Trevor Noah and ‘the whole African American thing’

UPDATED: NBC’s “Late Night with Jay Leno” is hardly considered a cultural arbiter anymore (except for its baby boomer viewers and for the mostly white supporters of the Republican Party) but in South Africa the appearance of comedian Trevor Noah on the show last week is big news. Noah is a big name back home for his send-ups (more like impressions) of popular politicians and racial stereotypes, some more successful than others, and for shilling for a mobile phone company. Nonetheless, having heard so much from people in South Africa about how funny Noah is–and he is certainly talented–and happy to root for fellows from the continent, I was excited for his first appearance on American TV. Significantly, Noah was apparently also the first African comedian to appear in the stand-up slot for young comedians on the show (a few big name African-American comedians are regular featured guests already). That’s an achievement of sorts. Sadly, Noah’s performance turned out to be unfunny.

After doing some decent jokes about the economy (comparing America’s economy to the “credit of a black man”) and riffing on his background — his mother is black, his father white –Noah, oddly, proceeded to tell jokes about what he called “the whole African-American thing.” What followed–in what was supposed to be a mock “African-American accent”–were some tired generalizations and stereotypes of African Americans about language, black people’s names and of African Americans “trying really hard to reconnect with Africa.” Halfway through I could not bear it anymore with the exaggerated mannerisms, including “walking” like African Americans and their supposed relation to gun play, etcetera. I assume there was to be some irony or edginess in there. That it would lead to someplace interesting. But I could not find it. (Some of the better African-American comedians riff on these same topics, including the “unsayable,” but at least with pathos and sympathy)  I suppose I can’t see funny or get a good joke. I couldn’t help recall Steve Coogan’s advice for comedians: “Comedy can’t always be safe, and sometimes entertainers need to challenge social orthodoxies. But ‘saying the unsayable’ is different from simply recycling offensive cliches.”

As a friend wrote to me after I sent him the video: “I laughed through about the first quarter and then cringed throughout the rest, more at the [mostly white] audience’s laughter than anything … I wonder what his routine would be like in front of a room full of ‘African Americans’.” Luckily, few people saw it. Back in South Africa the newspapers went on about how Noah is “taking America by storm” and about being Proudly South African. Noah will probably be a cross over star–his quick rise in South Africa suggest he is capable–but I am not sure that part of his routine is funny or will win him many fans over here, apart from Jay Leno’s approval.

If you still want to watch it.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. So you have no problem with the stereotypes of Africa-Americans peddled by the likes of Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence et all? I watch that stuff and it makes me cringe.

  2. I’ve just watched the whole Trevor Noah clip you posted – he is wickedly, cuttingly funny. I hazard a guess he’s too literate for the average American audience, and he certainly does not pander. He cuts right to the bone, which is why we love him.

  3. Actually huge numbers of people watched it. For us in SA this was vintage Trevor Noah, but its also really imortant to understand how our comedians, especially the blacks ones, are playing roles in reconstituting our socio-cultural fabric.But if people find the stereotyping offensive, dont just blame Trevor, because its the kind of stuff we say here all the time which is maybe we in SA cracked up. Wrongly or rightly. But I would say there is a lots of subtext (or just text) there for a dialogue on perceptions between Africans and African Americans.

  4. Sean Jacobs, you need to take a chill pill my brother. To be academic at times is not necessary. The guy had 5minutes (or less to do the set).To have performed a politically correct socio-cultural lecture would have just been boring. Leno, may not be the best at the moment, but it’s a start. Who knows, next time it’ll be SNL. The guys’ been in the US for only a few months AND he managed to get a set on one of the most popular late night shows…some American comedians haven’t done that in the 20years they’ve been trying to make it in Hollywood. You gotta give the guy props for that. Take a chill pill and laugh…nahwha’I mean?

  5. I love comedians. They are they only entertainers who really push the envelope. And we NEED to push the envelope, to tell it like it is. We larf, bcos we know they speak the truth, sometimes truths we are in denial about.
    But I also DESPISE political correctness. Its intellectual fascism.

  6. Offended because he said it like it is????????? If you can’t find humour in that, then, well any suggestion I make will be a waste!! Truth is Black Americans ARE NOT african americans!!!! NaMeen?? I am glad trevor pointed that out.. I am white, but I AM NOT British South African … I am an african, and will always be one regardless of my race…. And as South Africans we are incredibly proud of Trevor Noah! And what he achieved on not only Jay Leno, but overall!! And to make matters worse for you “the writer” (sic) he got a standing ovation……. Sad to think that the only humans keeping Racism alive (because this does smell horrible) are journos or bloggers who would rather write something offensive (sic), racial or biased as they really do not have the intellect to research and write something meaningful….. #byanafricaninsupportofanother

    1. You cannot be African. African Americans have an African Heritage and that is why they are blend African American. The fact that you are a South African national does not give you the African Heritage. It is born from within and flows in the blood. Can a DNA test link you to any ethnic group in Africa. The answer is obviously no but the DNA test can link African Americans to a specific ethnic group. We need to draw a line between heritage and nationality which is acquired by nature and politically respectively. The dynamics of this world will never transform anybody from one heritage to another no matter how we call it. They were Jews or Israelites in the bible and remain Jewish people until today in spite of the fact that they have been born in several different countries today. In this regard, I just want to say to point out to you Dave Kruger that no matter how hard you insisting on clinging to the African heritage because you were born in Africa or have lived your life in Africa, it still remains a fact that you are European. You can’t deny that and that is your heritage. Once more the Jewish people lived in Egypt for 430 years and did not become Egyptians. They gave birth to children there and these children remained Jewish. So get over it and believe its about time this whole notion gets into the head of white South Africans. I encourage African Americans to stick to their heritage because it was not of their choice their ancestors were taken from Africa. If you cut from its root, the tree will surely die.

      1. Wait a minute, according to your logic white south africans don’t have a claim to the African heritage because their bloodline cannot be traced to any groups of people who originated in Africa, then using that same logic why do any groups of people living in America (e.g. African Americans, Italian Americans, etc) have claim to the American heritage since their bloodlines have no trace of any group that originated in America. Would you deny any American their claim of the American heritage just because their ancestors are did not originate in American..? no, you wouldn’t.. It makes no sense. using your logic would invalidate most US citizens their right to use the term “Americans” because their ancestors did not originate from any part of North or South America!!! Who are you to deny anyone a claim to a heritage of a nation or a continent they were born in, they are entitled the use of the term African the same way any person born in this nation or country are entitled to use the term American, its not their fault their ancestors decided to make Africa their home.

  7. Oh please Dave Kruger, you are glad he said it because it gives you a little more room to stand on vis-à-vis your African non-blackness. When I asked the question on my facebook page, some white friends (and an Asian friend who also grew up in Botswana) quickly jumped into the fray to say the same thing you are saying. I had African folk throw in everything from DNA to being proud of Oprah, MJ and MLK, to defend African-Americans’ right to call themselves African. Truth is the African in African-American can never be erased. Never never never.

    Trevor is famous because he can be offensive sometimes, even when he seems to be funny to a lot of people. I’ve seen him perform in Cape Town, and his jokes about coloured people here…yirr. People have been talking about how offensive he is for a while now, just because he’s popular doesn’t mean he isn’t. This grates: “the intellect to research and write something meaningful” do you know whose blog this is? Anyway – these folks are smarter than you and can defend themselves, clearly. Peace.

    oh and by the way —> #byanafricaninsupportofanother (lol!)

  8. I think Trevor needs to hang out with AFRICAN-AMERICAN comedian Paul Mooney. Paul will get him straightened out. He doesn’t know his history. Most comedians understand, they are funniest when they make fun of themselves. “Nameen,” Trevor?

  9. I watched it and even though I thought it was a little funny, I immediately thought “wow, this is gonna piss off a whole load of Black Americans, there were so many other topics he could’ve chosen”,because yeah, he was being totally stereotypical and pulling out “uncomfortable stuff” but also a few questions – aren’t “race relations” in the USA VERY different to race relations in South Africa where Trevor Noah grew up? And two, Luso says “Truth is the African in African-American can never be erased. Never never never.” so I guess the next question is “What is African?”

  10. Assuming or assigning characteristics based on the colour of someone’s skin is racist. That one has ‘black’ skin should not imply ANYTHING about a person. Being of a place, eg. Africa, has NOTHING to do with your skin colour. If I was to assume that a person with slanted eyes was Chinese, when in fact they were Italian, I would be labelled a racist. Which culture might I lay claim to because my skin is light? German? Spanish? Icelandic? British? Russian? Canadian? Israeli? Any one of those nations would (rightly) refute my claims – and be offended (if not completely confused) by my shallow claim to their heritage….I actually have no cultural connection with them whatsoever. Accordingly, it would be ludicrous, if not insane, for me to feel that I can claim otherwise. However, ‘black’ skinned Americans claim cultural connections with an entire continent as if it was a single nation – and woe betide the one who points out that, in fact, there is no connection whatsoever, besides skin colour. I’d think that, these days, people who take something that’s not theirs, insisting that their skin colour entitles them to it, are either put in jail or sent to a psychologist – possibly both. At the very least, they are called racist.

  11. I have seen more than a HUNDREAD video clips of Afro-American comics PORTRAYING us Africans as ‘uncivalized’ bafoons with the funniest accents and languages and the audience laughed uncontrollably while some of us ‘cringed’ (I just hope you’ve never even chuckled, sir). My question is this: Have you ever blogged about them like you are with Noah’s case? I doubt it. An unconscious hypocrite..

  12. Trevor’s funny, but not as witty as others who’ve come before. He panders a lot to the mainstream.

    As far as Trevor being a tad insensitive……….True, all comedians make fun of themselves and everyone around. They are categorically unPC and that’s why we love them, , but I suppose having comedy about Africans pretending to be African Americans and adopting hip hop culture or everything associated with AA culture might also ruffle feathers the other way…… Just saying. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Trevor should take notes ;).

    1. true dat we in south africa are the authenic deal,he just said it like it is now they become upset,they should just get with the program….

  13. If African American comedians can make Africans sound like the stereotypical African person, I do not get why they would get ”offended” by an African person doing the same with them. We love Trevor and he should continue with what he does. #Nameen??

  14. I had intuited a while back that Trevor Noah would go places.
    Part of what I like about Mr Noah is that he really is more clever than we think he is; he has no sacred cows and does not take himself too seriously.

    I am South African person, classified as Coloured, but identifies as Black, similarly to Mr Noah. Being a victim of white supremacy, makes many Black/African and African people in the diaspora thin-skinned.

    I get the offence that some African Americans feel about being stereotyped. I might have too. Trevor knows that African/Americans are not monolithic in their expression and chose only to do one aspect of it. How many times in his previous standup routines did he not express his ‘ambition’ to be a Black American? The coolest Black in the world. That was more of a projection of many of us growing up in apartheid, where we looked up to Black Americans. We also looked to Black America where the Black consciousness movement was born which influenced Steve Biko,who made the expression,Black is Beautiful, famous.

    I visit quite a few African American/Black American blogs on race(not South Africans ones-the white racists are odiously vicious). There are some who identify as Black American for many reasons.For some, there is no identification as African from the Continent of origin. For some, African American, as the celebration and positive identification and honouring one’ origins.

    Africa, since the first foot of white of invasion, has been lied about and all the rest.

    The global slander and propaganda against Africa is still ongoing. In America, where Black/ African American history is rewritten and distorted by a white supremacist society. So its also little wonder that African Americans will fall prey to the lies manufactured by imperialist America.

    I think it is correct to say when you don’t find a comedian funny,say- ‘I did not find him funny’ rather than ‘Noah’s performance turned out to be unfunny.’.

    I found his performance to be very funny and got the nuances that others may not have.

    Many Africans would get it as we meet African/Black Americans who in reality,are westerners,who have the same stereotypes about Africa as white Americans have.

    Mr Kruger, as white person, having benefitted from apartheid, insults Sean Jacobs by calling him a racist. Imagine, a racist white person claiming African ancestry calling a person of colour a racist! The irony.
    And for clarification, Mr Kruger, although born in South Africa, is NOT an African. A European descendant living Africa, a white settler,a white invader, yes, but NOT African.

    Let us not slander Africans.

  15. To clarify some ambiguity in my comment- I see and use Black as pertaining to myself, as in Steve Biko and Malcolm X’ s Black consciousness. Also,as a multi-ethnic African. Whether Black American has the same connotation, I do not know.

    Sean, thank you,for your part in ongoing thought and debate.

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