ABOVE: TREVOR NOAH IN NEW YORK, MAY 2013. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
The story of comedian Trevor Noah's childhood is affecting. Told in another context, it would be heartbreaking. Born in South Africa in 1984 to an African mother and a Swiss father, Noah's mixed family was illegal under the laws of Apartheid. He jokes that neither of his parents could walk down the street next to him: his father would wave at him from across the road, "like a creepy pedophile," and his mother would hire a lighter-skinned friend to escort him while she followed several paces behind.
Noah doesn't want your sympathy, or even your indignation on his behalf. Noah wants laughter, and there is plenty of laughter in his aptly titled standup show, Born a Crime. The subjects he focuses on are sensitive—Apartheid, racial identity, racism, the occasional Mugabe joke—but Noah's never had someone walk out of his show. "I'm not an abrasive person," the 29-year-old explains. "I do speak my mind, but my goal is never to offend. I don't intentionally want to strike a chord."
After a successful tour around Africa and Oceania, the comedian is currently performing Born A Crime at the Culture Project in New York. It's a much more intimate venue than Noah is used to; at the end of June, Noah will travel to London and perform to audiences of up to 2,000.
EMMA BROWN: You impersonate quite a few different accents during your show, and you seem to be good at all of them. When did you discover this talent?
TREVOR NOAH: Kind of my whole life. We've got so many different cultural groups in my family that I've had to learn to accommodate them in different ways. My father speaks different to my mum. My mum speaks different to my grandmother. Everybody speaks different, so you find you start tweaking your language to be more accessible to people. I also found, because I was always an outsider, that was one of the quickest ways to be accepted by people—to speak like them. Then they just immediately go, "Oh, I guess you're more like me than I thought."
BROWN: You mentioned that you speak six of the 11 official languages of South Africa, and you're learning German to better communicate with your father. When you speak German, do you have a South African accent?
NOAH: No, I don't. I genuinely had a very Hitler-ish accent when I spoke German; I spoke it with too much conviction. Then I found out I [sounded] distinctly Hitler-ish and that's something that I've had to learn to change over time. But there are still moments where I say things that make German people go, "Oh, that makes me a bit uncomfortable." But I don't have a South African accent.
BROWN: How did your parents meet?
NOAH: They met in a very underground sort of movement in South Africa during Apartheid. There were people who broke the rules and found ways to get around them, so they had little get-togethers. There were bars and clubs that were illegal in that they allowed people to mix and mingle with people of other races. That's where they met. They just met in those circles and hit it off, I guess.
BROWN: Did they ever consider moving to Switzerland?
NOAH: My mum never thought of it, which I still hold against her 'til this day. She just refused to move. She just never saw that, as an option because South Africa is her country. She wouldn't give them the pleasure of having her leave, so she preferred to stay and be a thorn in the side of the authorities.
BROWN: How old were you when Apartheid ended?
NOAH: When Apartheid was ended by the government, I was eight or nine. When it ended-ended I was about 13, 12. It was abolished by the government, but that didn't end it overnight. It was sort of like slavery in the US; there was an announcement made, "Look, no more slavery," but it didn't mean the next day slaves were free. There was still a bit of a transition period.
BROWN: Do you live in South Africa when you're not touring?
NOAH: I live in South Africa. I'm proud to live there. I've always said I want to be a comedian from South Africa in the world. I will stay in places for a bit here and there and pop into New York for a while, maybe stay in London for a year, but my home will always be South Africa. I enjoy it too much. There's so much craziness going on—fantastic restaurants, great lifestyle—it's fun. It's no New York, but I enjoy it.
BROWN: Do you get lonely when you're on the road? Or do you have friends spread out all over the world now?
NOAH: Most of the places I go, I don't know anybody. It's really tough at times, especially being away from any sort of social environment. I've only been on the road for three years—I've met guys who've been doing it for 10 and 20 years. I don't know if I could go for that long. In the long run, if I find myself bouncing somewhere between Australia, South Africa, Europe, and New York, that's fine for me.
BROWN: Is there any particular place you'd like to return to?
NOAH: My dream is to go on a rollercoaster tour. I'm a rollercoaster whore; I just love being on the rides. My dream is to go to all of those places where they've got the craziest and best rides in America. I was in Texas and I didn't go to their Six Flags, which I've heard is amazing, so I need to go back there. I like the ones where you're doing as many different things—as fast as possible, as many spins, as many twists, as many loops. The more axes the thing moves on, the more I'm likely to ride it. If they go, "Your chair spins while it does a 360-degree loop going backwards through a sort of somersault"—that's my ride.
BROWN: What about somewhere you don't want to return to?
NOAH: I guess Erie, Pennsylvania. The name is suitable. It's a quaint place, but I don't see myself going back.
BROWN: I know it's terrible, but sometimes when I'm traveling and I see something from home—English chocolate, for example—I immediately gravitate towards it.
NOAH: I'm the opposite. I hate seeing things from home when I'm anywhere else. I want to be as far away from the thing as possible. Food would be the one thing where it's nice to dabble now and again if you've been away for very long. [But] I find it weird to go to another country and make friends with people that are from my country. I find that all strange. I don't mind bumping into them—"Hey, oh, fancy that!"—but other than that I just want to be lost. I enjoy being lost.
BROWN: Do a lot of people come up to you: "I'm from South Africa too, let's be friends!"
NOAH: Yes, they do. "Come to my house. I'll cook for you!" Almost as if I'm a vagrant, traveling the world. I understand the sentiment and I'm flattered by it, but I never say yes. I'm also scared that some people are serial killers.
BROWN: In your show, you talk about traveling and performing around Africa. Do you think there is a collective African identity?
NOAH: To a certain extent there is because of the shared experiences in terms of the past. Most—if not all—of Africa was colonized. Most of Africa was in some way affected by the slave trade, so there is a common thread across the continent that people can relate to. In terms of one form of comedy, that's not at all the truth because comedy is so diverse. There are common threads, but then it's as diverse as America would be from one coast to another.
BROWN: How much do you change your show from country to country?
NOAH: I change quite a few things. Setting up stories, I have to try to be a bit more accommodating because a lot of Americans aren't that familiar with my world. When I'm in Europe or Australia, they have a lot more knowledge of South Africa—I guess because we were all British colonies. Then I have some stories that have happened to me in America that only really work in America because people understand the nuances of what's happening. So it changes quite a lot. The core story remains the same and then I change everything around it.
BROWN: Has your show ever gotten you in trouble?
NOAH: Luckily, I've never gotten into trouble. I'm very cognizant of the laws of the place when I go there because I don't want to die. I don't want to go to jail. I don't think it's worth it. I'm not one of those guys who goes, "Oh, it would be great to die doing comedy. Then I'd become a hero." I have no time to be a hero. I just make people laugh and I go home. I try and stay on the right side of the law when it comes to comedy. If you die, then you can't live to talk about the thing, which in itself is just I feel like it's counterproductive. I'd rather live to speak about it another day.
BROWN: What is the purpose of comedy?
NOAH: The first purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. Anything deeper is a bonus. Some comedians want to make people laugh and make them think about socially relevant issues, but comedy, by the very nature of the word, is to make people laugh. If people aren't laughing, it's not comedy. It's as simple as that. They can laugh at different times and maybe some shows are meant to be funnier than others—some comedians are very alternative so they won't perform [for] a big laugh all the time. Without the laughter it becomes poetry or public speaking or a soliloquy; it isn't comedy anymore.
BROWN: Do people need the permission of being at comedy a comedy show to laugh at what you say?
NOAH: By the very nature of the language, people understand when you are joking and when you are not joking. Comedy is not something new; every day, something makes us laugh. Comedy is just the formalizing of that laughter. It's the same way athletics is the professionalizing of running. Everybody runs. You run because of the rain, you run to catch a train, but athletics now, we are formalizing the running. That's all comedy is. You're formalizing the laughter: putting it within a construct and a certain place. We agree to meet at a certain time; we'll be laughing together at this place.
BROWN: What's the last thing that made you laugh?
NOAH: The last thing that made me laugh was being in the rain today. [laughs] I just find it funny. I just find it strange—in the shower we are very confident or very comfortable with getting wet, and when you swim, it's the same thing. Then the rain, we're just petrified of. You see people, the terror in their eyes as the water falls from the sky. It's one of the few primitive things we still do. We still have that level of fear when the water comes, I guess, without our permission. I watch people and I find it quite entertaining.
BROWN: Have you ever been met with silence?
NOAH: Yeah, lots of times. Silence is great in comedy. Once you learn that death is an option, then you understand, that's where comedy begins. The silence punctuates the rhythm of the set. I love silence, I'm not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of people not laughing. These are good things.
BROWN: Are you someone with a thick skin?
NOAH: No, I don't think I have a thick skin, but I heal fast. It's easy to break through, but I heal fast.
BROWN: To whom did you first disclose that you wanted to be a comedian?
NOAH: It was an ex-girlfriend of mine. I was dating her and I said, "I want to be a comedian." And she said, "You're not that funny, don't be stupid." So I said, "Okay." And I didn't do it. Then, after we broke up, I thought, This is the perfect time to do everything I couldn't do when I was with her, like date other girls and do comedy. So I did.
BROWN: Do you think of yourself as successful?
NOAH: I do, actually. My measure of success is one that I've determined myself. I'm able to put food on my table. I can eat sushi whenever I feel like, which I think is a good measure of success.
BORN A CRIME NOW RUNS THROUGH JUNE 29 AT THE CULTURE PROJECT IN NEW YORK. FOR MORE ON TREVOR NOAH, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.