African Americans and their supposed relation to gun play, etcetera.

That seems a far cry from the nuanced debut segment on the Daily Show. While only appearing on the show a few times, Noah appears to have made a positive impression on viewers. And the immediate show of support for Noah following the announcement is a promising sign for the program.

To get a better sense of Noah’s comedic chops, here is a clip from his performance at the Apollo theater:

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.