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The Many Tongues of Trevor Noah

South African comedian Trevor Noah is the new host of 'The Daily Show' and the new person everyone has to have an opinion about.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that "polyglot" South African comedian Trevor Noah would replace Jon Stewart as anchor of The Daily Show. I have polyglot friends in far-flung places and none seemed too impressed by the choice. From London: "i checked out that dude. he's not funny at all. that's not racist that's just THE TREWS." Newfoundland: "I think they should have got an American to take over the Daily Show, preferably an African-American." "I suspect he'll be a disaster," wrote a friend who consorts with an occultist. "All my Sefrican friends on FB are posting about what a comedic genius this guy is." My own Sefrican mother sent me and my dad a group text: "How cool is that!"


The great thing about a polyglot is that everyone gets to be right. Trevor Noah's standup is OK, if a little cartoonish. In one bit, he's been learning German so that he can feel closer to his father, who is Swiss. Night after night he falls asleep listening to German YouTube videos. Like putting a textbook under your pillow the night before an exam, it's amazing how well it works, it doesn't even matter which videos, the German just seeps in. Then in Cologne, he goes into a sandwich shop—in one iteration it's the American Subway chain—and orders his trimmings Heil Hitler–style. It's hard to do this sort of Godwin's Law comedy IRL, and he doesn't really pull it off.

I wager he'll pull off The Daily Show, though, because he is adorable, and warmth and charm are more important in a host than standup chops. Noah won't be writing all the jokes, but he'll deliver them well. He has the cute face of a cupid, a single dimple, and a Crest-commercial smile. His accent makes people roll over and proffer their bellies for the tickling; his jokes are more easy than cruel. He's a good mimic who can do pretty much any accent, and his American accents are accurate, excepting the Valley Girl surfer he tells he has AIDS. He's a melted pot, an everyman who dabbles in cultures, mocking each equally lightly and lovingly. Conceived illegally—his parents' relationship was a crime under Apartheid—he says he spent his childhood feeling like a bag of weed. His father couldn't hold his hand but kept an eye on him from across the street, like a "creepy pedophile." He backs up: "Not a creepy pedophile," he corrects himself—that would imply there's a special subset of classy molester, the type who says he's "just browsing."


South Africans love Noah because he makes us feel better about our terrible history. "I grew up in a country that wasn't normal," he told the Times, a nice bit of understatement. He likens the clicks in Xhosa, his mother's tongue, to Chinese New Year in your mouth. They're happy sounds, he says, whether or not the speaker is happy. As a little boy he enjoyed it when his mother shouted at him for drawing on the walls, until she gave him a smack and he realized the language was "not as advertised." Noah is Madam and he is Eve. Like Pieter-Dirk Uys, an older South African stand-up artist, he is a deft impersonator of politicians. Uys is Afrikaans and looks it, whether or not he's in drag. Noah's skin is a color you might have "raced together" with a Starbucks barista, were that still on the menu, and in race-hysterical South Africa, his mixedness is a source of loneliness as well as power. Like President Obama, he self-identifies as black; it is his nuance within that identity that gives his comedy intelligence and dimension.

In 2012, Noah went on The Tonight Show and made Jay Leno laugh about Americans' terrible credit scores. "Come back and see us again, man," said the host, and the Times of South Africa called Noah's mother to find out how proud she was of her witty kid. " Ufun' ukuthetha ngezinto zasecawini? [Do you want to talk church matters?]" she asked, possibly rhetorically. "Unless you want to talk about izinto zasecawini, I know nothing… I have not even watched one movie or show, and I know nothing about his life. I'm strictly into God's things—not interested in Trevor's things." Eish!

Now everyone's interested in Trevor's things, which has led to the discovery of some rather sloppy tweets about Israelis, "fat chicks," and how Jewish girls don't go down. Those years-old quips have ignited a controversy that's an echo to another recent online dustup centered on a Lena Dunham New Yorker piece entitled "Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz." David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, defended Dunham's piece by issuing a statement that read, "The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes… Lena Dunham, who is Jewish and hugely talented, is a comic voice working in that vein. Richard Pryor and Chris Rock do the same about black stereotypes; Amy Schumer does it with women and gender." (Dunham, as her surname suggests, is half-Jewish, the half that lets you say you're all in and the hall pass you need if you want to claim you're self-skewering—a stale line of reasoning that in Dunham's case is a reach.) Comedy Central has likewise stood by Noah, saying, "To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair." It's safe to say that Noah has learned what Dunham knows, which is that everyone is watching now.

Few are watching more proudly than his fellow South Africans. My mother rang me to go over a list of his achievements, as though he were a schoolmate of mine (we're the same age), technically impossible because, Apartheid. "I'm still amazed that he was offered the job. I think it's a fluke. What's his name, the guy who's leaving?" My mother has lived in the US for 30 years and forgets this type of stuff on purpose. "I think Jon whoever-he-is just fell in love with Trevor, and that's what made it happen." Her favorite Noah bits include the cashier in Checkers ("they look at you like your dad invented the barcode"), his drunk Nelson Mandela, and his depiction of white versus black South African girls in the shower. "The white girls are like, 'Oh, the water is so lovely, la-la-la.' The black girls are washing their bodies and getting on with life."

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