Trevor Noah is one of the smartest and most dynamic people on television today. In 2015, the South African comedian took over for Jon Stewart as host of the popular The Daily Show on Comedy Central. It’s an understatement to say he’s been busy this last year. Noah was always interesting to watch, but ever since Donald Trump entered the White House, he’s become downright vital.
On May 25, Noah will do stand-up at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. I recently spoke with him by phone about how he got started, why he was so damned honest in his memoir Born of a Crime and how he’s weathering the Age of Trump.
MAUITIME: So are you excited to come to Hawaii?
TREVOR NOAH: I’m beyond excited, man. I’ve dreamed of coming to Hawaii. I never ever thought I’d get to the place. So you know, this is one of my bucket list adventures that I get to celebrate so I’m really happy about that.
MT: Do you surf?
TN: No I don’t, but I watch surfers, so I’ll be good.
MT: Any ambitions of kiteboarding?
TN: You know, I’ve never thought about that. I think I’ll just kinda master the standup paddle board right now and then everything else will come after that.
MT: You and your team are killing it on The Daily Show, and with the daily change in the news cycle–and we’re seeing several major news story break per day. How frustrating is it to not have time to develop jokes in the Era of Trump?
TN: You know what, I don’t see it as frustrating. I see it as exciting and as a challenge. As you say because stories are breaking multiple times in a day, it gives us material for the show. What we do is we just let it take up all the space in the show so whereas we’d have more fun in the second half of the show just messing around with random news stories, we try to aim the show and have it have more of a focus. You know? So I really enjoy it and we have a good time doing that.
MT: Both your Trump and Russian impressions are great. With recent reports of activists being prosecuted for laughing and a reporter being arrested–in normal times this should be a stupid and ridiculous question to ask–but do you have any actual concerns of being jailed or deported by this administration for satire?
TN: Oh, I don’t know, I mean if that did happen I don’t think it would be the worse thing to happen in my life. You know luckily I come from a very beautiful country so if I got deported it’s not like I’m going to hell. I’d go home and I’d figure out how to do The Daily Show from there. I think we’re a long ways away from that but there are a few people in the administration who are not particularly fans of free speech or of people who don’t take them as seriously as they wish to be taken.
MT: Let’s talk about our current administration and the Republican Party. Do you think the Republicans and the administration are as tone deaf as they seem or are they just beholden to special interests? What do you see is the root of the current mess of this democracy?
TN: I think essentially the Republicans made a deal with Donald Trump, whether it was spoken or unspoken, and that deal was we will stand by and try to ignore all the craziness that you come with if you help push through our agendas. I mean if you think about it, Trump wasn’t even really particularly interested in politics. He wants to be president, but he doesn’t want to do president. So they’re trying to get their tax cuts all passed. And you realize over and over again, like with health care, with any other rules they try to implement, the Republicans are all about that stuff. That’s really almost become their only driving force right now. And so I think they’re getting along well because of that. I think they’re just irritated by his lack of politicking–he’s not particularly good at disguising his motives or his actions.
MT: In your book Born A Crime, you really break down the racism that exists and existed through apartheid and we see this resurgence of racism in the US. It’s almost as if Trump has given a hall pass for these people to come out and wave their racist flags they’ve kept under wraps for years. What are your thoughts on the effects this racism will have on future generations?
TN: With every jump in progress, you’re going to have a moment where there is a backlash. That happens with administrations. That happens with laws that are passed. So we live in a country where we say gay people get rights, you see black people becoming a president or moving up in the administration. A lot of people can feel that their country or the idea of what their country is being taken away from them. And most of those people that feel that way then resort to the only tool they now how respond with and that is racism. Donald Trump has really tapped into a lot of that. It’s that old motto, “We’ve got to get our country back, we’ve got to win again” and essentially it was always there. It’s just people over time maybe felt that there was no answer, you know? They felt like they didn’t have a plan, and Donald Trump came along and said, “No I will be your voice, I will be that force that you need.” And people were very excited to hear that.
MT: In your book, you’re so honest about stories of racism and finding your place in the world, growing up with domestic violence, the relationship with your father, your mother and stepfather. How hard was it for you to write Born A Crime?
TN: Once you make the decision to be honest, I don’t find it to be that difficult. The hardest moment is making that decision because there are so many questions that come to your mind. Am I going to embarrass myself or my family? Am I opening myself up too much to strangers for sharing my story? Once you get over that and once you ask all of those questions, I find it a lot easier to write an honest story about yourself and your life. And essentially that is what I ended up trying to do.
MT: There are so many political figures and flacks in the Trump Administration and his political party. Is there any specific political character that you look forward to poking fun at?
TN: Looking forward to? I look forward to poking fun at Jeff Sessions. I mean, he’s about to embark on a journey that is going to take America back to a place that many people realize was a mistake. And that was fighting a war on drugs as opposed to treating the drug problem as an epidemic, because that’s what it is. Many Americans regardless of their skin color have been affected by an opioid crisis. Because of a racialized past America wasn’t able to see that this wasn’t a drug addict problem–this was a problem fueled by many different things. People suffer from this and people need to be helped and when you think of them as people who need to be helped, you treat it differently. When you think of it as a war, then your citizens have become enemies. Jeff Sessions is the kind of guy that looks like he’s about to embark on that journey. We’ll be keeping a keen eye on that and what we can do is talk about it. I don’t mean to shape something that still has the power it once had, but now it’s our job to talk about it and shine a little light on what we see happening in the world of the Justice Department.
MT: Any thoughts on impeachment? It seems like the Teflon Don squeezes past everything thrown at him. Do you think his current scandals will effect him? Or will he keep snaking past them?
TN: I think we’re so far out that we won’t really have a clear idea for a long time. [Robert] Mueller seems to be really one of the best prosecutors that they could have appointed. But the Donald has an amazing ability to slip away from many situations that most of his peers would have been snagged by. So I think essentially we’re going to get to a place where what ever truth is will come out. But at the end of the day, impeachment doesn’t mean you’re out. With the House and the Senate controlled by Republicans, we don’t know if that’s going to matter at the end of the day. I think that for a lot of people they have to realize the answer is most likely not going to come from the inside. The answer is going to come from the people. And that’s where the vote comes. People are going, “Oh, Special Prosecutor, what can the Senate do? And what can the FBI do?” And you know, you have one of the most powerful tools in your vote. And there were a lot of people who in this election took that vote for granted and now people get to live through four years of the effect.
MT: Let’s talk about your comedy. How has your stand-up changed or evolved for you? Earlier in your career you joked about your upbringing in South Africa–are you coming with political jokes now?
TN: Well, I’ve always been political in my comedy, but when you go to a new place you have to introduce yourself to an audience. It’s like meeting a person; if you meet this human being for the first time, you can’t get straight into politics. It’s not a great way to start a conversation. So my stand-up has essentially evolved in the U.S. in the same way that it evolved everywhere else. You start from a common place and that is finding our humor and finding what we share in terms of funniness and then slowly we evolve that and move to a place of discussing ideas and concepts amongst ourselves. In terms of evolving, I always try to evolve myself as a person which I hope means my comedy evolves as well–the way I see the world, what kinds of jokes I make, what try to talk about and how I try to approach a subject. I always hope that the evolution continues regardless of what I’m doing.
MT: In your book you talk about being a kid and stealing liquor-filled chocolates, breaking windows, hustling and dealing in goods to make ends meet. You rationalize those times very well. In your comedy documentary You Laugh But It’s True, you show South African comedians frustrated with you leapfrogging them and not paying your dues, so to speak. Looking at your career now, being thrusted on such a huge stage as The Daily Show, how do you explain your success?
TN: This is the thing about ‘dues’ in any way, shape or form: the truth is we pay our dues when people are watching and when people are not. So a lot of the time when people say you haven’t paid your dues, what they really mean is, “I haven’t seen you paying your dues.” I remember when I was chatting with Jerry Seinfeld, he was shocked how much I worked when I first got to the U.S. Yes, I may have risen fairly quickly according to some people, but when you think about it… Let me put it this way–when I was working in New York, I was doing a shows at a tiny theater. Nobody knew who I was. I was in an empty space literally trying to get people to come in and watch the show. And that was at the Bleecker Street Theater in New York. I would do that from Monday through Thursday, and then Thursday I would fly to London and I would do shows on the weekend and then I would fly back and continue that cycle. And then after my shows at Bleecker Street I would go to the Comedy Cellar and I would do five shows a night, and then I’d find another club and would be home at 4am, 5am. So I mean it depends on what ‘dues’ means to some people.
I always feel like hard work is often times rewarded. I like to think that all of the lucky things that I’ve experienced in my life have been best appreciated because of the hard work that I’ve put in. So I don’t deny that I’m lucky but I go, “I’m lucky that I work hard.”
Thursday, May 25
8pm (This show is sold out, and the scheduled 10pm show was cancelled shortly before presstime)
Maui Arts & Cultural Center
1 Cameron Way, Kahului
Cover photo: Paul Mobley
Cover design: Darris Hurst