For most fans of The Daily Show, last year’s announcement that South African comedian Trevor Noah would replace longtime host Jon Stewart came out of nowhere. The relatively unknown Noah had done just a few US standup tours, and appeared on The Daily Show only a handful of times. South Africans were thrilled—we had watched Noah’s career rocket from small standup gigs to a national cellphone campaign—but even we hadn’t imagined him hosting America’s most popular news satire show, let alone at 31 years old.
Little did we know how far he’d come. A little over a decade before taking the Daily Show spot, Noah was a lost teenager, hustling on the streets of one of South Africa’s biggest townships, Alexandra—”the hood,” as he describes it in his memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood.
Unable to pay for university, Noah made a living by DJing, selling counterfeit CDs, and trading goods like sneakers and DVD players (the origins of which were generally unknown and undiscussed). For a while, he was part of a lost generation of disenfranchised young South Africans who struggled to find work after apartheid, a problem that continues to plague the country. Noah grew up the product of an illegal relationship between his white father and black mother, the experience of which seeded his talent as a insightful social commentator. He writes of that time:
The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all … Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year. When I look back on it, that’s what hustling was. It’s maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel. If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA.
Hustling earned Noah several brushes with the law—he spent a week in jail after getting caught driving his stepfather’s unregistered car—and his musical career ended abruptly after a police officer shot the computer he was using to DJ a party in Alexandra.
Noah’s book is more than just a retelling of his harrowing youth; it’s also a tribute to his strict yet spirited mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, whom he calls his “first fan.” She’s there at the book’s beginning, and at its end, when she miraculously survives being shot by his abusive stepfather, a traumatizing incident that occurred just as her son’s comedy career was taking off. (How Noah made the jump from the streets of Alex to a studio in New York, starting with a starring role in a local soap opera, should be more than enough material for a sequel.)
More than a year after Noah took over The Daily Show, many critics remain skeptical of his ability to emerge from Stewart’s shadow. But his insightful interviews, sharp takedowns of president-elect Donald Trump, and witty yet graceful commentary on issues like race have started to win some Americans over. What’s clear is that Noah has never stopped hustling—it’s just viewers, instead of township deals, that he’s after now.