It’s hard to successfully translate a joke — so much of humor comes down to a play on words but culture is also a factor. That’s something that South African Trevor Noah is getting some schooling on as he prepares to take over as host of The Daily Show when Jon Stewart steps down in August.
I recently spoke to some of Noah’s fans outside the Monte Casino Theater in Johannesburg. They were waiting for him to take the stage for sold-out show, one of his last live performances in South Africa before he starts his new gig.
It was a diverse crowd — black, white and mixed race. Some his fans told me they like Noah’s comedy because he’s smart and can make fun of the events of the day.
“He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s always on point about current issues. He just makes us feel good about ourselves,” said one man.
Another fan, a woman, said he’s able to laugh about everything bad about South Africa.
“He speaks about how a black person can’t marry a white person,” she said. “Like in the mall everyone will look at that couple and think that isn’t proper, and when you’re sitting here he’ll make a joke about it and you actually … it’s more acceptable when he speaks about it.”
Trevor Noah’s parents were an interracial couple — his mother is black South African and his father is white, from Switzerland. When he was born in 1984, his parent’s relationship was illegal. Apartheid was still in effect. Noah tells jokes about his parents’ situation.
“My mom was arrested for being with my dad, she would get fined," Noah says in the routine. "She would get arrested, thrown into prison for the weekend. But still she’d come back and be like, “whoo I don’t care! You can’t tell me who to love, I want a white man! Whoo. She’s crazy my mom. And my dad was also like … well, you know how the Swiss like chocolate ..."
Outside the theater, a woman named Orlene says South Africans are ready to laugh about their painful history.
“A lot of the heart ache that lives in Africa we manage to see the humor in it, which allows you to overcome the heartache that is actually Africa. Because it’s humorous, we manage accept it easier," she says.
But are Americans ready to laugh at the same things South African audiences find funny?
After Comedy Central announced Noah was taking over The Daily Show, some old tweets surfaced that he’d posted about Jews and about women, including one that seemed to make light of domestic violence. I repeated the tweet to Quintus Janson, who was waiting for the show: “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position."
Quintus laughed. “It’s funny because the scenario that it sets is quite humorous.”
And his friend, George didn’t see it as a joke about violence against women at all.
“It’s obviously easy to say because I’m a guy, but I would see it as more offensive to guys because we are insecure when we propose," he says. "As oppose to us beating a woman that’s just weird getting to that conclusion."
It’s not just guys, though. A group of five women waiting around for the show had a similar reaction.
“I think that’s funny,” says a woman named Kaylee.
Another fan named Jenny added, “He wasn’t being anti-woman at all. He was just looking for humor in a situation because he’s probably been nervous about proposing to someone he loved.”
When I asked why they thought some of these jokes aren’t seen as so funny in the US, the women all said Americans are too serious.
“They sue people for everything,” Jenny says. “They take everything to heart. You’re very sensitive to everything.”
I’ve repeated Noah’s “uppercut” tweet to at least 20 South Africans, including friends and neighbors — not just fans lined up to see him —and nearly all thought it was funny.
Quintus says that sense of humor is just part of the culture.
“How South Africans deal with a lot of our issues if you think of apartheid and racism and that kind of thing is we generally laugh at it and approach it head on.”
To be fair, Noah’s controversial tweets were all more than three-years-old. He has since said in a tweet, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character nor my evolution as a comedian.”
Noah takes over as host of the Daily Show on September 28th. In the meantime, one of his South African fans, Kaylee, has this advice for American audiences to try a little of the South African perspective:
“Just take it lightheartedly. Don’t be so serious.”