Is Trevor Noah ready for the Daily grind?

Before he replaces Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, the South African stand-up shows off his comedy chops at JFL42

TREVOR NOAH presented by JFL42 at the Sony Centre (1 Front East), Saturday (September 26), 7 pm. Passes $69-$129 (includes one headline act), individual tickets from $32.50.

For a person whose life is going to radically change soon, Trevor Noah sounds awfully cool.

On Monday (September 28), the South Africa-born and raised stand-up comic steps into the host shoes at The Daily Show (on the Comedy Network and CTV), the highest-profile late-night replacement since Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson.

What’s incredible is that 48 hours before then, Noah will be in Toronto as a headlining act of the JFL42 comedy festival. He doesn’t seem fazed by that at all.

“Hey – stand-up is the thing that got me The Daily Show, and it’s a lot of what the show is about,” he says, on a crackling cellphone connection from Manhattan.

“There’s a live audience, I’ll be telling jokes, performing. In essence I’ll be keeping my comedy bones sufficiently lubed up.”

After Noah got the job earlier this year (before then he was an occasional correspondent), he got a taste of what life in the media spotlight is going to be like, when his potentially offensive tweets about Jews, plus-sized women and lesbians were put up on the internet for everyone to gawk at.

“I regret that some of the tweets weren’t better,” he says. “Some of them just weren’t jokes. A tweet is like a conversation among friends. If you catch a piece of it, you can think whatever you want about a person. But you should be there for the whole conversation,” he adds, clearly rehearsed.

“I don’t regret making mistakes. I regret not learning from them if I have made them. That’s what I strive to do with everything. Have I changed and evolved? Have I got better as a person, as a comedian? Yes. It’s nice to be able to feel, yes, I made that mistake and I won’t make that mistake again.”

Two months ago, he killed at the more industry-centred Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, proving to the gatekeepers and tastemakers in North America’s comedy world that he has what it takes in the funny department.

“Thankfully, I live in the world, and there’s a wealth of material happening around us all the time,” he says about his stand-up act. “You’ve got to find where the funny comes from. For the most part, the thing you find funny or worth talking about, audiences want to listen to.”

From his Montreal set, critics singled out his jokes about Oscar Pistorius and Nelson Mandela, both figures from his native land.

“That was nice, because it’s a joke from an insider’s perspective, coming from South Africa, from that world of where the story happened,” he says about the Pistorius murder trial bit.

Which brings up the idea of whether a comic from somewhere else is the best person to head up the premiere satirical news show in America.

“With comedy you can come from anywhere,” he says. “If you’re an outsider you get to see things from a different perspective, but if you’re on the inside you have that knowledge because you’ve been part of it. Both come with pros and cons. You just have to play to your strengths.”

Many of his comedy influences have been black Americans: Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle.

“I also look at Bill Burr, Louis C.K. and Eddie Izzard,” he says. “I have a broad range. But for me, Chappelle is the greatest comedian of my lifetime. Watching him is like going to comedy school.”

His upbringing in Johannesburg seems unique, but according to him it’s not. His mother is black South African, of Xhosa background, and half Jewish, and his father is white and Swiss. After they separated (their relationship was illegal at the time), his mother married another man, and after they divorced this second man shot her in the face and threatened to kill Noah. Later the man was convicted of attempted murder, and the case shed light on the prevalence of wife assault in the country.

When I ask if that racial split and violence influenced his comedy, he laughs.

“Everything affects your comedy,” he says. “I think South Africa influenced my comedy. A lot of people in South Africa have a shared existence, the way we grew up and lived. I don’t think my story’s particularly extraordinary. It might have been different in a few in-stances, but for the most part it’s something we shared. We all went through this journey.”

From what I’ve seen from Noah’s televised specials, he’s slick, polished and fearless, with a stance that occasionally seems like over-compensating smugness. 

I ask him about that fearlessness. Does anything frighten him?

“I’m not frightened by any topic,” he says. “It’s more that fear of not connecting with an audience, of not being liked. As you grow more confident in what you want to say, I think you understand that you don’t need everybody to like you, and you slowly get to a place where you discover what you really want to say.”

Pleasing a few thousand people in a theatre is one thing pleasing the numbers The Daily Show team pull in is another.

“Obviously, there’ll be new people I will come across now that I’m going to be on the show,” he says. “But audiences are audiences. We’re all human beings we all live in the same world. I’m a Daily Show fan. I don’t see myself as being particularly different from my stand-up. I think that’s the great thing about the show. There’s tons of different voices: the correspondents, the contributors, the host. It’s the kind of show where you can have your favourites within it, but it’s your show regardless of who you are.”

Does he feel a responsibility that this satiric take on daily events is the way many people first learn about the news?

“That’s what The Daily Show and its spinoffs with Ste-phen Colbert and John Oliver have become – the place for you to get that news in a way that isn’t emotionally taxing. The news is pretty tough. Most of the time it’s sad stories or really benign stories that mean nothing. With comedy you have an opportunity to pierce that with a laugh here and there.”

His buff bod and tailored suits have already graced the cover of GQ magazine, and he’s clearly being sold as a stylish millennial. Jon Stewart never had to worry about being a sex symbol. Does that worry Noah?

“Hey – I enjoy dressing up, looking good as a human being. I grew up as a nerdy kid. I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 20. So that’s not particularly anything I’m interested in.”

One thing he is interested in, however, is checking out some of the Toronto landmarks that a certain local-born rapper sings about.

“Half-black, half-white guys do very well in [your] city,” he says, laughing. “I want to do the Drake sightseeing tour.”

Noah on what he’ll be thinking two minutes before The Daily Show airs Monday night:

Noah on what his parents think of his success: | @glennsumi

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