Trevor Noah, Johannesburg-born host of the satirical US television programme The Daily Show, has never been to China. But he has chosen our lunch venue, Bashan, an unglamorous Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho, because he says it makes him feel at home.
“There’s a cultural feeling to this restaurant that reminds me of being back in South Africa,” he says. On the wall is a sign that says, “Let us advance valiantly along the road of Hunanese cuisine under the guidance of Chairman Mao”.
How on earth does this remind him of home? “It’s the authenticity of the food,” he says. Bashan has “pig’s trotters and stuff, and those are things that remind me of South Africa — eating goat’s head or chicken feet”.
Soho has played a big part in Noah’s rise from South Africa’s comedy circuit to international stardom. It was backstage at the nearby Comedy Club, after doing a turn there, that he met a comedian he had never heard of who told him that his South African life as the son of a black mother and a white Swiss father should be central to his act. The comedian was the celebrated British performer Eddie Izzard.
“Before I met Eddie, I was doing a lot of frivolous comedy,” Noah says of his early South African performances. “I was afraid to offend anybody. I was afraid to speak my mind.” He rarely mentioned his upbringing as apartheid was crumbling. “Coming from South Africa,” he says, “we were trying to forget all that.”
But at Izzard’s suggestion, Noah began talking about his life. In 2012, he made an appearance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, where he told the audience that when the police were around, his parents used to pretend he didn’t belong to them: “I felt like a bag of weed”. Later that year, Izzard arranged for him to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, where he won the “act most likely to make a million quid award” and that, Noah says, “changed everything”.
Jon Stewart, who quickly established himself as one of the most influential satirists in the US after taking over The Daily Show in 1999, began inviting Noah to New York and gave him a few spots on the show. Last year, after others reportedly turned down the job, Stewart tapped Noah to succeed him as the show’s presenter.
The post gives him a national platform to wonder why Donald Trump’s suits fit him so poorly — “They’re made for you and by you” — and the oddity of a president winning power through the electoral college while losing the popular vote — “It’s like being in a relationship where quality time matters more than the quantity of time”. This week he went to the White House to interview Barack Obama about race, Russia’s hacking of US emails and Trump’s rejection of intelligence briefings.
But hosting the show nicknamed “the voice of liberal America” in the year of Trump, when political discourse has become more polarised than ever, also places Noah at the centre of controversy. When he recently invited the alt-right pundit Tomi Lahren on to the show, critics alleged that, by giving her a platform, Noah had to some degree validated her views on race.
Wearing a black, throat-hugging jumper with a faint check pattern to it, Noah leafs through the menu with intent seriousness. What does he recommend? “Oh, you don’t want to eat what I eat. I go deep. Everything is great. I mean if you like prawns, they’ve got these fantastic prawns.”
Noah’s promotion to succeed Stewart on The Daily Show was huge and unexpected. Was he scared? “I wasn’t scared. I was nervous,” he says. “I’m a guy plucked from obscurity, in terms of an American audience. The worst thing? I don’t live up to Jon’s legacy, don’t live up to anyone’s expectations, I lose the show. What happens? Nothing. I knew what I was investing in and I’ve limited my liabilities. But if I succeed, the upside of my investment is way beyond what I would have lost.”
The waiter is ready. Noah orders “smacked cucumbers” to start, followed by stewed pig’s trotters with chilli and ginger, a whole sea bass in chilli sauce and a bowl of noodles. Feeling that I need to be more adventurous than he expects, I ignore the prawns and opt for a starter of preserved duck eggs with chopped salted chillies, followed by a dish called General Tso’s chicken and some rice.
According to the menu, General Tso was a Hunanese military hero and Noah’s trotters are “good for the complexion”. Noah’s complexion is flawless, but as a teenager, he had dreadful acne, adding to his sense of being different.
He has put his adolescent pimples, and much else, into a book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I tell him he seems young, at 32, to be writing his autobiography. “But it’s not an autobiography. It’s a collection of childhood stories. I wanted to encapsulate my childhood life, and those were the stories that really were around me and my mom,” he says.
Our starters arrive. Noah eyes mine. The eggs are sliced, greenly translucent, under a bed of red chillies. “That looks really interesting. Wow. That’s the duck eggs. Fascinating.” He has waved away an offer of wine. “If the food is good enough, I don’t feel the need to drink.” He asks for a bottle of still water.
While Noah tucks into his cucumbers, we return to his mother, the heroine of his book and of his life. Dissatisfied with prospects in Soweto, she ran away at 22 and illegally sublet a flat from a white resident of Hillbrow, a central area of Johannesburg.
Taking advantage of the slight relaxation of apartheid laws in the early 1980s, and the admission of blacks into white-collar positions, she found a job as a typist with the local branch of ICI. She also took up with a Swiss neighbour and told him she wanted a baby. She promised him he wouldn’t have anything to do with the child. Trevor arrived in 1984, when sex between blacks and whites was still illegal.
Terrified that her baby would be taken from her and put into an orphanage for Coloureds (descendants of early racial mixing), Noah’s mother kept him out of sight, whether in Hillbrow or at his grandmother’s house in Soweto. A fierce disciplinarian and fervent churchgoer, she used an ICI scholarship to send Noah to a private Catholic primary school and then to state schools that used to be all-white.
This was possible because just before Noah’s sixth birthday Nelson Mandela was released and South Africa began its journey towards democracy, which it achieved in 1994. Noah says going into the ICI offices gave him insights that few black children had. “I got to be around computers at an age when most kids weren’t. These are small things that give you a benefit.”
We try each other’s starters. His cucumbers are pleasant. Like me, he finds it hard to lift duck eggs with chopsticks. “It’s a true test of your skill,” he says. He chews. “And it’s not my style.” Too glutinous? “No, I like the gluten. The flavour isn’t where I like it to be.”
Tired of fiddling with chopsticks, I give up on the eggs — “I’m impressed you got that far,” Noah says — and we return to his childhood. I tell him it struck me that he was not so much a product of apartheid as of its breakdown. There was terrible violence as the system ended, but also opportunity. “Yes, and that’s why I never discount timing,” he says. “I was timed right. I was lucky. All the investments my mom put into me — it’s like she invested before the IPO. If she had had me 10 years earlier, my life wouldn’t have been the same.”
In spite of his mother’s promise, Noah’s father remained an important, if intermittent, part of his life. But his parents’ relationship did not last and his mother married a man whose violence and business incompetence brought the family misery. His mother left her job in a vain attempt to rescue Noah’s step-father’s car repair business. At one point, things were so desperate that Noah had to sleep in customers’ cars, taking care not to get grease on his school uniform. For a month, the family ate wild spinach cooked with caterpillars.
Today, we are not eating caterpillars. Our main courses arrive, including an enormous whole sea bass. “It’s not as big as it looks. I always tell people it’s an optical illusion,” he says.
Many in post-apartheid South Africa have been unable to escape from penury. Is he disappointed by how the country has developed? No, he says. “I only regret that the government that took over in ’94 wasn’t more honest about the pillaging of the economy by the apartheid government. I wish more people would talk about how the country was ransacked before it was handed over to the black people. I wish more people would talk about the fact that billions were taken out of the country, never to be seen again,” he says.
In spite of allegations of corruption against the government and its president Jacob Zuma, South Africa is still a democracy — “a beacon in Africa” — with independent courts and a free press. “We know what Zuma is doing,” Noah says. “He may face 700-and-whatever charges of corruption. That’s a functioning country to be in. Robert Mugabe is not facing any charges. Bashar al-Assad is not.”
In Trump, Noah says he sees both Zuma and Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party. The US president-elect is “like a hybrid of Julius and Zuma: Julius in his lofty promises and populism, and then Zuma in his murky dealings with the business world.” The parallels continue. Trump’s “children are going to be running companies and we may see the links and money being filtered to them. It’s a type of leader that is very familiar to us.”
My chicken is excellent. The meat on Noah’s sea bass has disappeared and he has started on the trotters. Let’s talk about language, I say. His mother was determined that his first language would be English. “Yes, as most African parents were. They realised very early on that was what would give you a huge leg up.” But he also learnt four African languages: his mother’s Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and his stepfather’s Tsonga.
Languages saved Noah’s skin. Once, walking in Soweto, he heard a group planning, in Zulu, to mug “this white guy”. He made them laugh by suggesting in Zulu that they all mug someone else. When his mother moved the family to a Coloured suburb, kids pelted him with mulberries because, while he looked like them, he didn’t speak their language, Afrikaans. So he mastered that too. He also speaks some of his father’s German.
Noah is now halfway through his trotters, placing the bones on a plate balanced on his upturned left palm. So, the job interview question: where does he see himself in five years? “I’ve stopped doing that. Do you know why? I’m a firm believer that sometimes your dreams will limit you. I never wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to fix computers. That was my dream. If I’d never veered off course I might be working now in some random IT company somewhere. I’d be the funniest guy in accounting, the funniest guy in IT. If my dream was to be a comedian, I would never have gotten to The Daily Show.
“Where do I see myself in five years? I hope five years more progressed, five years more intelligent, five years more knowledge, in terms of book smarts, life smarts, political smarts. That’s all I am for now, is constant and continual growth. When I look at my shares, I want to see the steady incline. I want to be like a Berkshire Hathaway stock.”
There has been some sniping, comparing Noah unfavourably with Stewart. He is unbothered; Stewart warned him that this would happen. The market has changed, he says. Stewart had late-night news comedy to himself. “When Jon was running the show he was like Nokia.” Today there are six similar shows, including Stephen Colbert’s. “So you have to figure out what your niche is.”
Has Noah, who spoke Zulu to avoid a mugging, deliberately been talking business-speak to the FT?
“I see most things in terms of finance and investment and marketing. In school, one of my favourite subjects was business economics. I had an amazing teacher who went beyond the syllabus. And so even now, in life, I read economics textbooks and I try to dabble in financial accounting, just to understand the world.”
We have been speaking for nearly an hour-and-three-quarters. His publicist appears, ready to take him away. Noah has a sold-out book talk that evening. He has not finished his trotters and I haven’t offered him dessert. “Oh, I never have dessert,” he says.
But the TV host who can remember going hungry seems reluctant to leave food on his plate. “I’m just going to bite this and then we can leave,” he says, and wolfs down a few more trotters.
And in making sure that his shares keep rising, he is not going to run short of comic material? “Unfortunately not. Every time Trump makes an appointment, I always want to write him a letter saying, ‘We’ve got the jokes now. We’re good.’”
Is Trump a problem for comedy? “No, no, no,” he says. As a candidate, Trump wasn’t funny because he did not have the restraints that come with power. “If you’ve got a clown, and a clown runs in a field, it’s not funny. But if you put a clown in a small room then the clown runs into walls, now it’s funny.”
What walls will President Trump run into? “It’s going to be the constitution, it’s going to be appointments, it’s going to be conflicts of interest. And that’s where the real fun is going to come from.”
And, abandoning the last few pig’s trotters, he is off.
Michael Skapinker is an FT columnist
Illustration by James Ferguson
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