“Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa, I never dreamed that I will one day have…two things really,” Trevor Noah cracked Monday night on his debut show. “An indoor toilet, and a job as host of the Daily Show.”
Noah’s peculiarly South African brand of humor might seem an odd choice to replace Jon Stewart’s Jewish shtick on the Daily Show. But Noah’s outsider status as a mixed race South African has long helped him get yucks in his homeland - and that same perspective could make him a big hit across the pond.
The telegenic new host with the anchorman looks has an unenviable task in replacing the beloved Stewart, whose Jersey accent and Borscht Belt impersonations Noah can’t match. In South Africa, Noah skewers everyone from Zulus, South African Indians, Jews and everyone in between with spot-on accents.
It remains to be seen if Noah will redirect his ear for accents to Brooklyn-ese or a Southern drawl.
Born in the dying days of apartheid South Africa, Noah, 31, has famously joked he was “born a crime” to a Swiss father, and a half Xhosa - and reportedly - half-Jewish mother.
In the still-complicated racial landscape of South Africa, mixed-race people like Noah who are the product of one black and one white parent are a very small minority. The majority of South Africans are of black African descent, followed by whites and Indians, many of whose ancestors were brought to the continent as indentured workers. So-called “colored” people — many of whom have similar features to Noah — are actually a distinct group who are generally descended from parents on both sides born of various polyglot combinations of races, ranging from Malaysian immigrants to Afrikaans speakers.
This unusual background gave Noah the right to laugh at himself and at all the other groups, not unlike how Stewart uses his Jewish background as a foil to torment groups across the American racial and ethnic spectrum.
“Because I grew up as an outsider, I always knew that (comedy) is the one thing that bridged the gap,” Noah told People magazine. “If you laugh with somebody, then you know you share something. Even if you look at a person and go, ‘I’m totally different’ – you can laugh together. You realize you share way more than you did.”
Speaking of Stewart, Noah said they’ve got a lot in common despite growing up in such different circumstances — and on opposite ends of the globe.
“Here’s a guy who grew up in Jersey on the other side of the world. Here’s a kid who grew up in Soweto, and yet we see eye to eye on many issues.”
Samson Mulugeta is a former Africa correspondent for Newsday. He is an instructor at the Umuzi Photo Club in Johannesburg.