Calm Yourself Downby Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 06.03.2013
“And the Oscar goes to… Jail” This joke from Trevor Noah on Twitter earned him somewhat of a social media backlash. Not that it made much of a dent to his 978 648 likes. Too soon? Probably. But pretty much right on point in a week where the news channels were burning up with two big Oscar leads. Trevor Noah has steadfastly built a career out of being both funny and on point. In terms of mainstream appeal he was already head and shoulders above the rest of the South African comedy pack before he landed that gig on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That performance just earned him the right to do big international and sell out local tours. We thought it was high time we had a chat with Mzansi’s most famous funny man.
Mahala: You’ve just done 70 performances in 90 days. How are you enjoying that as a lifestyle?
Trevor Noah: It’s what most comedians aspire to. Life on the road. Performing in different places. Crafting a show. Getting it to as good as you can and then just working it every single day, because at the end of the day, it’s your job. They always say if you love what you’re doing you never work a day in your life, so I don’t.
Do you get to a stage where you’re just like, I can’t face getting up on that stage?
No, never. Although some days if you’ve just had a slow day and you’re tired and you go, “OK, just do the thing”, but within 10 minutes of being on the stage the audience is literally the thing that will get you into the game. You see the people smiling and it’s like being a little kid.
Do you ever worry about forgetting your material?
No, I can’t forget because I don’t write jokes, I live life and then I recount the stories.
You’ve never gone blank? That sort of bunny in the headlights thing?
No.Stage is the one place where I’m focused. My brain is at 100%. It’s in tune. Everything is going right. When I’m in the world, I can just space out and have no clue what’s going on, but on stage I’m zoned in.
So you think it’s the adrenaline of the experience?
They say F1 drivers visualize the track and golfers know their swing in their sleep and it’s the same thing for me I guess. I can do comedy and think of a million things at the same time. And looking at the audience thinking, “Why isn’t that guy laughing? What’s happening there? Who’s doing that?” Or “Why are the lights so bright?”. All of these things go through my head while I’m doing the jokes.
You’re a household name. When you think of comedy in South Africa, that’s you. Does that freak you out? How does it feel when you go to the Spar and people are like whispering, “that’s Trevor Noah”?
The most important thing for me was to get it to the point where people go “That’s Trevor Noah, the comedian”. Cause I did a lot of things in all spheres before this comedy thing. Everything from TV to radio to everything, but at the end of the day it was really to eat. Comedy wasn’t something that could pay the bills, in the beginning, so you have to try and find as many different ways to get paid. I mean it’s weird for me when young kids come up to me and go: “Oh, I want to be a comedian when I grow up”. I didn’t even know there was a job called ‘comedian’ when I was a kid.
How did you get your start?
We had this little club called The Blues Room in Village Walk and for years it was just me and David Kibuuka. We spent like 2 years together in that club, basically just working comedy non stop. Every week it was just myself and David. That’s where I sharpened everything. That was me. Non stop doing that. David Kibuuka is easily one of the best guys to have helped me in my comedy. Loyiso Gola joined us later.
And the fame that followed?
That thing? It happens more to people than it happens to you because life takes long. People say: “Oh, it happened overnight”. No. No, it didn’t. I was there. It wasn’t a night. It was much longer than a night. So you learn to deal with that and it’s great. You wanna get comedy into the mainstream. Comedy has been the bastard child of entertainment for so long and now there’s a lot of guys coming in, young guys. There’s so many different styles. That’s what we need. We just need comedy, the industry to be bigger.
But Comedy is the new rock ‘n roll and I can understand why. The world is fucked and life is kak and so someone who can make people laugh, well that’s like gold. You make people feel really good…
Also, the main thing, the one difference with comedy as opposed to any other art form, comedy truly is a case of you have to be there. There’s no comedy DVD that can parallel the experience of being there live. Music, I always envy musicians because your music can travel way beyond where you can. Music is not hampered by language, by culture, by anything. Your music goes. You look at Die Antwoord. You look at Jack Parow. Their music travels. You don’t have to go with it, whereas with comedy you truly have to be there. That’s when you get the best experience. It’s a live art form. And that’s why it will never be as big as music. It can’t be as big as music. But it can be more popular in certain places and times.
In South Africa at the moment, politics is in a horrible space. Everyone is looking at these politicians in shock. And comedy’s got this real power to discuss those issues, make people laugh and to really cut through the bullshit… But it’s confined to a theatre and people treat it like entertainment. They come, they laugh and they forget.
Well the thing is you don’t want to force it on people. You don’t want to force your views. It’s always got to be comedy first, your views second. You’ve got to marry the two but don’t forget what your job is. Your job is to make people laugh. People didn’t come there to be preached to. People didn’t come there to have a lecture about what the government should be doing or should not, that’s not why they’re there. You can share that with them, but make sure they laugh first. Cause when people walk out laughing then they’ve had a great night. You don’t want them walking out going: “Well he was right about everything but I didn’t laugh once.” Then you’re not a comedian, you shouldn’t have called yourself that. The best comedy is where you don’t think about the thing the guy said and then later on you go: “Oh yeah, that’s true!” They shouldn’t be thinking about a message when they walk out, they should just be laughing.
I come from an activist background so I’m always thinking oh that’s such a powerful tool. We need to speak truth to power. We need to see Trevor down there at Parliament on a soapbox, making people laugh and then storming the gates. I always think that there’s an opportunity here.
Funny enough, the stage is your soapbox. You don’t need a soapbox if your comedy is good enough. I look at guys that I’ve always admired in that space being the likes of Chris Rock. He did so well without forcing it down my throat. He was always a great comedian. You laughed hard. But then he’d say things in there that you’d just go: “Wow, Chris. That’s so smart. That’s so true.” But then you forget that stuff and you just laugh at the jokes and you remember in your subconscious that message that he gave you. So I always admired comedians that did that.
You travel a lot. How is that as a life for you?
I find the loneliest place to do comedy in the world is in America. It’s so big. The expanse of the place is just so… you’re on the road a lot, you’re travelling to weird places, and you’re performing your comedy. It can be a very lonely existence. But it’s also a great time to find yourself. You get to a point where you can no longer lie to yourself when you’re in that world. I think you truly discover who you are. You’re in the wilderness. In the UK it’s different, that’s technically the birthplace of spoken word comedy.
I can see all these pan-Africanists on Mahala shouting: “No way! No way!”.
Well in terms of that comedy was everywhere. Comedy’s origins are in speech, spoken word and we all know where that comes from… but in terms of the art of stand up comedy, that was in the UK and it was the working class speaking out. In many African countries you couldn’t do that, you still can’t do that. You get killed if you try that. So the UK has a different take on it. They want you to say more. In America they are very like: “No, no, no. Jokes, buddy. Give us jokes. Light on the politics.” Whereas you go to the UK and they’re like: “Yeah, we’ve seen the jokes, give us more. What is your view? What are you saying? Who are you as a person?” And that’s what’s great about going out there.
All this time in the States, are we going to see you in a movie?
I have no clue about that stuff. I’m the most simple guy in the world. Comedy is number one for me. I’m really a chilled out guy. In my world, as long as I can be on a stage, so I focus all my resources into that. Trying to get to places that I couldn’t normally get to and then performing there and that’s really what I do so if a movie comes and I can do it, it would be a blessing. I would definitely take it up. I’m also not going to force myself into something. I don’t want to start stressing about this. What I love about comedy is that it’s instant gratification. Instant failure, instant success. Tell the joke. Is it funny? No. Next joke. In an audition, you walk in and this guy doesn’t like you because of your hair and that guy thinks that you look like the guy that bullied him in school and that’s why he doesn’t pick you for the role. In comedy you audition to an audience. They tell you now. They’re genuine. They either laugh or they don’t laugh. That’s why I’ve always loved comedy. Comedy is the purest business model you can find. Here’s the product. Here’s the audience. There’s no one in between you. If you can find a microphone, find a room. Even if the people are not there for comedy, you can start telling jokes and if they like the jokes they will laugh. It’s as simple as that. So to answer your question, comedy is the thing I work on. I’m a professional comedian.
What I like about comedy as a journalist is that you keep mining your own history. So I don’t have to read a bio, I just have to watch your show. Which takes me to my next question; South African comedy is largely still based on race. It’s like the lowest common denominator. And you with your own personal history, white father, black mother, growing up in Apartheid South Africa, that kind of puts you right in the heart of South African comedies greatest unique selling point. How does that translate when you go overseas? Is that what people are interested in? Do they wanna hear about it?
Yeah, definitely! For years guys would tell me: “don’t focus on that. You should be doing jokes like Seinfeld. You should be doing general stuff.” And I believed for many years that this South African thing doesn’t travel. And then I went to Edinburgh and other comedians would listen to my set and they’d come up to me and say: “Hey, don’t get me wrong that other stuff was funny but why didn’t you talk more about South Africa? And why didn’t you talk more about your past?” It’s fascinating. The racial world that we live in is fascinating. In South Africa it can get a bit stereotypical at times which is something you try and grow out of as a comedian. But in terms of personal interactions that is the fundamental basis of our lives. It never changes. In the UK, it’s never really been about race because it’s more about class. So there they have a very classist style of comedy. Talking about guys from Liverpool and guys from Newcastle and Manchester. That’s their thing. Whereas on our side, class and race still go hand in hand. So we’re very far from separating the two, so intrinsically it’s the same thing. It’s human interaction. It’s just here our entry point is race. Somewhere else it’s class and that’s really all it is.
Do you ever feel kind of hemmed in by that? Like you’d like to do a different kind of comedy.
No, I don’t limit myself at all. The first four months I was in the States I was doing deadpan comedy. So there were no accents, no anything. I was just focussing on material. Just doing the jokes. In my set, you take what you want from it. I mess around with every style of comedy I can. I do everything from voices to impressions to observations. Comedy is comedy to me. I don’t believe in saying I’m this type of comedian. If the occasion calls for it, as long as it’s funny. That’s all I need.
Obviously with the amount of shows you’re doing and representation and life on the road, you must be making some good money now.
Is it raining in Trevor Noah’s bank account?
Raining is a strong term. Don’t be fooled by raining. Even the term, it’s very hip hop. Is it raining? No, my friend, because with every rain comes a drought. You’ve got to know how to space it out. You rain your money into the bank, that’s your dam and you keep your money in the dam so that when there’s a drought you can open the dam and get the water flowing again. There’s no raining. Whatever I earn here, I go to America and it gets divided by 8 point 5. I mean in the UK, buying a sandwich costs me the same as my hotel room in South Africa.
So no flashy car, nice house?
No, I don’t have a car at all, I have a scooter. I live in the same house that I’ve had for many years. I live with my cousin and my best friend, it’s like after a while, I really try and focus on the intangibles.
There was a bit of an uproar when you did the Cell C ads, people were crying “over exposure” and “what a great way to kill a comedy career”.
Why does it kill a comedy career? This is something I’ve never understood. You know what is a great way to kill a comedy career? Not being funny on stage. Why don’t guys ever talk about that? Oh that guy’s not funny anymore, he doesn’t write material, he doesn’t focus. Why don’t they talk about those guys? Everything outside of comedy has nothing to do with comedy. You know what I mean? People really shouldn’t focus on any that. It’s as simple as that. You have to do what you have to do, you know? Because of that I was lucky enough to live the comedy dream. It allowed me to just focus on comedy. So if guys want to say, “oh no you sold out cause you’re doing an ad campaign.” I go technically the biggest way to sell out is to go to do a gig where someone tells you what jokes to say and what jokes you cannot say, and how to do them and when to do them. That for me, that destroys your soul. Doing an ad campaign and then being able to do comedy clubs, because now you’re not worried about being paid, that’s more important. So at the end of the day, you can’t worry about these things. People think I sold out, as if my fundamentals were based on the cellphone industry, like calm yourselves people, calm down.
Are you endorsed by Adidas, or do you just like their stuff?
I just like Adidas.
Nah. I buy it, I try and buy everything cause I don’t like to be owned. So literally everything I try and buy. When people give you free things they have expectations. And then they want to give you the things that you don’t want. So I prefer to buy what I like. Because now what you’re sponsored and now someone’s going to tell you what to wear?
In the Roast of Steve Hofmeyr David Kau brought up the thing about you stealing jokes, he was like, I don’t care about the Jay Leno Show cause I was actually on the Jay Leno show cause you told my jokes. Did you steal his jokes?
But look fundamentally, this is something that comes with comedy you know, you’ve got to learn what comedy is. If you don’t study your art form you are prone to make mistakes in that world. For too long in South Africa comedy was such a small thing that people didn’t understand the fundamentals: what it is and how it runs. Nobody owns comedy, nobody owns a premise, nobody owns an idea. Comedy is your personal take on a thing. Do you get what I’m saying? Like half the jokes young black comedians are doing in America right now, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were doing 20 years ago. Chris Rock says it himself; he says: “When I started comedy I was basically a fake Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor.” Everything has been done before, there’s nothing new under the sun and in South African comedy there was a small group of guys, it was basically the Pure Monate Show guys, they were the forerunners of comedy. They were the guys who set this thing up. They’re the guys who made it popular to be honest. Everyone had their little niche thing and they fitted perfectly. So one guy was doing the coloured jokes and one guy was doing the political stuff and one guy was doing the cerebral stuff and one guy was doing the American stuff, but now when the market gets filled up with more comedians, you don’t own that thing anymore. This is what all the guys just didn’t understand; they were like: “No, that’s mine! I’m the guy who tells the jokes about the government!” And we’re like, no everyone tells jokes about government. David Kau, he even wrote on his DVD: “I was the first person to do a Nelson Mandela impression.” Like no you weren’t. There was a great comedian named Billy Prince who died as an unknown, and he was arguably one of the best comedians this country has ever produced. The best impressions, the best comedy, he was phenomenal. And he was doing these things long before anyone. They always say know your history and then you’ll know your present better and that’s really all it is..
I’ve always heard about the stealing jokes beef with David Kau…
That’s his way of seeing it though. His idea is “if I do an idea first, like if I think of a Mandela joke first, I’m the Mandela guy.” And no, that’s not how comedy works.
So is their any actual evidence? Is there like a specific gag or routine that’s contested?
No, there’s none.
Didn’t Heat magazine jump on that?
Yeah, but then Heat magazine also jumps on Gianni Versace’s liposuction. That’s not a magazine, come on, man!
So how did you feel about that?
You feel like shit obviously. But you learn. You learn to do the thing. Every successful comedian in this country has had a phase where guys have gone after them. Look at Barry Hilton, guys were like “aah, he’s a hack, he’s rubbish, he’s this, he’s that,” when he was at his peak. Now guys love him, he went through tough times, paid for his brother-in-law’s medical aid. Now guys are like “Barry’s a great guy”. Marc Lottering, for years guys hated him. “Ah, that guy, he thinks he’s better than comedy. He’s not a real comedian. He just does funny accents. He doesn’t know what stand up is.” Everyone. They will say these things. Even Eddie Izzard wasn’t accepted by the stand up community for years. They were like: “What is this monkey doing on stage. Look at him. This is not comedy!” Now they’re like: “he’s a comedy God!” You mustn’t worry yourself about those things. I always say the truth comes out on stage. You do the thing and you do the thing and you do the thing. At the end of the day you can’t bury class, you can’t bury hard work. That’s the most important thing ever. You just work. It’s as simple as that.
Having achieved success in South African comedy do you have a group of young comedians you’re trying to nurture and launch?
I hate that! For me, I fundamentally disagree with an artist managing another artist, because intrinsically you will always have a conflict of interest. How can you manage somebody when you yourself share the same dream? Unless you’re totally finished in the game and you’re out of it. You don’t do that. Many guys want to label themselves as the godfather of comedy. No! Calm yourself down. Calm yourself down. Just do the thing. The guys are going to come in and do their own thing. All you should do is just help them if you can. No one owes me their success, just as I owe nobody my success. You meet guys along the way and you help them, just as I’ve been helped.
You don’t really do the comedy of nailing hecklers but for a lot of comedians that’s their anchor. The front row. So how do you deal with hecklers?
I’m pretty good with those things. I can handle hecklers. I can talk shit with the best of them. But I don’t like it because I feel that it takes away from the show. Because you’re trying to watch a show and the guy’s talking to the guy in the front and you’re at the back and you can’t hear what the guy in the front is saying, you just hear what the comedian is saying. Now you’re hearing one part of an argument. In a small comedy club, maybe. But most of the time hecklers just want attention. Give them attention they’ll do it more and more. Then the show is gone. Now you’ve wasted your time on stage fighting with someone. In fact, a heckler is a brilliant microcosm for life. If you focus on the one guy that’s giving you shit, then you forget the 500 people who are there to enjoy the show, so rather forget about that dude and focus on everyone else and then you’ll have a good time. There’s always going to be a heckler in your life. Don’t focus on the heckler, focus on the people that are there for you.
*Portrait images © Luke Daniel.