He's just snagged the most coveted comedy job in the world, but Trevor Noah still sees himself as the star-struck outsider, gawping at American celebrities and suffering the indignity of the paparazzi's indifference.
The South African comic, performing to an adoring hometown audience earlier this week for a final run before his new gig as Jon Stewart's successor at The Daily Show, devotes much of his latest show to telling the story of the Met Gala in New York, which he attended last month in a white Ralph Lauren suit, rubbing shoulders with Rihanna, Beyoncé and the Clooneys.
He was in awe of the stars – a confession that the cool kids aren't supposed to make. "It was the craziest thing, it was almost like a dream," he says. "I moved my chair back and I bumped into Lenny Kravitz!"
Then he recounts his chagrin when the Asian photographers didn't bother taking his picture on the red carpet because he wasn't famous enough – and his embarrassment the next day when he discovered he had to give back the Ralph Lauren suit.
It's vintage Noah: self-deprecating, genial, undeniably funny, yet ultimately a reassuring and comfortable take on the world. For someone who grew up in one of the world's most brutal and unequal societies, the 31-year-old mixed-race comedian from Soweto is remarkably unpolitical. As he prepares to move into one of the highest-profile political commentary jobs on television on Sept. 28, it remains to be seen whether his gentle gibes will win over the irreverent liberal audience that Stewart created.
Noah's mild-mannered humour is all Jay Leno or Russell Peters, without a smidgen of Bill Maher or Louis C.K. to provoke his audience. Despite a brief furor over his old tweets in which he crudely joked about Jewish women and "fat chicks," the reality is that Noah has never been a shock comedian or a taboo buster. His act lacks the anger and outrage that often fuel Stewart's routines. He leaves his audiences feeling warm and content, rather than discomforted or challenged.
It's impossible to imagine, for instance, Noah organizing a semi-serious political rally in Washington, as Stewart did with Stephen Colbert in their "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" that brought 200,000 people onto the National Mall in Washington in 2010.
Certainly there is much that could feed a comedian's outrage in South Africa, where crime and corruption run rampant and the mansions of billionaire mining tycoons are just down the road from the grim poverty of township shacks. Noah's home township, Soweto, has a long history of political struggle against apartheid. When he worked briefly as a driver of minivan taxis at the age of 22, his vehicle was hijacked. Brutal violence has also touched his own family: his mother was shot in the head by his stepfather, an incident that he described on stage in 2013 in a bit that focused mostly on the absurdities of hospital insurance.
South Africa has a long tradition of barbed and fearless satire. Its most famous cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro), was once sued by President Jacob Zuma for a cartoon that showed Zuma raping "Lady Justice."
But South Africa also encourages a slippery ability to navigate across cultural and racial divides without giving offence. Its national anthem has verses in five languages and its economy veers from raw capitalism to crude socialism. It seems to create a flexibility and adaptability in comedians like Noah – a style that thrives in a globalized culture but risks alienating The Daily Show's core audience.
As the son of a Swiss-German father and a Xhosa mother at a time of apartheid, when their relationship was illegal, Noah mastered the art of cultural fluidity. "You've lived everywhere and nowhere, been everyone and no one, so you can say everything and nothing," he said in a 2012 documentary.
In his current five-week run of sold-out performances at a Johannesburg casino theatre, for a show he calls "Lost in Translation," Noah chooses the softest of targets. He mocks the silliness of selfie camera poses. He recalls his childhood tedium in Sunday church services. He offers old-fashioned views on the differences between men and women, decoding in slow motion the catty subtext of the conversation when his girlfriend meets his ex-girlfriend.
The furthest he strays into politics is an extended bit on South Africa's electricity shortages and the difficulty of trying to climb over your own electric fence when your electric garage opener isn't working. Even when poking fun at South Africa's President, he praises Zuma's skill in using laughter to deflect parliamentary criticism.
In his earliest appearances on The Daily Show last year, he seemed uncomfortable with the scripted political jokes that he delivered on American racism, police brutality and stereotypes about Ebola and AIDS. He has always seemed happiest with broader humour, including one of his most famous early bits: a drunken Nelson Mandela making fun of Bill Clinton at his 91st birthday party.
Noah is certainly a brilliant mimic and a gifted observational comedian, astonishingly skilled at accents and languages (of which he speaks six). His humour has won him a global audience as he tours dozens of countries from Botswana to the United Arab Emirates, so there's little doubt that it will succeed on The Daily Show as well. But it won't be Jon Stewart's Daily Show.