Last night I smushed in with a thousand other fans at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, to see Trevor Noah, the rising host of The Daily Show in his one-hour stand up show, “Lost in Translation.” After purchasing scalped tickets from members of a stag party who lost a few along the way (probably too much Scotch) I squeezed along a narrow hallway lined with portraits of Scottish nobles and then sat in the balcony wondering: What does it mean that to see the next great American entertainment satirist (who happens to be South African) I ended up in Scotland, of all places?
Noah himself may be the best person to answer this question.
As The Lion King theme song played, Noah took the stage in white sneaks and a black jacket. An early joke alluded to the resilience of the vagina. (“Why do people say, ‘Don’t be a pussy?’ You should be a pussy. The vagina is indestructible. You should say, ‘Don’t be a penis. Penises break and bend!’”) Then he wound his way to a bit about the silent faces white people make when they’re complaining before moving onto playful jabs at the Scots for drinking too much. It all went over well and the audience was with him.
The meatiest part of his satire arrived later in the set. The amount of material Noah has about being in transit, in an airport or on an airplane makes one think that he never actually lands anywhere and lends him a unique perspective on the politics and idiosyncrasies of globalized life.
He joked about his own compulsion to book flights on Middle Eastern air carriers because “I feel like it’s less likely that someone will attack those flights.” He shined a light on the way the media described different kinds of violence. When black people commit crimes it’s “gang-related violence,” but when a white man shoots up an entire movie theater it’s an “isolated incident.” He observed, “As a white person, no matter how hard you work you’ll never be a terrorist. You deserve the title!”
Noah went on to remind us of the ways black bodies have been and continue to be policed in transit during his darkly hilarious approach to Ebola. His imitation of an aggressive customs officer inquiring, “Have you had contact with Ebola?” as if it was a cousin one could call up and invite over, sparkled with satirical precision.
He observed that at that particular moment of border patrol he was coming from South Africa (which had zero cases of Ebola) into the United States, which had many. His tone simmered with a cool political fury. His ability to demonstrate the illogic of American racism masquerading as homeland security yielded huge laughs of recognition and anxiety.
Comedy is famous for drawing cultural borders. Those who laugh, laugh together or laugh at those who don’t get the joke. Noah has made his career as a cross-cultural comedian, and he’s positioned to comment on the news not just as a foreign-born national in the United States but as one of the first global citizens with a huge built-in American audience.
John Oliver has accomplished something similar, but he seems to be doing it with an effort to playfully heal America’s wounds. I would suspect that Noah will make every effort to stir shit up.
That being said, with a globalized cultural background comes the risk of a watered-down sense of humor. Some of his material feels obvious. We’ve heard the resilient vagina joke before (from Betty White or Sheng Wang). Making fun of Brits for drinking feels like old news. Walking onstage to the Lion King theme feels cheap. When you get as global as Trevor Noah you run the risk of material turning into a greatest hits album of jokes that ultimately lack originality and specificity.
I don’t think Noah is headed that direction. He’s too smart, I hope. But the question remains: Is he ready to be America’s next big comedian when he takes the reigns of The Daily Show on Sept. 28? The truth is, he may not want to be. Noah declined all press interviews for his “Lost in Translation” tour (including Playboy) with the exception of Time Out London—notably, not an American publication. He already has a global audience, and as the media landscape changes and more of an international audience has access to American programming, his goal, along with the Daily Show’s, may not be to make him an American sensation but rather a global one.
Noah’s new job forces The Daily Show audience to ask themselves some big questions as well: How much did we trust Jon Stewart just because he sounded like and looked like what we thought an American should? Will Americans believe that a black South African ultimately likes our culture as much as he skewers it? What is an American sense of humor, anyway?
As Noah himself points out, “We all have our role in the media.” What will yours be, Mr. Noah? The options seem as vast and precarious as the world itself.
Katherine Cooper is Playboy’s Just the Tips columnist and a comedian who is performing in the show “Tall Women in Clogs” in Edinburgh.