This article takes up the transnational comedy career of Trevor Noah as a way to explore how the political work of racial comedy can manifest, circulate and indeed communicate differently across different racial-political contexts. Through the close textual analysis of two key comic performances –“The Daywalker” (2009) and “Son of Patricia” (2018), produced and (initially) circulated in South Africa and the USA, respectively – this article explores the extent to which Noah’s comic treatment of race has shifted between the two contexts. In particular, attention is paid to how Noah incites, navigates and mitigates potential sources of offence surrounding racial anxieties in the two contexts, and how he evokes his own “mixed-race” status in order to open up spaces of permission that allow him to joke about otherwise taboo subjects. Rejecting the claim that the politics of Noah’s comedy is emancipatory or progressive in any straightforward way, by means of formal analyses we argue that his comic treatment of race does not enact any singular politics, but rather that the political work of his racial humour shifts relative to its wider political contexts. Thus, rather than drawing a clear line between light entertainment and politically meaningful humour, this article argues that the political valence of racial joking can be understood as contingent upon wider discourses of race that circulate in national-cultural contexts.
Bahr, J. (7 August 2016). ‘Race observations backbone of comedian Trevor Noah’s live show’. The West Australian. Retrieved February 2, 2019 from: https://thewest.com.au/entertainment/art/race-observations-backbone-of-comedian-trevor-noahs-live-show-ng-ya-113568
Bradley, L. (14 September 2017). ‘Trevor Noah will host The Daily Show through 2022’. Vanity Fair. Retrieved June 6, 2019 from: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/09/trevor-noah-daily-show-renewed-through-2022
Cohen, A. (2016). ‘Voter ID laws disenfranchise minority and poor voters’, in Armstrong, S. (ed.), Voter Fraud, Farmington Hills, Michigan: Greenhaven Publishing, pp. 45-51.
Critchley, S. (2002). On Humour. New York: Routledge.
Davis, J. M. (2014). ‘Genres and styles of comedy’, in Attardo, S. (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Humour Studies, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 455-461.
Donian, J. (2019). Taking Comedy Seriously: Stand-Up’s Dissident Potential in Mass Culture. Lanham: Lexington.
Eco, U. (1987). Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador.
Eddy Cassar Public Relations and Promotions. (2017). ‘Jive Cape Town Funny Festival’. Retrieved April 12, 2019 from: http://eddycassar.co.za/jive-cape-town-funny-festival/
Franchi, V. (2003). ‘The racialisation of affirmative action in organisational discourses: A case study of symbolic racism in post-apartheid South Africa’. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 27, pp. 157-187.
Fredrickson, G. M. (1997). The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism, and Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gillborn, D. (2005). ‘Education policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory and education reform’. Journal of Education Policy 20, pp. 485-505.
Goldberg, D. T. (2002). The Racial State. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell.
Goldberg, D. T. (2009). The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Goltz, D. B. (2017). Comic Performativities: Identity, Internet Outrage and the Aesthetics of Communication. London and New York: Routledge.
Holm, N. (2017). Humour as Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hurley, A. (2018). ‘Of mice and meh’. Witness Performance. Retrieved March 24, 2019 from: https://witnessperformance.com/of-mice-and-meh/
Lewis, P. (1989). Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humour in Literature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Lockyer, S. & Pickering M. (2009). ‘Introduction: The ethics and aesthetics of humour and comedy’, in Lockyer S. & Pickering, M. (eds.), Beyond a Joke, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-26.
Mambana, D. (5 September 2017). ‘The rise and rise of Trevor Noah and why we are so proud of him’. The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 2, 2019 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/05/09/the-rise-and-rise-of-trevor-noah-and-why-we-are-so-proud-of-him_a_22077196/
McCarthy, S. L. (2017). ‘You Laugh but it’s True’ reveals Trevor Noah as ambitious 25-year-old comedy rookie’. Decider. Retrieved March 3, 2019 from: https://decider.com/2017/03/25/you-laugh-but-its-true-trevor-noah-netflix/
Moalla, A. (2015) ‘Intercultural strategies to co‐construct and interpret humor’. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 25, pp. 366-385. doi: 10.1111/ijal.12074.
Mühleisen, S. (2005). ‘What makes an accent funny and why?’, in Reichl, S. & Stein, M. (eds.), Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, pp. 225-246.
Noah, T. (2009). The Daywalker. Directed by Kyle Ambrose and Delon Bakker. Johannesburg, South Africa: Mannequin Pictures.
Noah, T. (2016a). Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Noah, T. (2016b). ‘Let’s not be divided. Divided people are easier to rule’. The New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/opinion/trevor-noah-lets-not-be-divided-divided-people-are-easier-to-rule.html
Noah, T. (2018). Son of Patricia. Directed by David Paul Meyer. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.
Nwadigwe, L. (2018). ‘Trevor Noah girlfriend, mother, father, brother, family, networth, gay’. Buzz South Africa. Retrieved May 4, 2019 from: https://buzzsouthafrica.com/unravelling-the-enigma-that-is-trevor-noah-and-his-replacement-of-jon-stewart/
Palmer, J. (1987). The Logic of the Absurd. London: BFI.
Pampalone, T. (2016). ‘The funny thing about race in South Africa’. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved February 3, 2019 from: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-04-06/the-funny-thing-about-race-in-south-africa
Rabaka, R. (2007). ‘The souls of white folk: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Critique of white supremacy and contributions to critical white studies’. Journal of African American Studies 11, pp. 1-15.
Reimann, A. (2010). ‘Intercultural communication and the essence of humour’. Journal of the Faculty of International Studies 29 (1), pp. 23-34.
Perea, J. F. (1997). ‘The black/white binary paradigm of race: The ‘normal science’ of American racial thought’. California Law Review 85 (5), pp. 1213-1258.
Rossing, J. P. (2016) ‘Emancipatory racial humour as critical public pedagogy: Subverting hegemonic racism’. Communication, Culture & Critique 9, pp. 614-632.
Seirlis, J. K. (2011). ‘Laughing all the way to freedom? Contemporary stand-up comedy and democracy in South Africa’. Humour: International Journal of Humour Research 24 (4), pp. 513-530.
Smith, D. (4 January 2013). ‘South Africa’s new comedians find a nation eager for laughs’. The Guardian. Retrieved April 5, 2019 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/04/south-africa-new-breed-comedians
Snodgrass, L. (2016). ‘The Trevor Noah phenomenon: young, black South Africans are standing up’. The Conversation. Retrieved April 4, 2019 from: https://theconversation.com/the-trevor-noah-phenomenon-young-black-south-africans-are-standing-up-53070
Sonn, C. (2006). ‘Multiple belongings? Reflecting on the challenges of reconstructing apartheid-imposed identities in Australia after immigration’, in Stevens, G., Franchi, V. & Swart T. (eds.), A Race Against Time: Psychology and Challenges to Deracialisation in South Africa, Epping: ABC Press, pp. 335-348.
Steinberg, B. (26 March 2018). ‘Viacom strikes content deal with Trevor Noah’s Day Zero Productions’. Variety. Retrieved June 5, 2019 from: https://variety.com/2018/tv/news/viacom-trevor-noah-day-zero-deal-1202736236/
Stevens, G. & Lockhat R. (1997). ‘Coca-Cola kids: Reflections on black adolescent identity development in post-apartheid South Africa’. South African Journal of Psychology 27, pp. 250-255.
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Trawalter, S. & Richeson, J. A. (2008). ‘Let’s talk about race, baby! When whites’ and blacks’ interracial contact experiences diverge’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (4), pp. 1214-1217.