There’s no denying that in the past year, comedy—specifically, late-night comedy—has served as a source of solace for a wide range of non-Trump-supporting members of society, from immigrants, to people of color, to wealthy white liberals assuaging their fears for the future of a country that, until recently, belonged to them. Late-night approaches can be found anywhere on the scale from serious, profound retaliation to overtly insulting parody, all in the face of everyone’s favorite totalitarian Cheeto. Most shows tend to combine the two, such as “Saturday Night Live’s” casting of Leslie Jones in the role of Trump, which deliberately—and very meaningfully—flew in the face of his racism while simultaneously mocking his various behaviors and sayings.
One face, however, has emerged among the parodies and criticisms as a leading force in the comedic rampage against Trump. That is the youthful, dimpled face of Trevor Noah, who took over for John Stewart on “The Daily Show” back in September of 2015. Noah’s soft, South African accent, just perceptible throughout his complexly structured monologues, is the only surface indication of his upbringing, which took place both in the townships and upscale areas of Johannesburg. The child of a Black woman and a white man, Noah was born during apartheid and grew up helping his parents pretend that they weren’t—and had never been—together through various schemes, one of which included his mother posing as his father’s maid in order to explain their cohabitation.
Noah’s confrontation of the Trump administration reached its most poignant moment during an interview with online-television host and avid Trump-supporter, Tomi Lahren, where he combined a genuinely inquisitive attitude with brief digressions into blatantly humiliating jabs at Tomi Lahren.
But Noah isn’t just about Trump, something he proved with his Netflix comedy special, “Afraid of the Dark,” which premiered on February 21. The title works on two levels. It’s an allusion to Noah’s actual fear of the dark, which he does a brief bit on, and to its larger implications, playing with his status as a half-Black man and speaking to the way his South African upbringing tints his view of race in America, not to mention the literal fear of people of color (“the dark”) that has managed to re-emerge on a startlingly large scale in America.
Onstage at the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s upper west side, Noah was laid-back. Having made his name on television, Noah is pushing his comedy to its most extreme form in this special, playing mostly on his status as a denizen of the world. Demonstrating not just an awareness of, but a passion for international relations and travel, Noah centered his primary topics around the way countries communicate and the injustices often inherent in those communications.
One such moment was a near-six-minute bit imagining a conversation between an Indian man and a British colonizer. (Noah frequently addresses colonialism, a tendency no doubt driven by the environment in which he grew up, where white colonizers essentially forced African people into slums as they took over the country.) In what seemed like a digression that would only last a couple seconds, Noah also showed off his accent chops, switching from a snooty British voice to a hilariously unperturbed Indian man brushing off British imperialist attitudes, which also pointed on a deeper level to the flaws inherent in this mentality. (Yes, the political ethics of Noah doing an impression of an Indian man are vaguely questionable ; I’d like to think that his acute awareness of how appropriation and exploitation work around the world lets him off the hook for this, but the lines are blurry.)
Over the course of the hour-long special, Noah took on a total of fifteen impressions, ranging from a Russian mobster to a southern Black woman to a borderline alcoholic Scottish man he befriended during a tour. At one point, he flaunted a carefully honed Nelson Mandela impersonation, imagining a conversation between Mandela and Barack Obama. Theorizing that Mandela taught Obama how to speak with such authority and charisma, he completely broke down the way Obama’s voice functions, beginning with a silly, high-pitched “young Obama” impression and slowly working through Mandela’s “coaching” in another imagined conversation where he plays both roles. He ended the bit, of course, with an absolutely flawless Obama impression, prompting raucous cheers from his audience, who no doubt could sense it coming.
In addition to a handful of these imagined conversations, many of Noah’s jokes are structured in such a way that they go quickly from profoundly perceptive to darkly hilarious. He’ll twist some intelligently developed thoughts—many of which are about injustices and hypocrisy—into a punch line that pinpoints the bleakness of these scenarios in a way that somehow lets audiences laugh, despite how fucked up the scenario is.
And yet, throughout it all, Noah displays a naivety that seems carefully developed, as if he strategically trained for it. And he probably did, as it is his endearing quality that enables him to address topics that many comedians can’t touch without going down incredibly depressing roads. Despite all the ways the world is crumbling, we have Noah and his dimples, his intelligence, and his ability to treat the many terrifying parts of his life—and the world—with humor. And it’s his youthful attitude of curiosity, a method that came in handy most strongly for him during his Tomi Lahren interview, that allows him to express himself in such a perceptive way. It’s not completely genuine—often, he knows a lot more than he’s letting on—but it’s an incredibly effective tool that plays a significant role in his characterization of himself.
Noah’s persona is also predicated on the fact that he’s a symbol of global life, and he recounts his travels, his observations, and his opinions with this signature charm, not to mention that he’s clearly informed, further boosting audiences’ faith in the insightfulness of his appraisal. This is the quality that comes across more strongly than ever in “Afraid of the Dark,” where he demonstrates an acute understanding of the world and how it works. He’s pushing his persona to its most extreme limits, fully embracing his status as a sort of citizen of the world, a beacon for peace and understanding, a pioneer in the union of countries around the world.
Not to mention that he’s finally seemed to give in a little to his physical appeal, a quality that undeniably drew a large portion of viewers to his show in the first place (and that’s doubtlessly bolstered by the switch to slightly smarter apparel). While Noah’s smarts have always overridden his physical appearance, and he seems (understandably) resistant to alluding to his good looks, it’s a widely discussed aspect of his persona that contributes significantly to his endearing quality.
During some of the time he carved out of the special for feminism, Noah alludes very briefly to his own sexuality while he picks on the derogatory use of the word “pussy” and its incongruity with the characteristics of an actual vagina. “In my personal experience,” he says slyly, inducing a strong round of cheers, “the pussy is one of the strongest things I’ve encountered in my life.” For one of the first few times in his career, he’s deliberately flirting with his audience in a not-so-subtle allusion that clues us into his own awareness of his looks.
At the same time, he maintains a childish quality that might be irritating if he weren’t, in reality, so much wiser than his years. He goes on digressions for silly sound effects, gallops around the stage making slapstick-y gestures, and admits he’s, as the title claims, “afraid of the dark.”
Noah’s childishness also comes across in the wondrous attitude he portrays for New York and, more broadly, America, thanking his audience multiple times for “making his dreams come true” by letting him come to the Big Apple to perform. In reality, though, it’s his audience that’s usually thanking him, not just for the solace he’s providing—and will doubtlessly continue to provide—in a world where mad extremists and horrific tragedy abound, but also for offering a certain hope in the face of all this evil.
It’s never concrete—he’s not proposing ways to cure the world of its many ailments—but he represents a possibility for union in a world where common ground seems impossible. The fact that he was not supposed to even exist, that he was born because two people separated by lawfully enforced discrimination found a way to be together, is symbolic of his larger role in the world of entertainment. He sees a terrifying world, and instead of turning his back on it, he delves into it with genuine curiosity, carefully dissecting the differences that polarize the world and searching for some hint of consensus amidst the hate and violence.