Trevor Noah’s ‘Daily Show’ gig is bigger to South Africans than Charlize Theron ever was

Making South Africa proud
Making South Africa proud
Image: (Comedy Central)
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On Monday morning, when it was confirmed that Trevor Noah would be the next host of the Daily show, something shifted in the psyche of the South African entertainment scene.

There was great excitement, of course. But it was more than that. It was a shift in perception of what is possible. The sense that, suddenly, the global stage is not inaccessible. The doors – or, perhaps, the curtain – have been opened to a South African viewpoint. And the world, not just South Africa, is cheering.

“It’s the biggest thing to happen to South Africa’s entertainment scene,” observed John Vlismas, one of the pioneers of South Africa’s comedy scene, “For me, it’s certainly bigger than Charlize Theron.”  A remarkable thing to say when you consider, the South African-born Theron has won an Oscar and Golden Globe during her time in Hollywood.

The difference is that Trevor Noah is regarded as a South African voice. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the talented beauty – Theron, that is– could have come from anywhere: being South African was not fundamental to her success. On the other hand, Noah’s background has been of defining importance to his rise in the comedy world. For South Africans, his is a uniquely South African perspective, and his success is directly the product of a worldview shaped by his experiences here.

Born of a Swiss father and a Xhosa mother in 1984, Noah grew up in the black township of Soweto, at a time when mixed marriages were outlawed in Apartheid South Africa. Caught between two worlds, Noah was uniquely placed to observe the peculiarities of the South African experience. Those observations, made cleverly through humour, are central to his popularity here. On stage, Noah is not just out to make people laugh; he expresses what he truly believes.

Noah was 18 when he made his first breakthrough in the South African entertainment industry with a major  role in local soap opera Isidingo. It was in 2007 when Noah began his career in stand-up comedy in front of a local Johannesburg audience. Along with contemporaries David Kao and Kagiso Lediga, Noah sharpened his wit on a growing South African audience before appearing on the international scene for the first time in 2012, on the Tonight Show.

For South Africans, Noah’s new role with a hugely popular and influential international platform like the Daily Show says the South African perspective has global relevance. This is the first time that a South African entertainer has broken through with a high profile media role in America. Before now the best know South African comedian internationally has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, a South African satirist, author, and social activist best know for his cross-dressed character of ‘Tannie Evita’.

Going forward, Noah’s success may mean that local comedians will be more willing to take risks for international exposure– to be more willing to have a point of view.

“He’ll help us to see ourselves not just as South Africans but as international citizens,” tweeted Khaya Dlanga, another big media figure in South Africa, and a close friend of Noah’s. Although the comedy industry in South Africa is arguably less cutthroat than in the US, since there is less competition, reaching a global audience has been until now akin to snatching furtive touches through prison bars.

“What [Noah’s appointment to the Daily Show] will do for SA comedy is what happened for Australian comedy in the early 90’s, when it suddenly became globally acceptable for an alternative view on the world,” says Vlismas, adding, “It’s almost like Americans are getting tired of their own voice.”

The South African comedian has expressed his excitement to be joining the Daily Show team, emphasizing Jon Stewart cannot be replaced. This may be true. South African fans, however, are confident that Noah will make his own mark.