“Charming American racism,” Ebola panic and what it’s like to be a black man who fears the police: These topics were on the agenda when Trevor Noah, the new host of “The Daily Show,” offered the world a glimpse of what he’ll do when he takes over for Jon Stewart.
Noah, who begins his stint as the host of the Comedy Central program Sept. 28, performed an hourlong standup set for a handpicked crowd of TV critics and other media types in Santa Monica, California, on Tuesday. Anyone wondering whether he might avoid hot-button news stories and difficult subjects can pretty much lay those fears to rest.
Noah’s set was a mixture of reliably relatable topics -- isn’t air travel a drag? -- that often segued into generally nimble yet firmly accessible explorations of challenging topics. Though it was shot through with appreciative observations about what he’s been able to see and experience thanks to his career as a traveling standup comedian -- a profession he said he adores -- the thorny challenges of racism were a constant theme.
At one point, Noah, who grew up in Soweto in South Africa, called himself a “connoisseur” of racism. “I don’t mean to brag,” he said, but South African racism is “export quality.”
He declared himself a fan of “blatant racism,” which he said usually comes from old people. “Yeah,” he said, as he depicted cheerfully listening to an obvious bigot. “You’re going to die soon!”
He wasn’t a fan of more subtle racism, and he put on an American accent as he imitated someone dismissing “your kind.” What kind would that be, exactly? “Tall people?” he inquired. “Friendly people?” Don’t make him work to figure it out, he sighed. “What is this, racism Sudoku?”
He took Paula Deen to task for saying she “wasn’t racist” and for explaining that she just used a slur because she was angry. “Don’t ever say the anger made you racist. It just opened up the gate.” It’s like tequila, he joked -- tequila can’t make anyone do anything.
He used the n-word a few times in his set, once as he moved into a discussion of the racist comments of former NBA owner Donald Sterling. Noah talked about how alcoholics and drug addicts get help for their addictions, but when it comes to racists, “we do nothing.” “Why is no one helping him to change?” Noah asked. Why isn’t Sterling attending meetings of Racists Anonymous, Noah wondered, where the older man could, for instance, talk about almost -- but not quite -- using slurs when angry in traffic.
Noah was clearly wound up and seemingly nervous at the start of his set, and a few of his jokes didn’t quite land, like the one that compared airports to concentration camps, where long lines of barefoot people are asked to produce their papers.
Overall, though, Noah’s energetically delivered material was well-received, and he nimbly traversed the divide between the seriousness of the topics he raised and the absurdity of the jokes he found within them.
By midway through his set, he had eased into a more confident rhythm, one that had him frequently imitating various kinds of people, from his South African grandmother to Middle Eastern men to aggressively friendly Southerners. Early on, he dubbed “woohoo!” the “mating call” of young white women, and he noted that it had spread to white men as well. The interjection never quite caught on with black people, he said, perhaps because it sounds too much like the wail of a police siren.
“There was a time when black people and the police had an unspoken agreement,” Noah said. “We knew there were certain protocols to observe ... You smiled. If [a police officer] told you to do something, you did it. Very slowly.” He raised his hands and said in a sing-song voice, “Don’t kill me ‘cause I got a family.”
“I feel like that used to work. Maybe that used to work. Now, I don’t know how not to die,” he said, turning that last phrase into a refrain that was scattered through that section of his set. “Every time I turn on the news, another black person’s been killed, for seemingly fewer and fewer reasonable reasons.”
Recalling the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott, he sarcastically explored the “lessons” learned from their deaths -- don’t wear a hoodie, put your hands up, don’t resist.
“Another key in this: Don’t be a big, black, scary guy," he said. "Every day I look in the mirror and say, ‘Good job!’”
Every time one of these deaths becomes a big story, the news media “spins the story into crazy directions,” and he reminded the audience that some outlets frequently brought up the fact that Walter Scott owed unpaid child support.
“To the cop?” he wondered. “If that was the case, that’s a totally different story.” If the person who shot him was the woman who was due the money, “you shoot him, girl.”
The place where he experienced “charming American racism” was Lexington, Kentucky, where an extremely “friendly” white woman told him he was “the funniest and handsomest [n-word] I’ve ever seen.”
“I was so shocked. Isn’t it ‘most handsome,’ not ‘handsomest’?” Noah deadpanned.
Other bits dealt with the extra scrutiny he’s faced as an African flying into the U.S. during the Ebola crisis. It was an unusual turn of events to have Africans singled out, he noted: “I remember when Muslims were the black people of the skies.”
But once the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened, things went back to the way they had been, with Muslims singled out and scrutinized, all of which, he said, simply played into persistent and destructive prejudices.
“Must Muslims aren’t terrorists,” Noah said. “How do we know this? We’re still alive.”
That said, he’d rather fly Muslim-owned airlines, if he can. If a terrorist is on a flight full of Muslim men and women, there’s a better chance someone can “talk the guy down,” he said.
Noah imagined a terrorist wanting to blow up a plane to show that “Allah is great.” He then acted the part of a weary Muslim man who replied, “Yeah, but we know this.”
Prejudice is everywhere, he said: Every shooting of a black person is “gang-related,” he said, even if it involves small children. Meanwhile, in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills, vague language prevails when shootings involve white people: “A gun went off” or “discharged” and police “are investigating.”
He tried to figure out what that means: “‘You’re investigating the gun?’ ‘Well, the gun is black.’”
Touching on the shootings in Charleston, he noted that men like Dylann Roof are always termed “lone gunmen” with no friends. Not even one friend on Facebook?
“No friends? Nobody?” he asked, picturing Roof’s friends scrambling to unfriend him on social media.
“‘He was a troubled young man’ -- I hear that, but he was a terrorist,” Noah said, declaring that it was a form of discrimination not to use that word in this scenario. “I refuse to live in a world where we deny a white man the label ‘terrorist.’”
He may be filled with questions about whether America -- or any other country -- can solve the complicated problems he touched on during his set. But at least he’ll soon have a job that will allow him to explore those topics every weeknight.
According to Noah, his family isn’t necessarily as impressed by his new gig as they might be. When he told his mother he’d got the “Daily Show” job, she was pleased for him, and then mentioned that his much younger brother had gotten a spot on his school’s student council.
In Noah's telling of the story, his little brother got equal billing: “Both my boys are doing big things!” his mother crowed.