Cultural Column

Trevor Noah isn’t American, and it’s a fact he doesn’t let you forget. Born and raised in South Africa, Noah’s identity seems to be inexorably defined by his relationship with his home country. Because of this, race is a recurring theme in his comedy, and he often tiptoes on the line between acceptable and not, in a way that is almost universally amusing. Noah also has a way of guiding his audience down a line of thought, has us hanging on his every word, and then hilariously undermines our expectations.

For example: we are asked to consider the prospect of a black James Bond, harkening back a few years to when Idris Elba was being considered for the part. Yes, we agree, wouldn’t that be phenomenal and progressive—finally, mass media making a black man a heroic cultural icon! Then, in a twist that had the audience roaring with laughter, Noah takes listeners on a journey to Scotland. A black James Bond, he says, simply couldn’t function in northern European cities where Mr. Bond usually adventures. The Scottish aren’t racist, Noah explains, there simply are no black people there. A black James Bond, dashing down rainy cobblestone streets, donning costumes and accents and pulling out all the stops, would simply be too conspicuous to elude even the most bumbling of British policemen.

Through comedic journeying from Scotland to India to Russia to Mexico, Noah brought stories from his travels into many of his tales, regaling the audience with his brilliant ability to mimic accents and embody the stereotype of a country. In a particularly biting yet poignant piece, Noah used his observational skills gleaned from his travels to poke fun at Portland itself. With wit that left the audience guffawing at depictions of their own absurdity, Noah addressed Portland’s inherent whiteness, our hipster-fueled reputation for liking vintage clothing and camping (“You call that being cool? Where I come from, we call that being poor,” he berates us), and the Portland trust of authority that keeps us stuck at a red-lit crosswalk even when it’s quite obvious there is no traffic. Then, he tells us with incredulity, when the little white man blinks on again, Portlanders will confidently walk into the quickly encroaching headlights of an oncoming tram like they have the power of God himself on their side.

Through stories that remind us again and again of our own faults and absurdities, Trevor Noah puts on a show that has audiences laughing hysterically in the moment and thoughtfully reflecting for days afterwards. He tells us stories that prove stereotypes true, which illustrate perfectly well that racism, classism, and sexism exist, but with a subtle wit and humor that has listeners thinking without ever giving them a chance to be anything but receptive to his message.