Our friends in the United States are celebrating their Thanksgiving and probably binge-watching Netflix. Many would benefit from an hour spent watching Trevor Noah’s new stand-up special. So can we.
Trevor Noah: Son of Patricia (new and streaming this week on Netflix) presents The Daily Show host in a different context and displaying separate skills from those he uses on weeknights mocking the news. Noah was picked to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes but never became Jon Stewart. He couldn’t. Nobody could. Instead, the comedy he delivers is broader and he delivers more bafflement than bracing invective aimed at the Trump administration. There is also a lot less scorching indictment of the media.
What you get in the Netflix special – taped in Los Angeles and featuring a casual Noah in T-shirt and jeans – is Noah the expert storyteller, master of accents and gifted at portraying the innocent abroad. Especially the innocent from South Africa who finds the mercurial subtleties of everything in the United States – race, class, politics and general weirdness – a source of amusement rather than scorn. He has an expert grasp of what is beneath surface assumptions and prejudice. He’s funny in a glancing way, building up a series of insights and letting them lodge in your brain until you realize the man’s been entertaining you with funny but unsettling stories.
His main themes are race and immigrant identity. He doesn’t do outrage, though. He does discombobulation and puzzlement. As a South African (with a black mother – the Patricia honoured in the title – and a white father) who is successful in America, he’s like the proverbial visitor from another planet to whom the obvious must be explained.
The show starts with a wickedly funny description of a vacation he took in Bali, persuaded by friends it will be a blast. Inveigled into an “Authentic Bali experience,” which involves hanging around a local’s house, he’s weirded out by the entire thing. He looks at the misfortunate local whose house is invaded. The man looks at him. They both know, without speaking, that some deeply inappropriate white bourgeois nonsense is unfolding. Noah calls it “poverty porn.”
There follows a brilliant bit of voice and accent endeavour as he explains he’s not that familiar with tacos. Complete with multiple characters and voices, he chronicles a taco-eating experience and manages to stretch the bit artfully into a commentary about the fear of Mexicans that seems to define some Trump supporters.
Then he goes for a wider angle. “I think there should be a rule in America that says you can hate immigrants all you want, but if you do, you don’t get to eat their food. That’s a fair exchange for me. If you hate immigrants, no immigrant food. No Mexican food, no Caribbean food, no Dominican food, no Asian food, nothing. Only potatoes. I’m not even saying flavoured potatoes. Just plain potatoes, no spice. Because, no immigrants, no spice. Don’t ever forget that. Both figuratively and literally, no spice.”
Trump actually takes up just a short segment. (Noah’s mother takes up more.) And Noah is wry, as befits someone whose day job is dealing with Trump material. “For me, Donald Trump is an emotional paradox. I’m not gonna lie. Logically, I can process him. Emotionally, I struggle. There’s terror and there’s joy, and I don’t know how to feel.”
What emerges is a funny but thoughtful comic who relies as much on evidence as he does on disparagement. He’s curiously confident, coolly logical and knows when to slip in a searing joke as an aside.
He is also, in a way, unreachable, very hard to pin down. This is highly unusual when so many comics define themselves daily with a stream of online content. I’ve seen his stand-up act in person and interviewed Noah. He thinks before answering questions and then talks in complete sentences, sometimes in soundly constructed paragraphs. He doesn’t do quips.
He’s a scold, actually, who is fiercely logical and fiercely funny, and unique in that. We can all benefit from comedy that isn’t venomous, vitriolic or vituperative. Right now, that’s everyday stuff.