Standup comedian Trevor Noah, the next host of The Daily Show, opens six sold-out shows at Cobb’s Comedy Club.
SAN FRANCISCO – Trevor Noah was riffing on San Francisco, running through the usual checklist of things that seem to baffle visiting standup comedians: Why is the airport landing strip so close to the water? How do those crazy cable cars work? And the hills! What’s with all the hills?
He pondered that one for a while before he determined, “I’ve never seen overweight people here, so it must be working.”
The rising South African comic had just strolled onstage for the first of six sold-out shows on his “Lost In Translation” tour at Cobb’s Comedy Club on Friday, and he probably should have known better.
Less than 24 hours after he was named as Jon Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show, Noah drew a barrage of criticism for a handful of old jokes on Twitter that targeted women, Jews and, yes, overweight people.
But Noah, 31, wasn’t in San Francisco to do damage control. His representatives actively tried to keep press out of the show before eventually relenting.
The son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, Noah’s mixed-race background gives him a fresh perspective on many of the hot-button topics making the rounds on late-night television monologues. By that measure, his set was at once uncompromising and unexpectedly mundane.
The audience buckled over in laughter as he spun a bit about getting pulled over in Los Angeles into a larger comment on the rise of police violence. In another rant, Noah slyly illustrated how the media’s obsession with the Ebola crisis interminably set back public perception of the entire African continent. “It’s one big hut where we all cough on each other,” he said.
But there were also moments where his set veered into old-school Seinfeld territory, pointlessly going on (and on and on) about air travel, funny accents and the phrase “woo-hoo!”
Noah’s protracted stories came accompanied with studied, sometimes cringe-worthy vocal imitations — from a waitress he encountered in Chinatown to a pair of men he overheard in the Dubai airport.
“I still think Arabic sounds frightening,” he said. “Every conversation sounds like a plot.”
Noah repeatedly derided racism even as he revealed some of his own prejudices. Using a mock French accent, he questioned the wisdom of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack for giving up their names as they were being slaughtered. He talked about how he preferred to fly airlines based in Islamic countries to decrease his chances of getting caught in a terrorist attack. He also complained at length about white people: “White people love complaining.”
Noah gets away with it for the most part because he’s so laid-back and effortlessly charming that even when he says something questionable, it would feel impolite not to laugh along with him.
He also seems incredibly worldly, smart and self aware, knowing full well that growing up in the tail end of the apartheid era gives him the impetus to rattle cages, just because he can.
It will be curious to see what the Comedy Central writers do with him. There were very few clues in Noah’s standup act about what could possibly be in store once he’s behind the satirical news desk.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect anyone to match the wit and candor of the outgoing host on The Daily Show, but Noah isn’t just different from Stewart: He’s fundamentally different.
He is also among a legion of foreign hosts taking over late-night television in America, following in the footsteps of John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight and James Corden on CBS’ The Late Late Show.
Let’s just say it’s going to make for a very interesting election season.