Negotiating the Voices of ‘Otherness’ in South Africa and the USA: the Function of Humor in Trevor Noah’s Stand-up Comedy on Race

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Lili Zách


Comparing Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy performed in front of South African and US audiences, this paper explores the significance of humor when addressing race relations in the USA and with regard to the system of institutionalized racial segregation known as Apartheid in pre-1994 South Africa. It traces the applicability of John Morreall’s model (2009) to Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy in relation to the critical, cohesive, and coping functions of humor, originally applied within the context of the Holocaust. While Källstig & Death (2020) discussed the recurring themes of race, disease, and poverty in Noah’s comedy from a postcolonial perspective, this paper proposes to theorize his stand-up comedy by addressing the significance of (American and South African) audiences in the comedian’s assessment of “Otherness” and racial relations. It was Amy Carell (1993) who highlighted the fact that humor did not exist in a vacuum; her Audience-Based Theory of Verbal Humor will be used as the theoretical framework of this paper. Ultimately, by blurring the contrast between tragedy and comedy, the paper applies Morreall’s “positive ethics of humor” and investigates the functions of humor in response to racism in both South Africa and the USA while at the same time assessing the role of audiences to Noah’s performances. In order to emphasize the interconnectedness of humor, psychology, history and politics, the paper traces the uses of laughter in the process of coping with traumatic events that have been associated with politicized racial segregation, hatred, and socio-economic discrimination.


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How to Cite
Zách, Lili. 2023. “Negotiating the Voices of ‘Otherness’ in South Africa and the USA: The Function of Humor in Trevor Noah’s Stand-up Comedy on Race”. AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary 19 (1).
Author Biography

Lili Zách, Department of English Studies, Eötvös Lóránd University

Lili Zách is Senior Lecturer at the Department of English Studies, Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest. She received her MA Degrees in 2006 in English (with specialization in Irish Studies) and History at the University of Szeged, Hungary and completed her PhD at the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2016, focusing on the formulation of Irish national identity and Irish perceptions of Central Europe in the 20th century. Her research interests lie in the field of transnational history, humor studies and food history, focusing on the interconnectedness of the human past and the complexity of identities across the English-speaking world. She is currently engaged in researching the significance of humor in totalitarian societies within a transnational framework.