Brian Beacom

WHAT of the theory that the darker the life experience the greater the comedy mind can be expanded and illuminated? Has Trevor Noah been ‘blessed’ by an early life of misery and angst, in the way of comedy greats such as Billy Connolly, Richard Pryor and Spike Milligan? Are his experiences growing up in the South African township Soweto – a world of burning tyres and burnt out hopes – one of the reasons why he’s fast filling the SEC Hydro?

Noah is one of America’s most successful stand-ups, he fronts American late night chat show The Daily Show and such is his success – and power – that Time Magazine voted him one of the 100 Most Influential people in the world.

And, if you believe the comedy darkness theory, Noah had the perfect life beginnings on which to learn to think outside the box.

His autobiography Born a Crime (being made into a film) is not a misnomer. Noah’s first appearance was exactly that. The son of a black secretary and a white German Swiss expat, the apartheid regime in 1984 made interracial sex illegal. As a result, his mother had to disguise herself as the maid in order to visit his dad. In doing so she was caught and frequently sent to jail. His mother faced lengthy jail time; and young Trevor, life in an orphanage. “If the police did show up it was a constant game of hide-and-seek. A lot of black people worked with the police as snitches . . . “

The boy was looked after by his grandmother during his mother’s jail stints. On the rare occasions when young Trevor met his father he was forbidden to call him Daddy. That would have been a risk too far.

If that experience wasn’t dark enough, his father dropped out of the picture and the little boy was raised in Johannesburg's crime-torn township by his mother. “I was her way of sitting in the front of the bus; that was her form of protest,” he wrote.

Poverty was endemic. His mother then married a mechanic who beat her – and her son – and drank her earnings. Noah’s mother later escaped her husband and remarried, only for the mechanic to return and shoot her in the head.

Thankfully, both mother and son survived the experience. Today, Noah agrees his success has been partly formed by the stoicism and invention he had to develop.

His guide to achieving comedy greatness, Noah reveals, was Billy Connolly. “Billy actually came to one of my shows when I was starting out in New York. He was great. He said to me, ‘You’ve got a crazy life. You’ve got lots of stories. I want you to tell those amazing experiences you’ve had and enjoy the process. And don’t worry about the endings. Just tell them. Just make people laugh.”

He tells his life stories in the voice of a conqueror. “I don’t think I could ever lose seeing myself as a South African,” he reflects softly. “I’ve only lived in America for five years and I’m very lucky I haven’t lost what defined me.

“I work with South Africans. I have South African friends here. You can resettle but stay shaped. I can’t not see life through the lens of a South African.”

He adds: “I keep going home. I have a home there. My family is there. And it has informed what I create and think of and it has informed how I feel about the world around me.”

Noah offers an example; “Because of where I’m from, there are many leaders like Donald Trump. When I realised this, that was me beginning to understand that my point of view is what will always shape the [Tonight] show. I do not have the same point of view as other late-night hosts because I don’t come from the same world.”

Noah produces neat political/social observations. ‘Trump’s ambassador to the EU was getting involved with a country that wasn’t in the EU? That’s not his jurisdiction. That would be like Santa doing the Tooth Fairy’s job.”

And how about, "It’s 2020. Nobody talks on the phone. The only reason to talk on the phone is to wish your grandmother a happy birthday or to commit crimes.’

Yet, although he may ridicule the huge target that is President Trump, Noah has learned to be also cautious. He’s certainly learned of the danger of splattering social media with gags. The comedian faced brickbats in 2012 after he wrote, ‘I'm watching Olympic women's hockey. It's like lesbian porn. Without the porn.’ He faced a feminist backlash when he wrote, ‘A hot white woman with ass is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you'll probably never get to ride it.’

Noah, who is part Jewish, has even been accused of anti-semitism. ‘I almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn't look b4 crossing but I still would have felt so bad in my German car!’

Ouch! Does he regret the content now? He side-swerves the question with the skill of the politicians he lampoons. “I think the key thing is to understand how Twitter has changed. “We [comedians] used to think of it as a scrapbook, somewhere we’d use to start off an idea. And as any comedian will tell you the inception of the joke is seldom what it turns out to be once the joke has been worked on.

“As comedians we have evolved out of telling our jokes in this way. I make sure I don’t use this platform, that I use a form where I can get the full joke out there. I don’t want to compress an idea into 148 characters because it inherently lends itself to being taken out of context.”

I wonder if Noah worries that political correctness has gone too far. “It depends what you mean by the term. Everyone has a different definition. It can mean decency. If you’re using racist terms or you’re being sexist. The term political correctness has become a lightning rod because of what it means to different people. I’m lucky to do these shows. I’m lucky people still laugh.”

He adds: “I’ve learned you’ve got to respect your audience. But I’ve also learned not to listen to people who don’t come to your shows, don’t understand your comedy in any shape or form. If you didn’t understand rugby you would think that 22 men are robbing each other to grab a rubber ball. It’s all about context. It’s the same with comedy. You wonder where their opinion is coming from.”

Does he believe too many people are looking for a reason to be upset? Is that a prevailing wind? “Yes, but I also believe many people have a reason to be upset. I don’t want to add additional reasons for that upset. I got into this business to make people happy.”

His entry into showbiz was circuitous. He had ‘dabbled’ in radio, tried acting and working as a DJ. Aged 22, he tagged along with his cousin and a mutual pal to a comedy night in Johannesburg. Noah’s cousin reckoned he was a lot funnier than the guys onstage, and Noah was pushed up there to prove the point. South Africa comedian David Kibuuka recalls he was astounded by what he witnessed. "It was like watching a baby come out of the womb knowing Shakespeare."

Noah carried on with the day jobs, but became known as a tireless comedian who would travel hundreds of miles to gain gig experience. In 2009, he booked a 1,000 seater in Johannesburg for his first solo show. Bold? Brash? Oh yes. But the show sold out and the DVD became a best-seller.

In 2011, he took off to the US where he landed coveted spots on chat shows by Jay Leno and, later, David Letterman. Now, his own show attracts over a million viewers, but also averages 74 million monthly YouTube views, up from 8 million when he took over.

How does it feel to be a spokesman for a generation? Does it weigh on his 36 year-old shoulders? “Well, you have to be careful not to believe the hype that people attribute to you. But at the same time you have to accept some of the responsibility that it may come with it.”

He pauses to reflect. “I’ve never considered myself any of that. It’s not like we actually play in a Premier League. There is no actual league table to determine these things. But I am aware that I do have multiple platforms where I can communicate with people or amplify ideas and what I’ve learned is that my voice can go further than I intend.

“What I’ve tried to do is remain as informed as possible, as in touch as possible and use the gifts I’ve been given to give back to people where there is no hope. I always remember what it’s like to be in a really poor family, to suffer extreme racism and in a place where there looked to be no hope.”

What will he be bringing to the Glasgow International Comedy Festival? “I will do my research on what’s been happening. I’m not coming in claiming to be an expert, but I hope to offer a fresh take and offer an outsiders' perspective.”

Will he be tackling Brexit and independence? “Yes, Brexit has changed not just the face of the EU but also Great Britain. But you need to see how you process the news when you’re not from the place where the news has been happening. So I try and catch up when I’m there.”

Here’s a little word of caution, Trevor. Brexit and independence can be summed up by the 1980s' pop classic Two Tribes. We’re at war with ourselves.

He laughs. But is this a knowing laugh, which suggests he will avoid controversy? “I don’t think any comedian should be a stranger to it. What is strange is that comedy has become controversial in the ways that it has. I really think it’s a by-product of clickbait online and a lot of the time what people think is controversy is just someone trying to generate content on a blog or a website. But as comedians, we have a simple metric: it’s the audience feedback and it’s up to us to listen to them.”

His Hydro gig won’t be reliant upon shock value. “I'll be talking about things like Harry and Meghan right through to the mundane of what’s happening in my own life. I talk about the state of the world, global news and some observational comedy.

“I want to offer something to everyone who comes to my show. And I want to talk about my experience of the country I happen to be in.”

He adds: “Scotland holds great memories for me. It was one of the first places I began to enjoy truly telling stories in comedy and engaging with an audience. In America, the pace is much faster and is almost always geared towards going for the punchline.”

Noah can speak six languages but he won’t be using any of them to reveal detail of his personal life. He’s been guarded about previous relationships such as former model girlfriend Jordyn Taylor. All the world knows is he’s not desperate, it seems, to settle down and start a family. “I don't feel guilty like I'm abandoning or deserting anybody because I'm single. My wife is The Daily Show."

He will talk about President Trump, of course. (He once did a brilliant skit in which Trump was compared to dictators of the world, such as Colonel Gaddafi and South African President Jacob Zuma, who often labels foreigners as criminals. “Light xenophobia,” described Noah, “with just a dash of diplomacy.”

But what of Trump? Is he not beyond satire? “There are moments when it feels that what’s happening in the world is beyond satire. You can see audiences [are] burnt out and they don’t have the room to laugh.”

Can we be hopeful? Can we be positive about the world around us when Donald Trump is facing re-election? “Well, you can’t be absolutely certain [he will win],” he says, the positive as bright in his voice as the primary colours in the American flag.

“The same certainty people have about Donald Trump now is the same certainty that was had about Hillary Clinton being elected. So I don’t predict anything. And every moment the future is re-written.”

Noah’s TV show may preaching to the converted liberals of America. But that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to extend his influence, and shape young minds along the way. “I think of today. I work with what I have to,” he says in bouncy voice. “And the world has shown us time and time again we can recover from some huge disasters.”

The Soweto darkness, however, returns to his thoughts. “What I do worry about is how far we let things go before we begin to recover.”

Trevor Noah, Loud & Clear, the SEC Hydro, Glasgow, March 20.

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival runs from march 12 to March 29. See