September, 2015 Issue

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Trevor Noah


Fame is a funny thing, in that there are many degrees of it, and any particular act is only famous to you once you've heard of them.

Trevor Noah is a name that the masses may not recognize, but they soon will, as he steps into place as the host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. When you talk about big shoes to fill, those of Jon Stewart must seem especially daunting, especially for a performer who's light on primetime experience, but Trevor is no stranger to overcoming challenges. He is full of surprises and the fact that he came from where he did (in a place where comedy itself was almost non-existent) is a testament to both his talent and resolve.

Hailing from South Africa, learning the world in the time of Apartheid, there weren't exactly talent agents hanging around every corner, or performance venues to practice a performance craft. Trevor is what most of the old hat in the comedy world would consider a late bloomer; in fact Trevor didn't even grace a stage until he was well into adulthood. "Being interested in the art of making people laugh as a profession was something I only discovered at the age of 22. I really didn't know about it, comedy wasn't a big thing in South Africa, so there wasn't really anything on my radar."

Despite his lack of an outlet for the talent, Trevor knew he had a bit of a knack. "I've always enjoyed making people laugh, it has always been an intrinsic part of who I am. It was never something I had to consciously think of, you know? It was more an innate ability I had that I never thought to develop and utilize in a serious way in my life until much later."

There is little doubt that someday the story of Trevor's life will make a great biography, but unfortunately our medium and purposes don't allow us to delve into nearly the level of detail this writer would prefer. However, that doesn't mean we can't gorge ourselves in as much background as we have time for, so long as we save a little room for what makes this fellow a great choice for campus talent buyers.

Trevor grew up in Soweto and Johannesburg, a challenging place for a family and young man, especially given Trevor's ethnic background. "I was from a mixed family, my mother black and native to SA and father white from Switzerland. I grew up as a pretty average kid doing my thing, to be honest. I was lucky enough that when I was 10, democracy really started to take hold there, so I had a decent life I would say. I started doing stand-up and just started grinding through. Stand-up was just a hobby for a while; I had a series of odd jobs I ran through just trying to figure things out but I was incredibly fortunate in realizing that I had a calling."

Eventually he became a big fish in a small comedy pond and opportunity began knocking. "To have the chance to start traveling to other countries to do shows was amazing. Eventually there was an American fellow I met who had come to South Africa working on a documentary on comedy. He invited me to the States and I took him up on it and have continued to return ever since."

Like many folks who come from less privileged backgrounds than the average American, Trevor seems to take his home situation in stride. Trevor's family background made it much more difficult to have a normal family life, especially early on when Apartheid was still in place. Most folks probably don't realize just how nontraditionally many families there were organized, at least to our social norms. "My dad was sort of a world traveler, he had lived everywhere, Canada, New York, Germany, Switzerland...South Africa was just one of his destinations. But, I grew up in my mother's home. In Apartheid, you couldn't have mixed homes, so there was no opportunity to be raised by my father. If you were black in South Africa, it was likely that you lived with your entire family, grandmother, grandfather, cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone stayed in one little house together."

One often wonders what sort of parents raise successful entertainers; it's easy to imagine a musician's child becoming a musician themselves. "In terms of vocations, all black people worked in factories or in menial labor. There was no higher learning or higher level job to attain. My grandmother worked in a factory, my mother didn't work, my aunt was studying to be a nurse. My dad was a manager for a company that produced processed meat. There is no entertainment legacy here (laughs)."

Getting a comedy career going in a place where luxuries like going out for a night on the town and a show are not that common is no easy feat. While economically things have improved in South Africa since Apartheid, the median income of the country as of 2013 was still only $6,800, compared to over $50,000 in the U.S. "I had just moved in with a couple friends of mine and I was working odd jobs. I was helping out at a radio station late at night, and one day one of my housemates told me I should tag along to a comedy show he went to every week. I had never been to a comedy show, so I went. I had no idea what to expect. It was just a little bar with the comedy happening in the corner. One of the guys asked me if I wanted to come on stage and my friend said I should, so I just did it."

Just do it. "It took either balls or stupidity, one of the two (laughs). I suppose most bold action is a combination of the two at some point. I didn't know what to talk about at first, then my friends started shouting from the audience to tell them this story or that. I just told people stories from my life, and they laughed. That is how I approached my comedy from then on. I would tell people stories about things that had happened to me or things that I'd seen."

Very few true storyteller comics have risen through the ranks to achieve true fame, but to a fault they are most often the most distinctive and unique comics around, unpolluted by the study of one-liners, or come backs or worst of all, purloined material (intentional or not). Think of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and of course, he who shall not be named. Ok, I'll whisper it: Bill Cosby. Say what you want about any of these legends, but the fact remains they are great comics and unique completely to themselves. It's a very hard quality to find, but because of the very sparse comedy atmosphere that presented speed bumps to Trevor early in his career, he was blessedly untainted by the larger comedy world. It's like a musician learning to play an instrument themselves, without ever having been stamped by any genre. This isn't to say Trevor never ran into any influences once he started the path to comedy, but they came once he was already well on his way, not inspiring him initially to enter the fray and therefore greatly reducing the chance for any imitation. "When I was starting comedy, I had no comedic influences. I had never watched comedy, I grew up in an extremely religious home so it's not like my mom was going to bring home any comedy VHS cassettes or anything like that, and broadcast coverage was nonexistent. It wasn't something I was familiar with, I just did it the way I did it. I told stories more than jokes, I knew nothing about structure nor did I know any of the science behind it." This is what art snobs refer to as a true primitive. The word may carry negative connotations of someone being undeveloped on its face, but what it really means is that a well has been tapped that is connected to no other water table. What you draw out, while potentially unrefined, is completely pure. "I just worked within the realm of telling people about things I knew and then they laughed or they didn't. That's all I knew."

Over time, as he really immersed himself in this newfound passion, he began to expose himself to the wider pool of talent, not because he was looking for direction or ideas, but because he simply enjoyed watching the craft done well. "A friend asked me one day, 'Have you ever heard of Eddie Murphy?' and I said 'Oh yes, of course I have heard of Eddie Murphy, he was The Nutty Professor.' (Laughs) I had no idea he did stand-up, I just loved his movies. Then, someone showed me 'RAW.' I lost my mind. I remember thinking it had to be the most difficult act to follow ever. I couldn't believe that this was the level this could be done at. It was utterly incredible; I didn't understand how he did it so well, how he structured it so cleanly and smoothly. It was mind-blowing. From then on I definitely looked at the art and craft of comedy in a different way. I could not believe someone could be that good at doing the same thing I was doing."

As a side note, if you're reading this, this writer is going to assume you are at least remotely interested in booking comedy on a college campus. If you haven't seen at least one special from every comedian named in this story, do yourself a favor and go do that now. You'll know a lot more when you get back. It's ok, go ahead. The great thing about text is that we can wait.

"Now, go watch some Trevor Noah. Here, I'll make it easy for you: As a side note, if you look down a few in the list of recommended videos you will see Carlin (R.I.P).

"Ok so now that we are all caught up, you can see what this guy is working with. If you read the stories that have headlines with Trevor Noah's name in them, a common phrase keeps popping up. He seems to have been branded as an "out of nowhere" choice as a replacement for the amazing Jon Stewart, who has carried the torch of Comedy Central's youth-demographically successful "The Daily Show" for the last 15 years. If your inference applies to Trevor's level of household fame, this statement may hold true, but when it comes to Trevor as a comic it couldn't be further from fact. His experience is a decade deep and, perhaps making up for lost time, he has packed as much performing into that ten years as possible. "Because I love comedy so much, when I started it was a hobby, I wasn't getting paid. I became notorious as that guy anyone could call if they needed a comedian for ANY spot. I would go to any gig no matter the size or the place, and I would do comedy. It didn't matter who the audience was or what the restrictions were. I would do it any time I could, which was pretty difficult since in South Africa we didn't have comedy clubs (at least back then)."

Crossing paths with the owner of a jazz club, Trevor was able to find a more regular outlet to practice in. "The owner would have me come in and warm up the audiences before the main events and so that became my weekly thing. It became my regular gig and because the audiences were made up of a lot of regulars, I had to keep coming up with fresh material all the time. It put a bit of pressure on me, but it was a great environment to learn in, constantly working and working and putting in a lot of time behind a mic."

Over time, he gained access to a few South African comedy festivals, where some International acts were featured. "I got to meet some great comedians at those shows and a lot of them told me if I ever came to their country, I should hit them up. I had never considered that, but over time I began taking those opportunities. I bought myself a plane ticket to England and did some spots in London and around the UK. I did well and had a good time and eventually made my way to the US. I did some work in Southern California and worked my way up, performing at as many clubs and international comedy festivals as I could."

Someone took notice, and now Trevor is about to slide into one of the most coveted spots in comedy. Being on "The Daily Show" even as a correspondent has made careers, and now Trevor is about to be sitting in the captain's chair. Don't think he just fell into it though. "The process was a lot longer than most people seem to think," he says. "Jon Stewart and I started speaking about two years ago. He called me out of the blue really, we had never met in person. I was doing a tour in London and he reached out and said he would like me to come on the show just to chat about things. At the time I was really lucky in that my touring schedule had really picked up, but unlucky because I had to turn him down. It was a bittersweet moment. It was Jon Stewart on one hand, but I couldn't desert what I had worked so hard for or my obligations on the other."

A year or so later, "The Daily Show" team reached out again. "They said 'Hey, Jon still wants you to come by. Even if you're just in New York, pop in and come hang out at the show and see how we do things and let everyone meet you.' So I did, as soon as I had the chance. I had some shows in New York and once I was in there I loved the environment. Jon and I just connected so quickly and easily that he invited me to come talk on the show. I did my first piece and we had such a great time he asked me to come back any time I wanted. We had a very flexible schedule and it was working great with my tours. Just before the announcement, I was thinking about moving to New York to be able to spend more time with the show, hanging out with the writers and seeing the process from start to finish. Jon made the announcement and the whirlwind began."

It continues, and Trevor is riding the updrafts. Trevor is excited and nervous at the same time and ready for the end of September to come. "It is a little bit daunting. Just like being on stage and following a great comedian, this is five-fold the same pressure. I am following a person who has in many respects mastered the craft of what he does. I have to take it one day at a time and put as much hard work into it as possible, but I also have to trust that I can get there. I guess the only things that helps me is oftentimes watching reels of 'The Daily Show.' When I go back and look at Jon's earlier stuff, it makes him appear a bit more human. You realize that he didn't become the polished machine he is over night. His Rome wasn't built in a day, he worked very hard for it, and I plan to as well."

Hard work has gotten Trevor this far, and he will work hard on your campus to ensure a satisfied audience at the end of every performance. Join the whirlwind that has become Trevor Noah's career and bring him to your campus now while he's becoming one of the most talked about names in the business by calling Matt Blake at CAA at (424) 288-2000 or