In an entertainment world where most comedians cannot get arrested, Trevor Noah was born a crime.
In a publishing world in which celebrity memoirs are lowbrow and banal, Trevor Noah’s book (called Born a Crime, because he literally was) is prefaced with the text of South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927.
And in a year in which the most acclaimed show-biz autobiography was Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is much, much more boss. We don’t even get out of the first chapter before learning about a nine-year-old, half-white/half-black Noah, living perilously in the apartheid of South Africa. He gets pushed out of a fast-moving car by his mother, who was in fear of her son’s life and her own because of a menacing, enraged cab driver.
“Run,” the mother yelled at her boy, after they had tumbled fast and hard onto the pavement. They escaped, but just barely. Born to run? Springsteen doesn’t know.
Noah is the South African comedian who last year took over the hosting duties of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show from Jon Stewart, who had helmed the satirical news program excellently for more than 15 years. Noah was picked to replace Stewart for many reasons, one of them being his radical differences from the style of a predecessor much beloved by Daily Show fans.
Reading Born a Crime, one gets a quick introduction of just how different Noah is. Not just in terms of style – Noah is clipped, hyper-articulate and composed; Stewart was rumpled, frustrated and incredulous – but in background. Noah’s stories, focusing on a childhood regulated by a bizarre set of racially obsessed rules and ethnic labels, deal with a boy navigating a pre-Mandela-run South Africa that is hard for outsiders to fathom.
“I lived in a world where it was all normal,” Noah says over the phone, when asked about the weird, white-ruled minefield of a culture that was his everyday reality in Johannesburg. “If it’s the only world you know, there’s no need to think of it as a bad world, or a world that’s torturing you.”
Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother in 1984, an era oddly Orwellian when it came to laws governing interracial relationships in South Africa. A union such as the one which produced Noah was punishable by five years in prison. Because the boy Noah was not so much a son of a gun as he was a smoking gun, he and his mother became quite nimble and elaborate at avoiding suspicion and authorities.
Asked about the tyranny his family lived under, Noah says he is grateful for the way he was protected – to the extent anyone really could be – from the ugliness. “Whenever you are oppressed, it’s not necessarily the oppression that is the worst part, but it is the knowledge of the oppression that will get to you,” Noah says. “I was lucky that my family insulated me from the world we were in.”
Most of the insulation came from Noah’s mother, a woman who raised her mischievous son – he probably would have been diagnosed as “hyperactive” back then – to think on his feet and to mock an offending system rather than to rage against it.
Born a Crime, among other things, is a gritty love letter to his mother – a loving mother who survived a bullet to the back of the head from Noah’s stepfather. You’ll have to read the book to learn about that drama.
Ironically, Noah’s mother hasn’t read the memoir herself. “She says she doesn’t want to spoil the surprise that she has when people tell her the stories from the book,” Noah explains, with a chuckle.
Noah has been criticized for not being edgy enough (or funny enough) as host of The Daily Show. Recently, however, an interview with political commentator Tomi Lahren drew widespread praise for the 32-year-old Noah’s calm cross-examining of the American conservative darling. No ranting and no belittling, just an adroit and honest seeking of some explanation for the millennial’s far-right worldview.
“I think what people were responding to was a conversation between two people that wasn’t an indictment of each other’s humanness, and yet we were still able to argue points and ideas,” Noah says.
So much of what passes as “dialogue” by news-panel political pundits isn’t that at all. It’s adversarial, it’s ratings-driven, it’s people talking past each other. In his book, Noah points out that in South Africa, comedy is used to unite people, while in the United States it is often used to set people apart. Perhaps it takes a man raised in an apartheid world to make that distinction.
There are those who believe that divided citizens are easier to rule. In the coming Trump-run America, Noah is well-suited to be the guy to remind people of that, daily.