Trevor Noah Isn’t Laughing Anymore

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And you shouldn’t be either. Michael Martin talks politics with the Daily Show star

Ever since Donald Trump rose to the top of American politics like a nuclear turd blossom, certain books from the past have gone viral as ironic or even prophetic.

But one of them is brand-new. Fittingly, it has come from the pen of The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Born a Crime is the story of the 32-year-old comedian’s upbringing in South Africa during the thick of apartheid, when the minority white population ruled and tormented the black majority. Noah was a mixed-race child whose skin color determined where he could live, whom he could socialize with, where he could go to school, and what courses he could take when he was there—rules that were often different even for other mixed-race children.

It’s uniquely vivid, horrifying, instructive, and funny, thanks largely to Noah’s mother, a black woman who flouted nearly every restriction that apartheid placed on black women. She got a professional education, lived clandestinely in no-blacks-allowed Johannesburg, and bore a white man’s child despite strict anti-miscegenation laws. (Noah’s father was a white Swiss/German; his mother selected him to provide her son’s genetic material, then asked for nothing more.) Almost comically religious and determined—despite challenges ranging from a sweetly obstinate son to horrible racism to domestic abuse—she advised Noah, “Never be bitter.” It’s clear who was responsible for his life trajectory, starting as a wily, mischievous child (Noah sold sandwiches to the obese kids in school and illegally downloaded CDs for the rest) to one of America’s foremost comedians, spending a week in jail for civil disobedience along the way. The whole story is told with the vivid hues and bite that will come as no surprise to viewers of the Daily Show and Noah’s stand-up comedy. A week after the election, we talked in Noah’s office above the Daily Show studio—it has a set of weights and a gym-quality pull-up apparatus in the corner— about a book that was written as a heartwarming history lesson but that, on the eve of its release, turned into something more chilling.

FourTwoNine: How did you and The Daily Show staff react on election night?

Trevor Noah: We reacted honestly, and the honest response was that we were shocked. Not shocked at the possibility of it happening but, rather, shocked at how Trump was winning. Maybe incorrectly, we like to think we live in a world where our definitions of right and wrong are fairly similar. But every now and again, we’re reminded that people have very different definitions—and not rightfully or wrongfully so; we’re all looking at the same picture, and we’re seeing different things.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-2-21-19-pmFloto + Warner

Do you feel like this book is coming out at the perfect time? You talk about racial segregation and how it affected every part of your life growing up. We’ve been looking at thorny questions of race for a long time, and now we’re dealing with it on a very direct and scary level.

I feel like the book could have come out at any time, and it would have been the right time. I think the conversations we have will always be had at the right time because we’re having the conversations. What’s scary is [that]I chose this release date because I thought the election would be done—there’s not going to be much talk about what’s happening in the world, so it would be a nice time for me to release the book, and people can get to reading it. Now people are saying to me they’re reading it for different reasons. They want to read about what it’s like to grow up in a country where minorities are dictating how the entire country lives, and a small percentage of a population is determining how everyone lives in a manner that may not be in line with the most progressive or even the most democratic views out there. I guess it’s fortuitous, but it’s not something I celebrate.

Why did you want to tell your story?

I wanted to share it for multiple reasons, even beyond race. To talk about domestic abuse and growing up in a patriarchal society that really had my mom against the ropes multiple times, and to share the stories of how she bucked that trend and defied a system that was designed to oppress her.

Your mom is an amazing woman. She was incredibly strong and a rebel at every stage of her life and endured a lot of abuse and hardship, but she told you, “Never be bitter.” What is it about her made you funny?

My mother is an extremely funny person. I inherited her sense of humor, sense of storytelling, and an idea of how humor can be used as a tool. My mom wasn’t just laughing at me. Usually, she was laughing with me, and she was laughing for me sometimes. I felt like I had an ownership of this comedy.

You wrote very vividly about racial segregation in South Africa—for example, the difference between being “mixed” versus “colored” versus black versus white—and how it dictated every aspect of your life. How did that perspective affect your view of Trump’s campaign?

Well, the most glaringly obvious way it affects me is that I’ve grown up in a world where divisive rhetoric is used and, more importantly and more frighteningly, it becomes normalized. Growing up in a world where many people say—and I see that happening in America now—“Just because I voted for him doesn’t mean I’m racist, doesn’t mean I’m xenophobic, doesn’t mean I’m a misogynist,” you go, “Yes, that may be true, but you have to acknowledge your implicit agreement with what he’s doing.” Many South Africans said the same thing. They said, “I didn’t vote for this. I didn’t want Nelson Mandela in prison. I have no problem with black people. I didn’t want any of this.”

What did you say to that?

You’re like, “Yes, but what did you do to not make it happen?” You have to ask yourself that question, whenever you’re challenged on a decision that you’ve made. That’s the biggest way I look at it: “Oh, I’ve seen it start like this before.” I wasn’t there for the beginning of apartheid, but I’ve seen it start like this, where people go, “Oh, it’s not going to be that bad.” And who knows? It may not be. I’m not a psychic; I never claimed to be. I try to stay away from forecasting. What I can only do is look to the warning signs and say, “Maybe we should stay away from those.” I’m the kind of person who sees rolling clouds blowing overhead and says, “There may be a storm.” I would rather have an umbrella and not use it than be the guy who says, “I saw this coming, and there’s nothing I did about it.”

One thing all outsiders have in common is that we are forced to become something slightly different so the world doesn’t reject us.

Our attention spans are so short. Even the people who are the most livid about it now—I’m afraid they’re going to get burnt out on the anger and just check out. That’s incredibly scary.

Yeah, definitely. Things get normalized very quickly.

What’s The Daily Show’s responsibility in covering the future Trump administration?

I think our biggest responsibility is to be honest. That’s what I believe true comedy does. That’s what makes it so funny. Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock—you name them. Even absurdism like Eddie Izzard is still honest. That’s why it connects with so many people. You find the truths, and if you commit to the truth, the funny comes from that. With regard to the show, I think the truth enables the funny, and the funny enables us to wait and to watch, as painful or uncomfortable as that may be. In my world, I’m always searching for the truth; I’m not searching to reinforce my views. I’m searching to challenge them, and I’m seeking to dismantle ideas or beliefs that I have, or galvanize them with further information. And that is what I think the show is trying to do, is consistently be in a space where we see ourselves as being funny and, through that funniness, just challenging the status quo of what the world is right now.

How do you feel about The Daily Show’s election coverage? Are you satisfied with it? So many media outlets are reevaluating their approach, for whatever reason—from the New York Times on down.

Oh yeah. I mean, we said that Trump was an African dictator from the beginning. We laid out how that works and what mechanisms they use. From the very beginning, we spoke about how this guy can do it. We warned. On the Clinton side, we did pieces on the show that weren’t even popular—talking about how, if you don’t challenge the candidates on your side, they won’t be as strong as they need to be in the general election. We were honest all the way through. Are there a few shows I wish I could do differently? Definitely. But I’m glad I never existed in a world where I was just, like, “Yeah, this guy’s a normal guy. Maybe he could do it.” I’ve never been in that space.

I was never saying, “He’s shifting to presidential!” when he wasn’t. I never spoke about a pivot that never came. In my world, I was like, “He’s consistently Donald Trump.” All that’s happening is like in The Matrix, where the kid says, “There is no spoon. You are the one bending.” That’s essentially what the media did, I feel. They bent, and every time they would bend, they would see Donald Trump bending with them. And he wasn’t. He never pivoted. The media did.

What are some of the shows you would have done differently?

Oh, I don’t know now. Luckily, I get back to come and do it the next day and try to correct that.

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You write in the book about growing up as an outsider, both in ways specific to South Africa during the time you grew up and in very universal ways, like having bad acne and being romantically inept. Having grown up as an outsider, do you feel any kinship with LGBTs?

Yeah, definitely. I think one thing all outsiders have in common is that we are forced to become something slightly different so the world doesn’t reject us. We are forced to learn how to assimilate in a world that isn’t ours. It gives you a perspective and a hardening that very few have. At times, it’s extremely painful, but when you come out on the other side, hopefully you realize that it made you a constant in yourself. One benefit of being an outsider is that you just have to be yourself. When you’re with a group, it’s so much easier to go with the group. When you’re an outsider, there’s no group to go with.

When you’re a biracial person [in South Africa], everyone tells you what race you should be; everyone figures out how your mix is going to pan out and what you should aspire to be. Obviously, I can’t speak to the full experience, but people from the LGBT community are told what they’re supposed to be, feel, and act. In essence, you come to learn that people don’t like diversity. People don’t like something that is not of the norm. People don’t like things that are exceptional, but you have to persevere.

I think this is a good read now for anyone who fears that their rights will be compromised. You write at length about rebellion against brutal authority.

For me, the greatest inspiration was the underground movements in South Africa and the underground movements that exist everywhere. You cannot deny fundamental truths. You can say that black people and white people shouldn’t be allowed to integrate, but is it true? Are you basing this on a fact? If it is a fact, then you shouldn’t need to enforce it. Essentially, we’re not trying to stop panda bears from mating with gorillas. It’s like, no, that’s just how it works.

What I always enjoyed was the fact that people found themselves. Humanity found a way to grow through the cracks of oppression. The underground movement wasn’t just protests and mobilizing against a government. It was also people socializing, like my parents dating interracially. I think those are the things that should give everybody heart—they can never be extinguished or erased. It can be suppressed, and that’s something we must always be wary of. But take heart, because it’ll never go away. If anything, it’s like being in a pressure cooker: once it’s allowed to grow again, it explodes even more.

What gave you the wherewithal to get out of South Africa?

A spirit of self-determination. Being able to say, “I will just keep pushing the boundaries and doing what I can in the world that I’m in.” I can’t deny that I’m in this world, but how I perceive the world is completely my choice. That’s what my mom was really good at teaching me, and that’s what I try and apply to the world. It’s not either/or.

I hear people saying, “Oh, if black people are oppressed, then how can you have a black president? If women are oppressed, then how come there are women who are running?” No, no, no, no—these things do not exist in isolation. For you to say that implies that there are no people who can achieve exceptionally.

I will work my hardest to go as far as I can, but what I won’t do is sit back and go, “There’s nothing I can do.” There’s always something you can do. That includes fighting the system, but sitting back and doing nothing means that if an opportunity just affords itself, what do you now do? I think myself and my family were able to take advantage of freedom because of all of the preparation my mom had put into me and herself before we achieved that freedom.

People don’t like diversity. People don’t like something that is not of the norm. People don’t like things that are exceptional, but you have to persevere.

How did the misogyny your mother experienced affect your view of Hillary and the shit she had to put up with during the campaign?

I think what’s scary is how invisible it is. That’s probably one of the things that has stuck with me throughout this campaign. I’ll try and apply my mind, read all I can, and speak to people much smarter than I am to try and begin to understand the monster that’s invisible and yet in front of us the entire time. Misogyny is almost like an invisible gravity that is applied to women more than it is to men, and everyone is looking around going, “Well there’s nothing here. You can jump; I can jump. So what are you complaining about?” It’s hard for someone to explain to you, “No, I can jump, but I feel a little bit heavier than you.”

I witnessed it within my tribe: what a woman was meant to aspire to. I witnessed it in the world of business, seeing how my mother was treated. These are all places where I came to realize how difficult it was to be seen as a strong, independent woman. Everything gets thrown at you, from “bitch” to “slut,” because you are stepping out of the boundaries. You see that happening even now in a different way with Melania Trump. People going, “Oh, how are we going to have a First Lady who appeared almost nude in magazines?” It’s, like, “Wait, I don’t understand. Weren’t you the same people who were fighting for a woman’s right to be as she is?”

You can have a president who appeared in magazines in a Speedo, and you wouldn’t be complaining. You would just be like, “Oh, look at these racy pictures from way back. Oh, look at that body.” But we basically say to a woman, “You have to choose. You are either sexy and flaunting what you want to flaunt, or you’re going to be confined to the world of being cold and motherly. You’re defined by your space. You cannot exist in all of them.” Whereas a man is allowed to be free.

It seems like every day there’s some new horrifying realization about the Trump campaign. Last month it was Bannon. When it comes to The Daily Show, do you worry that what’s happening now just isn’t funny?

Nothing is funny, I find. My mother getting shot wasn’t funny. Violence and crime in South Africa isn’t funny. Apartheid wasn’t funny. Nelson Mandela in prison for twenty-seven years wasn’t funny. None of it was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. I think of laughter as anesthesia of the mind. It doesn’t mean that the pain is no longer there, but just for a moment it helps you deal with it. Because sometimes you do need to perform surgery without that anesthesia, we may not be able to go through what we need to go through. We may not be able to confront hard truths. We may not be able to process everything that is coming at us. It might become overwhelming.

I’ve always used comedy as a coping mechanism, as a tool that helps me pause every other emotion that’s clouding my judgment, plans, feelings, and ideas. And just for a moment, [it helps me]remember. I think that’s what laughter is: a burst of remembering, a place where everything is going well. You don’t even realize that, but that’s what’s happening, no matter how much pain you’re in. It’s the first laugh at the wake of a funeral. No one is enjoying the fact that the person has died, but [with]that first laugh, they remember who they were. It’s that first moment where you realize you’re going to be OK. It’s that first moment where you realize you can overcome.

Nothing is funny about Donald Trump. Nothing is funny about what he’s planning to do. Nothing is funny about the people who he surrounds himself with. But humor is a tool we can use to expose and to be self-critical. And most importantly, to cope.

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