Trevor Noah on Mandela, and his return to Scotland

MUCH has changed since Trevor Noah debuted The Racist, the story of his upbringing in Apartheid South Africa to a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss father, at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.
South African stand-up comedian Trevor Noah. Picture: ContributedSouth African stand-up comedian Trevor Noah. Picture: Contributed
South African stand-up comedian Trevor Noah. Picture: Contributed

Despite being produced and championed by Eddie Izzard, the charismatic 29-year-old comic wasn’t prepared for August’s annual “Mecca of comedy”, finding it “ten times more than I’d been expecting”. Despite his glowing reviews, he’d arrived at the Fringe “with no show, having no idea that most people come with theirs fully formed before touring it afterwards.”

And so after tweaking various versions over the last couple of years for Europe, Australia, the US and South Africa, where he still lives, The Racist returns to Scotland perhaps “50% different, the culmination of touring the world, something I’m now proud to call a show.”

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His life is also being adapted for an American sitcom, made by Will Smith’s production company, though he foresees the action switching from Soweto to the States. In the UK meanwhile, The Racist was recorded for Radio 4 and he’s appeared on Live at The Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats and QI, for which he demonstrated Xhosa click-singing.

Mandela “was hilarious”

But it was the death of another member of that people, Nelson Mandela, that makes Noah’s account of segregation seem especially poignant now. A global icon and the world’s most distinguished statesman, Mandela was also one of the funniest men the comic ever met, a trait largely overlooked in the obituaries.

“He was hilarious” Noah recalls. “Truly, he had some of the funniest jokes. Just very dry, very witty. A lot of people didn’t laugh, I don’t know why, they thought he wasn’t joking I guess. They just sat listening seriously, ‘oh yes, he’s saying something important’. It was the funniest thing to watch.”

Invited to perform “at a very rich guy’s farm, where Mandela actually wrote his book”, Noah found the former South African president “had this enigma about him. He was very old and frail but still had his wits.

“Like all great speakers and great leaders, he knew how to find a balance between furious and funny. Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, there’s a sense of humour about themselves, as well as being commanding and authoritative. Mandela had that charm in abundance.”

Noah has always delighted in impersonating ‘Madiba’, leaving voicemails pretending to be him on friend’s phones. But he’s uncertain if Mandela ever heard his impressions and is resolved to ask his grandson. One of his most famous routines imagined the former president drunk at his 91st birthday party, goading Bill Clinton about the Monica Lewinsky affair. For the comic, it’s crucial that the man isn’t obscured by the legend.

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“That’s what I always try to tell people” he maintains. “He said many times that he’s not a saint yet someone’s always trying to put him on this extremely high pedestal, which is understandable and deserved. But he was just a man and it’s better to see him that way because that’s something you can aspire to, as opposed to a fictional icon that no-one can be. Mandela always said that he wasn’t without fault but he did the best that he could. He tried to serve a greater purpose. I always saw him as a man who did great things, which then made him a great man.”

“You simply had to work through apartheid”

Abhorrent though Apartheid was, Noah’s formative experience of being seen as neither black or white, of having to walk on the other side of the road to his father, instilled the insider-outsider perspective that defines his sense of humour and sharpened his mimicry skills.

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“Most comedy comes from pain” he reflects. “You find that, if you’re not a purely observational comic, you’re a social commentator. And probably a social commentator because you’ve spent time on the outside, looking in. I was an outsider with my people and that informed who I am today.

Nevertheless, “I never try and act like it was my personal burden. We suffered as a nation and I don’t try to make out that I had the toughest journey because I didn’t. My parents did a great job, especially my mom, of making my world as normal as possible.

“As with most people of colour in South Africa, because it was our reality, you couldn’t spend all day crying about it, you simply had to work through it. Even the likes of Mandela in his prison cell, they were telling jokes, making each other laugh, even in those dark moments. In the times of greatest pain, comedy transcends. You can laugh and that’s a saving grace as a human being.”

Part of the “second wave” of South Africa’s nascent stand-up comedy scene (“it’s exciting. How often can people claim they’re at the forefront of something?”) Noah has been performing for just six years but can legitimately stake a claim to having a career spanning four continents.

“Trying to be honest”

Acknowledging the polyglot, multicultural inspirations of Izzard and, perhaps the first truly international stand-up, Indian-Canadian Russell Peters, whom he supported in South Africa, Noah has forsworn “being a specialist in one place to try to be very good and cultivate an audience everywhere”, a quest bound up with his ongoing exploration of his own identity.

A “long way off” in the future he hopes to perform stand-up in Switzerland, in his father’s tongue of German, despite what he currently disparages as his over-strident and disturbingly “Hitlerish” delivery. And though reluctant to see himself as a political comic - “number one, I’m trying to make people laugh, that’s my job” - he achieves this by “finding common truths, those things we share.

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“I’m trying to be honest and I’m trying to garner honest opinions too. You experience the most amazing nights of comedy when you and the audience feel like you’re sharing something beyond a bunch of observations and anecdotes that have no bearing on their lives. So if I do talk about politics, it’s because I feel like we’re pursuing a truth together and they’re like an extended circle of friends. That’s when I truly enjoy it.”

• Trevor Noah: The Racist, is at The Stand, Glasgow, on 6 January