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Visionaries - April 24, 2022

The Evolution of Trevor Noah, Africa’s Comedy Export

Trevor Noah, a South African-born international stand-up comedian, was born into crisis in South Africa and grew up amid oppressive apartheid regimes. Despite all odds, his innate talent manifested and became a blessing to the world.

His life experiences turned out to be an asset as he writes comedy based on this, setting him apart in the saturated global entertainment business.

“Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included,” says Comedy Central, an American basic cable channel.

Trevor Noah has become a household in the international stand-up comedy space.

Growing up in the apartheid era

Trevor Noah was born in 1984 in Soweto, South Africa, a city southwest of Johannesburg. His mother was of Xhosa ancestry, a South African ethnic group. His father, on the other hand, was of Swiss-German ancestry.

Since the union between his parents was considered illegal in 1949, Trevor was referred to as a coloured child. As a result, he spent the first few years of his childhood hidden in the house. 

His mother went to great lengths to keep him hidden from the government, which might have taken him at any time. Also, anybody involved in interracial sexual intercourse was punished with a fine and five years imprisonment.

The South African white minority government eventually discovered his mother and imprisoned her. After a while, his father went back to Switzerland. 

Trevor grew up under his maternal grandmother and mother’s care. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah was later released when the South African government went through changes that eventually resulted in the end of apartheid.

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Educational background

While living with his maternal grandmother and mother, Trevor Noah attended Maryvale College, a private Roman Catholic primary and high school in Johannesburg.

During high school, he was resourceful and started a mini business that proved profitable. During his lunch break, he resells and distributes food from a nearby supermarket to his fellow students and makes profits.

Through this, he related with different groups of students without necessarily belonging to a group. He later leveraged the network developed for food delivery to sell CDs that were copies of a combination of music and video Juegos.

The beginning of Trevor Noah’s Career as a comedian

Trevor Noah kicked off his career in 2002 when he featured in Isidingo, a South African soap opera. 

Later, he started his radio show, Noah’s Ark, on the YFM youth radio station in Gauteng. After testing the waters, he gave up his radio show and acting to concentrate on comedy.

Since his pivot into comedy, Trevor has performed with some notable South African comedians such as David Kau, Riaad Moosa, Darren Simpson, Marc Lottering, Barry Hilton, and Nik Rabinowitz, as well as foreign comics Paul Rodriguez, Carl Barron, Dan Ilic, and Paul Zerdin.

On his South African tour in 2007, he opened the shows for American comic Gabriel Iglesias and Canadian comedian Russell Peters.

Since his debut, Noah has been in various shows from 2004 to 2006. Shows such as an educational television program called “Run the Adventure” on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC 2).

He hosted “The Real Goboza,” a gossip-themed show on SABC 1 in 2007 and “Siyadlala”, a sports show.

Also, he co-hosted “The Amazing Date”, a dating game show with Pabi Moloi in 2008. That same year, he competed in season 4 of the dancing competition “Strictly Come Dancing.”

Debut into the international world

Trevor Noah was launched into the international scene in 2009. He directed his performance, “The Daywalker”, that year, which was also later adapted into a documentary.

The same year, he organised the third edition of the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) and also co-hosted “The Ax Sweet Life”, a reality show, with Eugene Khoza.

In 2010, he got the opportunity to obtain further notice when he anchored the 16th annual South African Music Awards. In the same period, Noah became the spokesman and consumer protection agent for South Africa’s third-largest mobile phone network operator, Cell C.

With the pile of milestones laid, Trevor moved to the United States in 2011. He broke the record in 2012 by being the first South African stand-up comedian to perform on “The Tonight Show” and the first South African stand-up comic to go on “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2013.

In 2013, he did a comedy special titled “Trevor Noah: African American”. He appeared on BBC Two’s comedy panel show “Quite fascinating” (QI) the same year.

Career challenges

Although ups and downs may not always occur in tandem, how we respond to them is what defines us. This may be observed in Trevor Noah’s career path. 

Trevor Noah joined ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central as a recurrent contributor in 2014. And in 2015, he was announced to succeed Jon Stewart as host.

However, there were some unfavourable reactions to the news. Some internet users used his jokes against him. He had said, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian”.

Comedy Central, an American basic cable channel, stood by Noah and said, “…To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”

Mary Kluk, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) chairman, also backed him up. She said, “The jokes were not indicators of anti-Jewish bias and were part of Noah’s style of humour.”

Due to this, the rating of the show when he took over dropped by 37%, and its Nielsen ratings fell below those of several other shows hosted by ‘Daily Show’ alumni. However, according to Comedy Central’s president, the show under Noah was the number one show for millennials.

James Poniewozik of The New York Times applauded him and the show’s writers, saying, “Mr Noah’s debut was largely successful….”.

By 2017, the nightly viewership had dropped to less than half of what it had been after Stewart’s tenure. However, millennial viewing remained strong. As a result, Comedy Central renewed Noah’s contract as host of ‘The Daily Show’ until 2022.

Trevor Noah’s books

Most of Trevor Noah’s books are a compilation of his personal experience in South Africa during the apartheid era’s last day and the turbulent days that followed its fall.

His first book, “Born a Crime” was published in 2016 and was a New York Times bestseller book. Also, his performance on the Born a Crime audiobook was the highest-rated audiobook, and it has been one of the top-selling titles on the platform since its publication.

It also received two NAACP Image Award nominations, one for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author and the other for Outstanding Literary Work in the Biography/Auto-Biography category.

The book won the Audie Award for “Best Male Narrator” and was also nominated for “Autobiography/Memoir”, “Best Narration by the Author,” and “Audiobook of the Year.”

In February 2019, the paperback edition of “Born a Crime” was released. While in April 2019, “It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime,” adapted for young readers, was released.

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