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

Introduction: Trevor Noah and Humor

In his 2015 interview for the New York Times, Trevor Noah declared that “comedy plays an important role in us weathering the scars of apartheid” (Onishi and Itzkoff 2015). This statement appears to have been closely linked to not only his stand-up comedy performances filmed in South Africa but also his shows in the USA. While certain topics and themes that required an insider’s perspective (South African politicians or the wide range of languages spoken in South Africa) were not presented to American audiences, other issues such as the question of belonging or the place and identity of the ‘Other’ in the community were explored in both settings. After outlining the historical background to South African apartheid and its connections to the USA, particularly in view of the shared goals of anti-apartheid activists and the Civil Rights Movement, the paper will provide a brief overview of relevant humor theories and then it will assess the critical, cohesive, and coping functions of humor in Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy performances with John Morreall’s model (2009, 119). I will aim to illustrate how the patterns I identified may provide novel insights into the use of racial humor particularly in terms of how these comedic narratives relate to white privilege, racial/ethnic stereotypes, inequality, and discrimination.

A Brief Historical Background of Apartheid

When addressing the question of race relations in Noah’s stand-up comedy with regard to South African apartheid and racism in the USA, a brief outline of the historical background is to be established first. “I was born a crime” – this is how Noah regularly introduced himself when promoting his autobiography, making a reference to his (formerly) criminal status as a mixed-race child during South African apartheid. Even the name of the minority white-ruled system (which means “apartness” in Afrikaans) implied the complete separation of races. This was upheld after the 1948 victory of the National Party with the help of legislations such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Amendment Act (1950), which prohibited sexual relations or marriage between whites and all blacks (Healy-Clancy 2017).

It was in 1990 that the government under President F.W. de Klerk repealed most of the laws that provided the legal basis for apartheid. Nevertheless, systematic racial segregation did not disappear without a trace in spite of the hopes, aspirations, and symbolic identity of “the rainbow nation” (a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu). A new constitution that enfranchised the non-white population took effect in 1994, in addition to the all-race national elections that brought onto power the first black-majority coalition government and the presidency of Nelson Mandela (1994-99), four years after he had been released from prison. Given the significance of each of these events, the ending date of apartheid is still arbitrary. Some argue that it was 1990, when Mandela was released, while others claim that rather the first democratic election in 1994 was what marked the end of the era of legalized racial segregation (Guelke 2005, 17).

Anna Konieczna and Rob Skinner have highlighted that anti-apartheid activism demonstrated that the United States was deeply involved in the struggles against racism both domestically and internationally, as illustrated by African-American engagement with anti-colonialism within the wider framework of the civil rights movement of the 1960s (2019, 9). Furthermore, Skinner also highlighted that American “opposition to apartheid was seen as aligned with, but also subordinate to, the Civil Rights Movement” (2010, 198).

A Brief Context of Humor Theory

In Comic Relief, John Morreall provided fascinating insights into the value of humor by comparing tragedy with comedy, explaining how “the non-emotional, playful attitude of comedy” grew to promote mental flexibility (2009, 75; 78). Moreover, in order to illustrate the benefits of humor during the times of tragedy such as the Holocaust, he emphasized that comedy provided “another perspective on” the real world which was no less valuable than the tragic perspective” (2009, 119). The key to achieving laughter, Morreall argued, was the importance of “mental distance” and emotional disengagement (2009, 140; 1997, 37) from the “Here/Now/Me/Practical mode” (Morreall 2012), practicing mental flexibility and thereby disengaging from the hardships of the present moment. According to Morreall, humor had three main benefits during the Holocaust. Firstly, its critical function as an act of resistance; secondly, its cohesive function that created solidarity, drawing a line between “in-group” and “out-group” as well as strengthening the” in-group;” and thirdly, the coping function that aided victims in maintaining morale throughout their suffering, mostly in accordance with the relief theory of humor (2009, 119-124). It is these three functions that this paper investigates through Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy performances in South Africa and the USA.

Although the present paper utilizes Morreall’s model and explores the three main benefits of humor in relation to racism and ‘Otherness,’ the potential negative aspects and consequences of humor and laughter are to be noted as well. Weaver (2010 and 2016) and Billig (2005), for instance, have warned about assuming the moral goodness of humor and viewing laughter as uncritically positive and benign by default (Weaver 2016, 28 and Billig 2005, 28). Weaver has stressed the dangers of ignoring, for instance, racist jokes that “allow for the expression, reinforcement and denial of racism” in case they acted as a type of coping mechanism (2016, 12). The context of reproduction, Billig has pointed out, was absolutely crucial when assessing humor that references the vocabulary of racism, for instance (27 and 31). This links to Weaver’s research on the reverse discourse of black comedians (2016, 119) and their use of reclaimed slurs that intend to strengthen their anti-racist message. Primarily, these discourses form a type of resistance that can “act rhetorically against racist meaning and so attack racist truth claims and points of ambivalence” (2016, 119). Nevertheless, he has also noted that paradoxically, reverse discourses also “can, at times, reproduce racism.” In view of these claims, the present paper aims to explore the functions as well as the impact of Noah’s comedic routines about identity and race and assess their success in conveying the comedian’s intentions towards racist ideology. This may indicate (prior to the analysis) that Noah’s performances are likely to feature the critical function of humor more heavily because they often serve as a means of resistance by ridiculing and mocking racist ideologies and the practices as well as people associated with them. Nonetheless, as it is explained below, this does not mean that the routines would not fulfil possibly multiple functions as well.

Recent scholarship on stand-up comedy may offer unusual albeit useful insights into the range of challenges faced by contemporary democratic societies. The present paper aims to incorporate the wider historical and socio-political relevance of the stand-up comedy of Trevor Noah. More specifically, its primary aim is not to dissect each show tracing which joke is funny or is not. Rather, it intends to explore the different functions of humor in these performances with regard to race, language and identities in South Africa and the USA, respectively. The significance of the context and the complexity of humor in these performances are noteworthy. Lockyer and Pickering have argued, for instance, that “nothing is inherently funny or unfunny” (2005, 17), which is in accordance with Amy Carrell’s claim that humor resides with the audience instead of merely existing in a vacuum. Consequently, Carrel pointed out, the humor event cannot be narrowed down to the personality of the joke teller, the joke text on its own, or even to just the audience itself. Instead, these three exist together within the particular situation that makes up the humor event (Carrell 1993, 315). As Margherita Dore has noted, the interaction between the comedian and the audience is an indispensable part of stand-up comedy and therefore is of similarly key importance when determining the specific cultural and social function of these performances (2018, 105 and 107). Undoubtedly, our shared beliefs, cultural values, and social relations also determine how we respond to humor (Berger 1995, 116), which makes the phrase “know your audience” more than a simple cliché that extends beyond everyday encounters involving joke telling. As Howitt and Owusu-Bempah have also emphasized, the joker (in the present case, the stand-up comedian) and the listener (that is, the audience member) both have active roles and are interactive participants as together they make “the joke work – to raise laughter” (2005, 47). Furthermore, creating a strong bond between the comedian and the audience by referencing shared experiences is also central to topics closely linked to identity formation (race, ethnicity, and language – in the case of Noah’s comedy) or even to seemingly mundane topics that many audience members may feel strongly about (taco trucks in California or bunny chow in Durban, South Africa). According David Gillota, “the stand-up performance also highlights the ways in which groups and collectivities are, to borrow from Benedict Anderson [1983], largely imagined” (2015, 105). This directly links to Morreall’s model and the cohesive function of humor that is closely associated with in-group and out-group formation. It is through shared laughter, Gillota has claimed, that stand-up comedy audiences become (temporarily) “part of a singular group” (105). Identities, however, are neither fixed nor singular; Noah’s routines illustrate this both in relation to the South African “rainbow nation” and the multi-cultural USA. It is the complexity of identities that provides an incredibly fertile ground for the comedian to “explore different and often competing aspects” of what makes “us” versus “them.”

Therefore, routines targeting different forms of racism (hateful ideologies, historical practices or supremacist groups/individuals) tend to make up the core of Noah’s shows both in South Africa and the USA (to date). Indeed, as Simon Weaver pointed out, “humor can be, paradoxically, both serious and humorous, and often its seriousness is what people find most funny” (2016, 8). Within the context of South Africa, Julie Seirlis has highlighted that the reason for this is that “stand-up comedy raises questions about the quality of and limits to democracy in post-apartheid South Africa” through its role as a cultural indicator and a marker of boundaries, among others (2011, 513-514). My analysis of 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 is detailed below.

Trevor Noah and Humor’s Critical Function

Laughter as a weapon has been a popular theme in humor research and therefore it has been extensively explored in a variety of historical and political contexts. Morreall (2009) and Carpenter (2010), for instance, have assessed the significance of laughter during the Holocaust and how humor “established a type of revolt” because it had been essentially an act of sabotage against the Nazis. Since Noah declared in several interviews that in his opinion “laughter was the natural response to oppression”, this critical function of humor is the one that is the most apparent in his comedy with regard to not only institutionalized racism that was embodied by apartheid in South Africa, but also in connection with his material performed to US audiences (Kaplan 2015). Källstig & Death have highlighted that Noah’s comedy can be understood as a form of “ambivalent mockery” of colonial, white, and western discourses which reveals important contradictions in contemporary forms of power and resistance (2020, 3). First and foremost, Noah’s comedic resistance has been directed at racist ideologies, practices, and people associated with these. For instance, racial hatred and other, less visible elements of cultural racism are to be noted here (Weaver, 2016, 116). In addition, several performances address the question of colonialism and the responsibility of (white British and Dutch) colonists with regard to the impact of their subjugation of non-European and/or non-white populations.

There is no clear-cut line between the critical materials presented to US and South African audiences; apartheid and Noah’s family background have been central elements to his routines across the globe. Likewise, upon returning to South Africa following his stay(s) in the United States, Noah made several comparisons between American and South African issues focusing on the absurdity of racism and the experiences of the ‘Other.’ Nevertheless, the general relatability of certain themes does not mean that the contexts of these routines were less important; the modifications to each of these are worthy of noting. As Noah remarked in Son of Patricia, he was “fascinated by racism as a concept, you know, as an action, a policy” (Noah 2018, 00:21:56-00:22:24).

Ridiculing racism is what connects the routines below, rooted in the observation that racism is not logical since South African “apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense” (Noah 2016, 75). In his autobiography, Noah illustrated this claim with the fact that during apartheid Chinese people were classified as black while Indians had their own, separate category and the Japanese were labelled as white: “Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with [Chinese people], so the government said, ‘Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way” (75). As it turns out, the absurdity of hateful ideologies has turned them into the perfect target for the comedian.

As mentioned before, apartheid in itself, as “racial discrimination and white political domination” under the National Party between 1948 and 1994 (Beck 2000, 125), has formed an inseparable part of Noah’s stand-up comedy performances. In accordance with Morreall’s playful disengagement, he described apartheid to his Johannesburg audience as “our extreme sports” when contrasting it with white Americans surfing in California, stressing that “black people don’t do those things. It’s not their world. That’s not necessary for us” (Noah 2012, 00:28:17). As for what apartheid meant for Noah’s family personally, his parents’ relationship was of key importance as his mere existence defied the racial hatred that cemented the system for over 40 years. He explained how mixed-race couples were treated by the authorities in Daywalker (Noah 2009, 01:04:51-01:06:30) as well as in African American, highlighting the double-standards of white officials towards black females and the white males (“Well they arrest the black girl, they’ll just ask you not to do it again”) (Noah 2013, 00:10:39-00:10:50). The main difference between the Johannesburg and New York routines was that when Noah started to explain that he grew up in a mixed family (“well, with me being the mixed one in the family”, 00:11:00) with a black mother and that his father was white, he segued into explaining:

"Well, he still is a white man. It’s not like, I said was, with hard work and determination he became black which is…not…it didn’t. [Turning to the audience:] That guy is looking at me like, “Is that possible? No, Sir, you’re fine, you’re 100% fine. Your position of privilege is just the way it was. Although it would be something, though, if you could work so hard you’d became black. That would just be… wouldn’t it? That would change the workplace forever. You’d see guys walking into the office talking to the boss, “Jim, I think I wanna take a few days off… I don’t know I feel it coming on. Yeah I’ve been putting in some overtime and, I don’t know, man, I just…look, I mean the wife’s loving it but I can’t take a chance… I just filled out a new loan application and my credit’s looking real good so… I’m gonna take a few days off, yeah.” [00:11:08-00:12:00]"

Even though Noah draws on stereotypes about black male sexuality, thereby running the risk of invoking images associated with embodied racism (Weaver 2010, 38), his punchline about the bank loan ensured that this segment of the monologue provided “a key site of reversal and resistance” against the racial profiling that many US banks have been known (and called out) for.

In Son of Patricia, Noah uses the oxymoron “the best racism” to describe apartheid to his Los Angeles audience:

"You don’t go to South Africa to escape racism. That’s where you go to stock up. Are you kidding? That’s the one thing that reminds me of home. The racism out here. Coz we’ve got tons of racism in South Africa and don’t get me wrong it’s gotten a lot better. When I was growing up, we had Apartheid. Erm and you know, apartheid was basically was the best racism in the world. Sorry I didn’t mean to say that. Now you’ll feel bad and be like, ‘Our racism was the best!’ No it wasn’t. It was good but not the best. And I experienced a bunch of racism and everyone did. I never felt like it was a bad thing, mostly because of my family. (Noah 2018, 00:51:10-00:51:53)"

In this instance humor has a two-fold purpose; by sarcastically highlighting the innate absurdity of such a concept as “the best racism”, it serves a criticism of this hateful ideological practice. At the same time, by including a reference to how his family helped one another through that hardship, the significance of humor as a coping mechanism is also to be noted (in accordance with what the proponents of the relief theory have argued).

Interestingly, this was not his first time Noah included the phrase “best racism;” he had formerly done so in Lost in Translation, when he compared it to everyday racism in the USA:

"Charming racism. Classic American charming racism. I never knew there was such a thing growing up. And I thought I knew all about racism, I always, coming from the home of some of the best racism in the world. No, I don’t mean to brag – in South Africa, by far, we got top quality racism out there, its hand-crafted, you don’t get racism like that anymore, I‘ve seen racism all around the world the standards have dropped, not what it used to be. I’m talking about quality racism, now it’s cheap and mass produced, probably made in China now. I’m talking about real racism. (Noah 2015, 00:36:33-00:37:14)"

Noah’s satirical punchline that combined imitation, exaggeration, incongruity, and reversal mercilessly ridiculed his example for “charming racism” that he encountered in Lexington, Kentucky. “You are by far the funniest, handsomest nigger I had ever seen”, a “classic southern belle” told him. The timing and pace of his response was crucial to achieving the desired effect: “I was so shocked coz… isn’t it most handsome, not handsomest? The grammar is just crazy, man” – thus he connects the narrative to the importance and curiosity of languages and correct grammar (Noah 2015, 00:39:44-00:40:15).

In comparison, hateful white supremacists such as the KKK played a crucial role in the narrative in African American:

"When I was in Tennessee, I stumbled upon an organization called the Ku Klux Klan – you’ve heard of them? Worst magic show EVER! […] Guy gave me a pamphlet, H was like, “Come and see the Grand Wizard!” [Miming] The Grand Wizard? He didn’t do ONE TRICK! Not even one trick, I mean, I know there’s a few black people disappeared [audience gasps and then laughs] but, I mean, that’s not magic! (Noah 2013, 00:08:13-00:08:37)"

The last line is possibly one of the most effective (literal) punchlines in this section as it showcases an incredible way of performing a comedic U-turn, finishing with an extremely vivid visualization of violence against the “Other” (black people in this case). This imagery is, Swnnis Howitt and Kwame Owusu-Bempah (2005, 50) have highlighted, something that has been running through racist humor as a common thread. By implicitly alluding to the act of violence (black people disappearing) within the context of the joke, however, Noah reversed the racist discourse (to use Weaver’s terminology). With the element of shock that resulted from the incongruity of the scenario, he demonstrated how laughter could be used for critical purposes, as an act of resistance against hateful supremacists.

One of the most commonly occurring stereotypes Noah encountered in the USA was the presumption of what Africans are supposed to look like:

"That phrase stuck with me though. “You don’t look like you’re from Africa.” It’s such a strange thing. You get it everywhere in America. You start to realize that the perception people have of Africa is very one-dimensional. They think that Africa is just a dust-basin full of like starving people covered in flies. (Noah 2012, 00:24:18-00:24:33)"

Even when being introduced in a comedy club as “dude’s from Africa”, the audience got confused as he stepped out. It was as if, Noah recalled, they expected a guy in leopard skin to come running on the stage [singing], “Let me tell you monkey jokes!” It’s bullshit, it’s not like that, you know… I mean I do have good monkey jokes but that’s not the point. That’s not what I’m saying. You can’t just assume” (Noah 2012, 00:25:18-00:26:18). Similarly, when he performed a version of this routine in African American, he noted how he was told that he looked like you grew up in the shade, man” (Noah 2013, 01:24:31). To confirm Källstig & Death’s argument, by mocking “black identity politics as well as the racial postcolonial order”, Noah managed to subvert assumptions about the otherwise rigid categories of race and identity (10).

In addition to satirizing racial discrimination, Noah also targeted prejudice expressed towards immigrants (commonly linked to religion, for example Muslims). More specifically, he highlighted how the label “terrorists” appeared to have been reserved for people from the Middle East (Noah 2015, 00:28:15). He addressed the injustice of the situation with the use of sarcasm:

"I refuse to live in a world where we’ll deny white people the monocle of terrorist. That’s racism, people, that’s what that is. If a white man threw in hard work and determination, commits an act or terror, he deserves to be called a terrorist, he worked for it dammit, you don’t deprive him of that because of the color of his skin, you give it to him and you put it up there (Noah 2015, 30:40-00:31:00)"

Naturally, immigration is not a recent phenomenon; according to Noah, the British complained excessively about immigrants despite the fact that they had created the problem of immigrants to begin with as they were the ones who set out to colonize and take over the world (Noah 2017, 00:10:19-00:13:45). This historical dimension of colonization is discussed in Born a Crime in further detail, where the comedian highlighted the difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism, by assessing their respective systems of education in South Africa. “The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to”, explains Noah. “The Afrikaners never gave us that option” (2016, 63).

Trevor Noah and the Cohesive Function of Humor

What is apparent from Noah’s autobiography as well as his stand-up material is that the comedian has been often made feel like an outsider. Still, his humor — making people laugh — was the key to feeling like he belonged:

"For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be part of any group that was laughing. […] I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself. (Noah 2016, 141)"

Because of the complexity of identities and due to his own background (“being the mixed one in the family”), the question of belonging has been a central theme in Noah’s stand-up comedy. Since being a comedian often involves disassociating oneself from the “Here/Now/Me/Practical mode” (as per Morreall, introduced above), it is often expected that he explored each situation from the perspective of an outsider that was not involved emotionally. Interestingly, depending on his audience (US or South African), different patterns emerged at times while others remain the same. According to Källstig & Death, Noah’s uniqueness is rooted in how he performed racial “in-between-ness” that ranged across black, mixed, colored, and white identities (2020, 14).

Considering how important the line between “us” and “them” identity (in-group versus out-group) was, it is no wonder that as a result of his parents being mavericks (Daywalker 01:08:31) his mixed family was not merely unusual but illegal under apartheid. In addition to coping with this difficulty growing up in South Africa, not accepted as black in the USA was another recurring theme in Noah’s stand-up performances. The Daywalker (Noah 2009, 01:49:48), That’s Racist (Noah 2012, 00:21:38-00:22:08), and African American all contain his routine in which he declared that upon arriving in the USA “18 hours of flying, I still wasn’t black…I was Mexican.” The main difference between the ones filmed in Johannesburg and African American in the US show was that the latter had a different punchline: “I was Puerto Rican” (Noah 2013, 00:23:05), most likely because Mexican accents and stereotypes would be better recognizable in South Africa than those from Puerto Rico. This was a subtle change but an effective one at that, as illustrated by the audience’s applause.

Mocking South African politicians and public affairs was an inseparable part of Noah’s South African routines; these were not performed in the USA given the lack of familiarity of most Americans with South African politics with the exception of monologues about Nelson Mandela. And while Mandela did not stand above all criticism, his personality was a major cohesive force in post-apartheid South Africa (Welsh 2009, 767-8). His iconic status, however, did not mean that he would have become off limits for Noah. It is noteworthy that the first black president of South Africa was not criticized, though. The humor in all relevant routines stemmed from the incongruity imbedded in imaginary scenarios that envisioned Mandela doing mundane things that were clashing with his legendary status: pranking Bill Clinton at his birthday party (Noah 2009, 01:52:40); hitchhiking (Noah 2013, 01:13:51-01:15:41); buying a KitKat and making prank phone calls (Noah 2017, 00:45:43-00:47:10).

Although Noah declared in Crazy Normal how proud he had been of the “bloodless revolution” in South Africa (Noah 2011, 01:19:40), he did not shy away from mocking post-Mandela politicians or providing satirical socio-political commentary. Still, he could not help his disappointment about how people were “more focused on the negative aspects of race. We used to be the rainbow nation. Now the colors are going in their separate ways” (Noah 2013, 01:19:28-01:19:32). Still, as Julie Seirlis has argued (2011, 519), “the laughter in post-1994 South Africa attests to the success of the struggle against apartheid and the rewards of freedom far from the clutches of uptight old white puritans”. And while many South African comedians have refused to be overtly political (519), young comedians like Noah have found it crucial to address political issues and challenges that post-apartheid South African democracy faced, including strikes, demonstrations, and corruption within the African National Congress (ANC), including key politicians like Jacob Zuma or Julius Malema (both of whom Noah frequently referred to by first name or nicknames like “little Zulu ninja turtle” in the case of the former (Noah 2012, 00:39:43). In general, jokes about these topics, Seirlis points out, could be interpreted as a form coping mechanism. Nevertheless, as Noah’s routines illustrate, laughter associated with these topics can also be understood as an example for the cohesive function of humor. More specifically, humor in these scenarios creates a bond between the comedian and his South African audiences, as well as within the audience members themselves (as this particular topic is not discussed in front of US audiences). As the comedian winks at them, it is implied that “sure, we are all in this together”.

As noted above, during apartheid, people were categorized based on the color of their skin; Noah stressed on several occasions that due to the fact that he had a white father and a black mother, outsiders thought him to be colored. In his first one-man show, The Daywalker, he tackled this question of (non)-belonging with narrating his time in the (black) township of SOWETO as having been mistaken for an albino (spoiler alert: hence the callback to the title of the show):

"Have you heard? There’s one of us, but different – he has skin just like us but his hair grows black! And he has no problems with the sun! He can walk any time he pleases! Anytime! He’s the ONE. The Daywalker!" (Noah 2009, 01:11:58-01:12:20)

All of this changed, Noah lamented, in 1990, the end of apartheid, when they could finally have “Trevor’s coming out party” that culminated in Noah admitting to his albino friends that he was not an albino. The punchline illustrates, yet again, the cohesive function of humor as it links to solidarity – as his friends replied, “We knew it! None of us are …. [Short pause for emphasis]. We are people!” (Noah 2009, 01:18:00).

The question of belonging decided based on one’s skin color remained a common practice even in post-apartheid democracy. The Daywalker and Crazy Normal contain several routines about colored people (and the difference between them and mixed-race people) as well as Indians, who, Noah mused, made up most of Durban. In Daywalker (Noah 2009, 01:47:53) he recalled that before his first trip to the USA he “did research and found and there’s no colored people anywhere else in the world, only in South Africa”, we make them here, like a proudly South African product. Yeah, we got the factory down in Cape Town.” Interestingly, this “factory” punchline was adjusted to different routines for different audiences; in 2011, in Crazy Normal (Noah 2011, 00:21:44) he established that Indians were so common in Durban that if India was the factory, Durban was the factory shop. Similarly, the comedian revisited the scene yet again in 2013 in African American, but here the idea was to strengthen his “case” in front of a New York audience for being accepted as black, given that he was from Africa, “the black factory.”

Independent South Africa has 11 official languages; unsurprisingly, this often complicates the assessment of identities. And even though hardly anyone speaks all 11 languages, still, besides his routine on the chaos of the multi-lingual national anthem (Crazy Normal, 01:19:40) speaking multiple languages proved to be of great importance for Noah in terms of belonging, as he pointed out in his autobiography about his school years:

"I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you." (Noah 2016, 56)

One outstanding theme within routines that demonstrate in-group solidarity is that of addressing police brutality and racial violence in his US performances, African American and Lost in Translation (“I just don’t want to die”, 00:10:22), as well as in the Johannesburg show: There’s a Gupta on My Stoep. In the latter, Noah’s solidarity is palpable while at the same time his criticism of the absurdity of the American circumstances is also noteworthy. “We can fight with our police when they stop us. With not one thought in your head of losing your life. That’s a luxury in America, I didn’t even think about that”, explained the comedian (Noah 2017, 00:05:11). This also reveals the significance of context when assessing similar (otherwise serious) topics that most people would not expect to be part of a comedy routine. Nevertheless, exactly because of the often-ignored potential of humor to aid processing traumatic experiences, this example also illustrates the coping function of humor.

While Noah’s audiences across the globe are likely to find the questions around belonging to be relatable, regardless of whether they share the same ethnicity/skin color/language, there are some notable differences between his shows filmed in South Africa and the USA. For instance, the South African Indian population is not part of his American routines. Furthermore, he does not do other SA accents in US while he regularly switches between both accents and languages in South Africa. Nonetheless, languages and accents are also part of his American shows, notably the accent and vocabulary of African Americans. His overall approach to comedy is best illustrated by how he introduced his first one-man show, The Daywalker, in the documentary You Laugh But It’s True:

"Every show is like, ‘Who’s the audience gonna be…?’ I just want it to be South African. Not even South Africans – international. Just human beings. If you’re human, come to the show. I’m not saying dogs mustn’t come. But I’m just saying if you’re human, you know, just come to the show, that’s all I want. I don’t want it to be about age, or race or religion, or anything […]. It’s about people." (

The Coping Function of Noah’s Humor

In Noah’s stand-up comedy performances, humor is linked to coping with not only discrimination and systematic racism but also with personal hardship and tragedies like when his mother was shot. Besides his autobiography, he recalled this story on stage as well, in It’s My Culture. He has skillfully woven incongruity into the otherwise shocking and emotionally tolling narrative, presenting several punchlines that were surprising and contrary to the audience’s expectations at each turn. The use of incongruity was also complemented with cohesion-building devices, namely Noah’s callbacks to “too soon” jokes. These callbacks created unity, further cementing the integrity of the show (Chauvin 2017, 165) and contributing to the audience’s emotional climax when all strands of the narrative were re-joined upon hearing the phrase, “too soon.” This process was also aligned with a distance between the comedian and what Morreall has called the emotional “Here/Now/Me/Practical mode” (2012). Before elaborating on how his mother was shot, Noah addressed the controversy around Oscar Pistorius and argued:

"There’s nothing funny about the incidents, the actual incidents; but there’s always something funny around what happened. That’s where comedy comes from: you laugh through the pain, alright? It’s just like there’s nothing funny about having a corrupt government but we laugh every day, huh? Otherwise you go crazy. That’s what you do. You use the comedy to get you through the thing, you know? People just get too emotional and I understand it. It affects them personally, you know, they laugh about things until it gets close and then they’re like, “that’s not right.”" (Noah 2013, 00:32:06-00:32:32)

It was thanks to the “mental distance” (relying on Morreall’s term) from the tragic event that the comedian could highlight (or most likely add, given the creative nature of performative comedy) the humorous moments that occurred in the hospital. Born a Crime revealed (2016, 250-282) the wider social context of the shooting and referenced the consequences to the authorities’ handling of domestic violence in a black household (or the lack thereof). This information was missing from the stand-up performance as the autobiography was a more suitable format to tackle the complexity of the situation.

Morreall has highlighted that within the context of the Holocaust, humor “helped oppressed people cope with the suffering without going insane” (2009, 123). Undoubtedly, the latter fuels humor too; as Morreall has pointed out, “the emotional disengagement of humor was often enhanced by imagination” (2009, 123). This feature is also illustrated by Noah’s routines about his childhood imaginary friend, Andrew. Noah introduced the character in his first stand-up special, The Daywalker, as “I took Andrew to my grandmother’s house only once” (Noah 2009, 01:23:08), which received immediate recognition from his Johannesburg audience. The routine demonstrated multiple issues. Firstly, the early creativity of the comedian; secondly, the different value systems in black and white parts of the family and the place of imagination in these; thirdly, the significance of humor as a coping mechanism; and fourthly, the relatability of the experience that illustrated the cohesive function of laughter when discussing corporal punishment as the comedian recalled the beatings he received as a child. Noah brought up Andrew again in That’s Racist, which was presented with the story when his grandmother ended up in tears upon noticing that having beaten him, Trevor turned black and blue with bruises, causing her panicking that the police were going to take her away if they found out that she had raised a hand on “a white child” (Noah 2012, 00:59:14). Additionally, Noah also referenced the use of imagination as a comedic device in front of his New York audience in Afraid of the Dark. At the end of his routine about the meeting of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, he wrapped up with the line “At least I’d like to think how it went down” (Noah 2017, 00:53:13).

Traditionally, when forced to face hardship and tragedy, people have been turning (either alternatively or additionally) to religion, which was also what characterized Noah’s mother’s approach. In Son of Patricia, Noah used humor to highlight its possible connection to religion, in a routine calling out racists for the use of the “n-word.” Holocaust-survivor, psychologist, and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning (1959), Viktor Frankl, emphasized the significance of coping by focusing on what is in our control. If it was impossible to change one’s circumstances than what one had control over was their attitude, how they responded to everything happening around them. Noah recalls the same about his mother and how she had achieved this by combining faith and laughter:

"My mom always used to say, she said, you can’t control what people do to you but you can control how you react. So, I promised myself, I said, “I’ll never give a racist person the pleasure of seeing my pain. It may be painful it may be hurtful, but I won’t give the pleasure of seeing my pain. Someone says something racist, shake it up with the love of Jesus, send it right back. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always easy. Not everyone can do the same thing, not everyone should. I also understand that for me it’s a little bit different. You know I have a privilege in that I come from a country where the word “nigger” was never used to oppress anybody." (Noah 2018, 00:57:40-00:58:23)

And this is where the coping and critical functions of humor will be visible again. Upon standing up to blatantly racist abuse targeting black people through the use of hateful slurs (“nigger” in the USA and “kaffir” in South Africa) while at the same time working through the pain caused by the event and reliving the perpetual trauma of racial discrimination. Noah utilized an arsenal of satirical tools (incongruity, exaggeration, mimicry, puns, reversal, and sarcasm) to weave the humor into the following segment:

"We had another word because we had the best racism. [Reacting to the audience’s reaction:] Come on now. But not THAT word. That word we had was a word “kaffir”. So, we had another word, same thing. It’s crazy to me sometimes. Same racism, different word. [Turns to the audience.] And here it means nothing, right? “Kaffir”, “kaffir”? Nothing. Some people are like, “Is that a probiotic? Is THAT what is? […]” We don’t have that in out supermarkets, for obvious reasons. No one warned me in America. I walk down the dairy aisle, was like [miming to browse the shelf]: yogurt… ice cream… [he screams – albeit not for ice cream:] AAHHH! THIS LACTOSE IS INTOLERANT!!!" (Noah 2018, 00:58:28-00:59:10)

In the middle of the routine, Noah took notice of the discomfort of the American audience following the repeated use of the hateful slur:

"So, it’s different around the world and I get that. You know. It’s a privilege I have in dealing with the n-word. You know, in South Africa no one was called a “nigger”. All over Africa no one was oppressed using that word. So that word has no power. Anywhere you go, “nigger”, “nigger”, “nigger” – nothing. Whereas right now I can feel the tension in this room. I can feel it. Some people are like, “Goddamn it, was that like seven times??? I get it Trevor. That’s my quota for the year, come on.” – I get it." (Noah 2018, 00:59:01-00:59:39)

Noah had already addressed the contrast between the US and South African slurs in That’s Racist. The main difference was that the story was presented to the South African audience in Johannesburg as a call for them to reclaim the word “kaffir” together and turn it to something positive so that it was not associated with a derogatory meaning anymore, rather to serve as an act of resistance instead (Noah 2012, 01:26:35-01:35:55). This dimension is missing from Son of Patricia, which concludes instead with an imaginary scenario of sending American racists to South Africa once a year to get all the “niggers” out of their system. Furthermore, Noah provides more historical context for the word “kaffir”, explaining that the term came from Arabic, where it originally meant “infidel” and was therefore applied to all non-Muslims including whites as well. Indeed, Mbowa has highlighted that “although the believers of the Islamic faith characterized everyone, who did not believe in Allah as a kafir,” the colonizers (the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English) later “took over the word and used it on the native Black people of Southern Africa to slander them and declare them inferior and as subhuman (Mbowa 2020, 54).

The power of language has been a constant and powerful theme throughout Noah’s stand-up performances with regards to the challenges associated with ‘Otherness.’ This also echoes Weaver’s argument (2016, 119) noting that the importance of the reverse discourse of black comedians. On the one hand, the use of the slur as part of their reverse strategies, black comedians form a resistance against the colonial practice of embodied racism in which “nigger” had been used to label black men as subhuman in contrast to something that was considered to be “more civilized, to something that has a greater social worth” (2010, 42 and 76). On the other hand, it is crucial to note Weaver’s warning that the continued use of slurs (even if done so in an appropriated sense, reclaimed by the oppressed groups) may, however, contribute to perpetuating hatred by keeping the racist terminology in circulation. This implies the inherent danger that the slur may be taken out of context and used against the intent of the black comedian. Nevertheless, according to Noah, “words change all the time”, leading to his conclusion to let’s “own the shit out of that word” (Noah 2012, 01:35:20).


As illustrated above, Morreall’s claim from Comic Relief that “life isn’t a solitary struggle, but a social adventure” (2009, 144) is most certainly applicable to Noah’s stand-up comedy on race as most routines relevant to the topic involved either personal tragedies or social injustice that his audiences both in South Africa and the USA could relate to. Throughout multiple performances within the span of approximately ten years, Noah demonstrated in a variety of scenarios what it was like, to use Weaver’s terminology (2010), when the “Other” laughs back, in opposition to racist discourse. Crucially, one must also note the potential of laughter when coping with traumatic events that have been associated with politicized racial segregation, hatred, and socio-economic discrimination. Undoubtedly, Noah’s performances in South Africa and the USA demonstrated how the multi-faceted nature of humor may give voice to often muted “Others.”


Works Cited

Trevor Noah’s following stand-up performances were analyzed for this paper:

Primary sources
Secondary sources