In the span of just a few years, comedian Trevor Noah went from performing at amateur clubs to selling out large theaters in his native South Africa. Born to an African mother and Swiss father during the apartheid era, much of his comedy stems from his upbringing in a township where blacks and whites were separated by law.
Noah is known for his impressions — of everyone from South African President Jacob Zuma to Oprah Winfrey — and his ability to turn mundane news stories into comedy. In 2011, he moved to California and made his big debut to American audiences with a five-minute set on The Tonight Show.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Noah about translating his humor for different audiences.
On why Jacob Zuma jokes don't fly in the U.S. like they do in South Africa
"When you come to a smaller place in the world, then, obviously, your news isn't considered world news, you know, whereas superpowers like America and China, that's the news of the world. Although I doubt many people would know who the prime minister of some of these other countries is. So it's really America-centric.
"That's how entertainment is worldwide. So I've just had to learn and rewrite stuff. But I'm a comedian. I'm not a South African comedian. I'm a comedian that's from South Africa."
On why the U.S. is a good place for a South African comedian
"We have such a great shared history in terms of South Africa's past and America's past. You know, we both have a history of slavery. We both have a history of black people fighting for their freedom and independence. And ... in both countries, you see this subtle racism and, you know, they're struggling to deal with race, and people don't know how to deal with it.
"I mean, I've seen out here, people don't even want to say the word 'black.' I don't know when 'black' became negative, but now people go, 'Oh, you shouldn't say 'black' ... You say urban, yeah. Baltimore is going to be real urban, Trevor.' That's what people tell me.
"And I got to Baltimore, and I was expecting, because urban means built up and new, you know. So I got there and I was, whoa, it's not as urban as people told me ... But it's very black. I'll tell you that much."
On one sign of success in America: being called black
"They wait for you to achieve success before they give you the black standard. That's the upgrade. Before then, they say you're mixed. You achieve success and you get upgraded to black. And all the famous mixed people do it. Before, they all were mixed. ... All those singers — Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey — they go, oh, you know, mixed, and then they become famous, they go, black singers. Tiger Woods is a black golfer although he's mixed. He doesn't even refer to himself as black, you know?
"And the most famous person is Barack Obama, mixed half and half, but you say America's first black president. But when he was running, they called him the mixed candidate, you know, which is very interesting for me. You see how the dynamic goes.
"And then now you get people going, oh well, he's not black enough. I go, what is black enough? What is, you know, it's a very interesting thing. And as a mixed-race child, I know, growing up in a world where people always say that to me, oh, you're not black enough. And they'll never say you're not white enough though. White is never an option."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
In just a few years, comedian Trevor Noah went from amateur clubs in his native South Africa to one-man shows in big theaters, sold out shows for that matter. He grew up under apartheid in a township as the son of a Swiss father and an African mother, and much of his comedy stems from the fact that he was, as he puts it, born a crime. Last year, he moved to California. Earlier this year, he introduced himself at a five-minute set on "The Tonight Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")
TREVOR NOAH: So I was never called black. I was never called white. I was called mixed, half-breed, half-colored. And one fateful day, I met an American in South Africa and he said to me, well, you know, if you come out to America, they'll label you as black. And I was like, really? And he was like, yeah, yeah. Everybody's black out there.
NOAH: And I thought, well, I want to be black and not just any black, but the coolest black in the world. And that's American black, you know, it's - yeah, it is. Or, as you guys call them, African-American, which is funny because they're not African. But we'll play along because...
CONAN: As Trevor Noah tours the country, he tweaks his routine for a new audience. Comedians, how do you translate your humor for different groups and different cultures? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Trevor Noah joins us here in a very hot tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Nice to have you with us today.
NOAH: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: And let me begin with the set up for a very old joke: How hot is it?
NOAH: It's so hot, it's not a joke. That's how hot it is. It's - people always - people come out to me, though, and they ask me - since I've been here, they go, well, you must be used to this, right? I mean, you're from Africa. So, I mean, this must be - no, no. No, this is not weather. This is - I'm used to weather. This is an oven, and I'm not enjoying it. It's very hot. So barely surviving, but I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: You are wearing a t-shirt that has the words nah mean(ph).
CONAN: Explain that for us.
NOAH: Nah mean. It's my favorite phrase. I was taught this by a black gentleman in Baltimore when I first came out, and I've fallen in love with it. I've come to learn it's a phrase that's propagated in, I guess, African-American culture, as you'd call it, and it's neither a question nor statement, very powerful. Nah mean, that's how you use it.
CONAN: That's how we use it.
CONAN: Not me but we collectively.
NOAH: We. And then in one place, Philadelphia, I believe, they say yeah mean, which is different.
CONAN: I thought he played basketball. The Chinese guy, Yao Ming.
NOAH: Oh, he's - yeah, yeah, yeah.
NOAH: So it's - I've fallen in love with the phrase. I've fallen in love with the culture, with the people. And just trying to, you know, spread laughter and learn at the same time.
CONAN: You've obviously had to change your material. I've seen some of the stuff on you tube that you did while in South Africa.
CONAN: And Jacob Zuma jokes not going over so good here.
NOAH: No. I mean, look, that makes sense. The one thing is when you come to a smaller place in the world, then, obviously, your news isn't considered world news, you know, whereas superpowers like America and China, that's the news of the world. Although I doubt many people would know who the prime minister of some of these other countries is. So it's really America-centric. That's how entertainment is worldwide. So I've just had to learn and rewrite stuff. But I'm a comedian. I'm not a South African comedian. I'm a comedian that's from South Africa.
CONAN: And why do you choose to move to this country and live in Los Angeles and try to make it here when you're, I guess, a big star back in South Africa?
NOAH: Because you have to grow. It's fun, you know? And I think America was a great choice because we have such a great shared history in terms of South Africa's past and America's past. You know, we both have a history of slavery. We both have a history of black people fighting for their freedom and independence. And then you both - we both have the very sensitive change now in terms of - people have this like it's - in both countries, you see this subtle racism and, you know, they're struggling to deal with raise and people don't know how to deal with it.
I mean, I've seen out here, people don't even want to say the word black. I don't know when black became negative, but now people go, oh, you shouldn't say black. Yeah, we - you say urban, yeah. Baltimore is going to be real urban, Trevor. That's what people tell me.
And I got to Baltimore, and I was expecting, because urban means built up and new, you know. So I got there and I was, whoa, it's not as urban as people told me, you know, and like - but it's very black. I'll tell you that much. So it's interesting to see, you know?
CONAN: Somebody is breaking into your car.
NOAH: Oh, luckily I don't have a car. So I'm fine.
CONAN: We're in a tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. So if you hear some extraneous sounds that you wouldn't normally hear in Studio 3A, please forgive us. But it gives us the opportunity to do some things that we wouldn't ordinarily do. We want to hear from comedians today. How do you translate your material, which comes from a certain time and place, to a wider or different cultural or even ethnic group? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
And Trevor Noah, what did you find translated well? Is there a material that you did in Cape Town that you can do in Los Angeles, or Baltimore for that matter?
NOAH: Not really, no. Because the points of view changes, you know? I think the one - well, I could talk about Oprah. Oprah is worldwide. Yes.
CONAN: Oprah is worldwide.
NOAH: I could talk about Oprah, but other than that, no. You know, you have to tell your stories in a different way because as a South African, obviously people relates to the stories because they were almost there with you while it was happening. But as Americans, it's - we're meeting for the first time. So I learned from people out here and then, you know, and then hopefully I teach them a bit about South Africa, because I've learned in the time I've been here that, you know, people don't really - they don't know much about South Africa. When people who hear this next comedian is from South Africa, then they think a guy in leopard skin will come running on the stage.
NOAH: You know, it's like (singing in foreign language), and it's not like that.
CONAN: You disappoint them right there at the start.
NOAH: Yeah. They're expecting monkey jokes and that's not the case. I mean, look, I mean, I do have good monkey jokes, but that's not what I'm saying.
NOAH: What I mean is it's not what people expect, you know.
CONAN: I wonder, though, you are also an outside observer of American society, the (unintelligible) material, for example.
NOAH: Yes, yes, yes, definitely.
CONAN: The opportunity to be that outsider with, as you say, a history of growing up in apartheid and racism and now being somewhere else where - well, like your country, we've solved all that.
NOAH: Yeah. Well, definitely. I think - solved is a strong word. I don't know if you've solved it yet.
CONAN: I was a (unintelligible) a little bit of humor on my part.
NOAH: I think we - you are much further along. But the one thing I have noticed is, I think I like the rawness in Africa. We have a democracy that's, what, 17 years old. So it's still very raw. It's still very new. It's still, you know, whereas in America...
CONAN: And soon you're going to have another party, yeah.
NOAH: Yeah, yeah. Hopefully, you know? So whereas in America, you know, you sort of smoothed the edges and you've just put, you know, you've put makeup on. That's what you've done. We're still in the very, you know, you still see all of our imperfections. Whereas in America you try to put a lot of makeup, but the imperfections are still there. And I find that that's the most interesting thing for me.
CONAN: The changes that we've seen in South Africa over those 17 years are little short of phenomenal.
NOAH: Yes. It's been amazing. It was a bloodless revolution, you know, because the difference has been - in America, black people have been fighting for their freedom and for their identity and so on, but as a minority. In South Africa, you had a white majority rule, ruling over — I mean, this is Africa. This is the home of black. It was the black factory. So I mean this is, you know, it was a very different story and never before has there been a bloodless revolution in Africa.
CONAN: Is there much of a tradition of comedy in South Africa, particularly tweaking the powers that be? You don't think of John Vorster...
NOAH: No, no, no, no.
CONAN: ...as a humorous guy, for example.
CONAN: Back in the old days of apartheid.
NOAH: Although lots of the things the racist rulers said were very funny. I don't think they intended it that way.
NOAH: But I find them hilarious. I go to, you know, you go to the museum and you watch their old tapes, and the things they said were just - they truly believe, like one of my favorite speeches was - I think it was John Vorster or (unintelligible) was being interviewed by the BBC. And he said in the interview - he said, well, you know, people think of us as racists, but the truth is we are helping these natives because without us they would merely hunt each other. They do not know how to love. They do not know. They - for God sake, they do not even wear clothes. And he was - he thought that was primitive. We were like, because it's hot.
NOAH: That's why, you know, that's why Africans dress the way they dress, it suited the climate. So that I found - I found them hilarious. And I guess it was only a matter of time before things changed, and South Africa has changed a lot. And we, you know, we have had our stumbling blocks, but we - I believe we're the number one achiever in terms of - you look at Egypt, you look at the power change there. There's still chaos now. You know, now you've got a military dictator. You know, you look at what's happening in Syria. Every country, whenever the change happens, the country just goes to ruins. And we still have a thriving economy. We, you know, we're moving forward. So it really was an amazing achievement in itself.
CONAN: When you first started out, though, as - performing in those amateur clubs, what was that like?
NOAH: It was great because it was new. You know, comedy in itself was illegal. We had a few satirists but no - first of all, there were no black comedians. I mean, as a black person you were lucky if you're allowed to speak, never mind tell jokes in public, you know? So we had a few white South Africans who challenged the status quo, guys like Pieter-Dirk Uys, who was a legend in the country, and he got arrested many times. You got arrested if you did that. So for us young-uns, we came up and it was just this free speech - we had verbal diarrhea, just run around and just, you know, I can say this now. I can say anything now and that's what we've been doing.
CONAN: Where did you learn the technique though?
NOAH: From my family. Storytelling is an African tradition. You know, you laugh. And if you look at it, the history of comedy has always been strongest amongst the nations who have been persecuted the most. In America, the stronghold of comedy was always amongst Jewish people. And that's what many Jewish families have said, is that without their food and their laughter, they wouldn't have gotten through what happened to them as a people, you know? And that's what happened to black people all over the world. As you learned to find joy in your pain, you know, that's where the music comes from. That's where the culture comes from. That's literally - with the oppression will come the laughter.
CONAN: The Jews and the blacks.
NOAH: Yes, yes.
CONAN: Did you listen to Richard Pryor records? Did you...
NOAH: No, no, no. I didn't know anything of stand-up comedy before I got into it. You know, when I started doing it, people were like, you do realize this is a profession. I was like, no, I did not.
CONAN: You can get paid for this?
NOAH: Yeah, I was shocked. People told me, I was like, this is - it's not - what do you mean, get paid? Paid by who? My parents don't - still don't believe it. My mom, she was so worried about me. She thought maybe I was a drug dealer or, you know, because I tell her. She go, what - how are you paying the rent? I say, well, I'm telling jokes, you know? She'd be like, to who?
NOAH: To people. She's like, strangers? I go, yes. And they pay you for this?
NOAH: I was like, yeah. She's like, what do you talk about? I say, my life, our life. And she's like, so you tell them about us and they pay you.
NOAH: And she's like, I've never found you entertaining enough to pay you anything.
NOAH: In fact, I wish you would shut up so - so she was - and my father is even worse. I mean, he's very dry. My mom has all the personality. My father is a - he's Swiss-German, so I mean he's just a combination of...
CONAN: Known so much for their humor.
NOAH: Yes. He's just dry - as dry as can be. He is, you know, so my father, I mean, he'll - he heard rumors of what I was doing, he said, so Trevor, you - what do you talk about when you're on the stage? What do you, you know? I said, well, I talk about family. And he says, what family? Family who, huh? So we - well, you included. What do you say about me? There's nothing funny. Why you talk about me? I say, you'll be surprised. People actually find you quite funny. Says, I don't like this. I don't like it.
NOAH: You need to find a job. That's what you need to do. So, you know, it's interesting. It's interesting.
CONAN: We're talking with Trevor Noah, who's a comedian in this country from South Africa.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So it must have been a huge deal to land a gig on "The Tonight Show."
NOAH: Oh, it was amazing. It was phenomenal. For comedians, we don't really have many prestigious things. We don't have the Olympics. We don't have an all-star game. We don't have - so there's very few milestones you can achieve as a stand-up comedian, and being on a late-night talk show, especially "The Tonight Show," which goes back to the Carson days, I mean, that's - that is what you strive for, you know?
So it was amazing to come out and do that. Although it was funny, I mean that wasn't my lifelong dream because I didn't even know about that. So people ask me, they go, was that - well, I mean, this must have been your dream since you were a child. I go, no, no. Actually, my dream when I was child was to be free and just to get more candy. That's really all I wanted. So...
CONAN: They go together.
NOAH: Yeah. Leno came much later on. That was - but it was an amazing, amazing time, being on the show.
CONAN: It is also - I've seen you perform around in clubs and shows and on the circuit.
NOAH: Yes, yes.
CONAN: That material that you did on Leno, that's gone. You can't use that anymore.
NOAH: Well, I find I do because, surprisingly, not as many, I mean Leno has, what, five million people watching and there's substantially more people in America. So I found people - you get two kinds of people: people who want to see the material that they've seen or they brought people because they want to show them that material, and then you got people who've never seen you before. So it is a - it's a fine balancing act of creating a show more than just a piece. Leno was just a piece.
And it changes over time, like, you know, when I got to Leno, I've been on the country for a few months, and I made the statements African-American, although you're not African, but we'll play along. And some people were hurt by that. And funny enough, in time I've come to learn, you know, with comedy, you have two choices: you can either just be a brash, straight-up comedian or you can try and absorb and mold yourself to the culture. And I cam to learn, you know, like - I was like, if you can explain yourself more, you start to endear yourself to people.
And I think my - like, I never liked the term African-American. I think it's a horrible term because it all-encompassing. It's just African-American, you know? What African? African where? African - you can't just say that, you know? When you look at white Americans, it's very specific. You go, oh, he's Italian-American. Yeah, I'm an Italian-American. And you've got, you know, you've got your Jewish Americans, and you've got your Irish Americans. Everyone's proud of their culture. The African-American, it's just - it's, you know? African where?
CONAN: Well, for so long nobody really knew where they were from.
NOAH: But exactly. But I think that the first step to - I guess to finding peace, I find, is knowing where you are from. You know, where you are from determines a lot of who you are. And so for me, you know, Ghanaian American, Nigerian, you'll discover so much in your culture when you know just a little bit about where you're from.
CONAN: Do you find it interesting that we have a president who is literally African-American?
NOAH: Yes, yes.
CONAN: And that...
NOAH: Trump believes he's more African than African-American.
CONAN: Well, there is that. But then there are also those who say, and not black enough.
NOAH: It's very interesting. I find it funny, though, because I found in America, you - mixed-race people are categorized as black until you achieve success. You know, like they wait for you to achieve success before they give you the black standard. That's the upgrade. Before then they say you're mixed. You achieve success and you get upgraded to black. And all the famous mixed people do it. Before they all were mixed. You know, like, you know, all those singers - Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey - they go, oh, you know, mixed, and then they become famous, they go black singers. Tiger Woods is a black golfer although he's mixed. He doesn't even refer to himself as black, you know?
And the most famous person is Barack Obama, mixed half and half, but you say America's first black president. But when he was running, they called him the mixed candidate, you know, which is very interesting for me. You see how the dynamic goes. And then now you get people going, oh well, he's not black enough. I go, what is black enough? What is, you know, it's a very interesting thing. And as a mixed-race child, I know, growing up in a world where people always say that to me, oh, you're not black enough. And they'll never say you're not white enough though. White is never an option.
CONAN: We wish you success enough to be called black.
NOAH: Thank you very much. Thank you.
CONAN: Trevor Noah, thanks very much for being with us today.
NOAH: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: South African comedian Trevor Noah joined us from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He's sold more performance DVDs than any other stand-up comic in Africa. He is taping his hour long special for Comedy Central in Tarrytown, New York next Saturday. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.