Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah's Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor The Daily Show host grew up biracial in South Africa; his mother was jailed for having a relationship with his father. But she always turned to humor before anger, Noah says — a trait he's inherited.

Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah's Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I miss Jon Stewart, but I'm glad to say I've been enjoying Trevor Noah who took over "The Daily Show" in September. He's brought an international perspective to the show. He's South African, the son of a black mother and white father whose relationship was illegal under apartheid, which mandated separation of the races. Noah grew up during the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. He became famous in South Africa as a comic and TV personality hosting a late-night show, a dating game show and awards ceremonies. He spent years traveling around the world doing standup. We'll hear some of his standup comedy a little later, but let's start with what may be the best-known segment he's done so far on "The Daily Show." This is from last October when he was comparing Donald Trump's rhetoric with statements made by African presidents and dictators.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: What I'm trying to say is Donald Trump is president. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: In fact, once you realize that Trump is basically the perfect African president, you start to notice the similarities everywhere, like the level of self-regard.

DONALD TRUMP: I say not in a braggadocious way, I've made billions and billions of dollars.

I made a tremendous amount of money.

I'm really rich.

I have a great temperament.

They love me anyway. I don't have to do this.

I've done an amazing job.

I was born with a certain intellect. God helped me by giving me a certain brain.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I bet that's the one time that God's like, I don't need the praise. It's cool. That's you, that's you. I'm cool. Now, is that extraordinary level of bragging presidential? Well, let's ask a man who actually was president, Idi Amin, former president and best president of Uganda.

IDI AMIN: The people likes me very much. I am very popular.

I am very powerful.

I am the one who has got the money.

I have got a very good brain.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I have a very good brain. And I know this because every time I ask people if I have a good brain, they say, of course, Mr. President. Now please let my family go. You've already killed my sister. I think you've proved your points.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show." Trevor Noah, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks so much for coming. Had you seen "The Daily Show" in South Africa?

NOAH: Yeah, but interestingly enough, when I first started watching "The Daily Show," we used to see it on CNN. And so my perception of "The Daily Show" was very different. I thought that Jon Stewart was a news anchor who didn't take his job seriously 'cause I would always see this show...

GROSS: You're kidding, right?

NOAH: No, I'm being serious. In a lot of regions, CNN actually broadcasts "The Daily Show." So there's a global edition of "The Daily Show" that's one episode. And in countries where there's no Comedy Central or the show itself is not picked up, it'll be on CNN. And because it looked like a news show and it had the same colors as CNN and the ticker and - I just worked under the assumption that it was part of the news programming. And so I was just like, this is a really funny show, and that's how I knew it.

GROSS: So what is your role now in writing and editing the show?

NOAH: From 8 a.m. in the morning, we start dissecting the news, discussing it, looking for angles, looking for takes, building a show, rewriting it, getting it together, gathering materials. We work throughout the day and then in the evening, after we've rehearsed it and rewritten it, then I go out and we tape the show. And then after that taping, we sit down and we dissect the show, see what could be better, work to get better every single day because that's really the nature of a late-night show, especially something that's on daily, is that you're on daily. So, you know, it's not unlike the news, funny enough. I was chatting to Rachel Maddow about it. And she was saying the quickest thing you have to learn is your best show only lasts for a night and your worst show only lasts for a night, and then you're back doing it tomorrow.

GROSS: That leads to manic depression, doesn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: A show's great and you feel great and a show's bad and it's like, oh, this is so horrible.

NOAH: Yeah, yeah, that's why you have to learn to live outside the show. I think one of the biggest things I've had to learn is TV destroys your perspective. You know, when I think back to myself and I go - if anyone who tries to convince me otherwise, I have to stop sometimes and go not - what? - 25 years ago, I was living in basically a very elevated hut with no running water or indoor sanitation. And so, like, problems - I can't trick myself into getting stressed by first world problems. Things are going great. Things are going very, very well.

GROSS: Does Jon watch "The Daily Show" now? And does he give you feedback on it?

NOAH: He does. He does. But he doesn't - he gives me feedback sporadically because he knows better than anyone that the thing is happening, you know? It takes such a long time for - it's like captaining a, you know, a giant ship. You make a change and you still have to wait to see that change happen. It's not a nimble speedboat. So Jon and I, if anything, we spend more time talking about standup comedy and the pigs on his farm and just the randomness in our lives because, you know, if anything, we were friends before we were linked through this behemoth that is "The Daily Show." So that's what we spend time talking about, but he's always there if I need him. But I also try not to need him too much because then I won't find or learn these things myself.

GROSS: How did you become friends?

NOAH: Just - he reached out to me many, many years ago. He saw my comedy, he said I'd like to meet you and then we met. And then Jon and I just, you know, we just connected and we hung out. And we have a similar view on the world but we come at it from different perspectives, obviously. So we just, you know, we just get along really well. And that was something that progressed over time.

GROSS: See you were briefly a contributor to "The Daily Show" before becoming the host. You were friends before becoming a contributor?

NOAH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The contributor thing happened because we got along. Jon asked me to come to the show and hang out and just see how he does what he does. And we had so much fun, you know, just off camera, that Jon was like, hey, we should do this on screen. Let's chat about this thing on screen. And so we did that. And then we'd have another conversation, and Jon would go, hey, we should do that on camera. So he'd go next time you're in America, let's hang out and let's - come to the show and let's do another chat. And so that's all it was, you know? It was never me aspiring to that position. It was never me aspiring to "The Daily Show." It was just me being me and then hanging out with my friend Jon.

GROSS: Nice (laughter) so in your standup comedy, you've talked about being excited about coming to America where you would be defined as black instead of - I don't know - colored or mixed race in South Africa 'cause your father is white, your mother is black and you were born during the apartheid era. So you did some comedy in the U.S. about opening a bank account in America and having to fill out your race or ethnicity and you don't really know what to write in. And a bank representative is helping you fill out the form. So this is Trevor Noah from his 2013 album "African American."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "AFRICAN AMERICAN")

NOAH: She was really helpful. She was like - she's this blonde woman and she was like, yeah, you can go ahead and fill out everything you need to. And, yeah, we'll just go ahead and open that bank account. I said, OK, I don't know what to do here. And she was like, let me have a look. Well, you can just, yeah, you just go ahead and tick whatever race you want to go with. I said, what do you mean whatever race? She's like, well, look, it's just for statistical purposes, so, like, you can choose whatever you want and then you can do it. And I was like, choose whatever? I was like, I've never been given that option before.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And I looked at the boxes and, I mean, there was black. That's the reason I came. The black box was there. I was like, well, that's it. I'll choose it. But then I looked to the left and there was the white box and, oh, it looked good. It just...

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I mean, don't get me wrong, it was the same as the other boxes. But there must've been a reason it was first in line, it was just like - you know? That was prime box right there. That was just - I looked at that white box and I was like, yeah, yeah. And so I looked at her and I said, any box? And she's like, yeah, yeah, any box. And I played it safe. I said, so I can go with black? She was like, you know what? A lot of them choose black, yeah, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And so just because she said that, I looked at her and I said, no, you know what? I'm white. I'm going with white. And then she did this thing that I've come to learn is the reaction of white liberal women in America. Whenever they hear something or see something that they can't truly comprehend, they don't agree with it, but for fear of being judged, they internalize their emotions and then they almost have like this malfunction like a robot.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I don't know if you've - it's amazing to see 'cause as soon as I said white - I said, I'm going with white. She went, I'm sorry, did you say white? I said, yes, yes, white. I'm white. She was like, oh, OK, OK, OK - like white? Yeah....

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was Trevor Noah in 2013. So what was the difference between how you were defined officially, racially, in South Africa and in the U.S.?

NOAH: Well, obviously, because of our history, everybody was divided into a subgroup, you know? So the minutiae of race was really scrutinized in South Africa. So because my mother is black and my father's white, I was classified as colored, which is strange because that means technically according to the law at the time, my mother, my father and myself all had different privileges according to the law and would be treated differently, you know, if we're arrested - or defined what schools we could go to, what areas we could live in. So, yeah, so that was - I mean, that's always something that I mess around with 'cause it's all a ludicrous system, you know? I mean, a lot of people were hurt during that time, but you also have to acknowledge how crazy and ludicrous it was.

GROSS: You have a bit that you did in front of a South African audience at the Nelson Mandela Theater that's recorded in which you do something very similar about having to open an account and fill out your race. And even though it's post-apartheid South Africa, you still have to fill out your race. So what's your understanding about why you have to fill out your race either in the U.S. or South Africa now?

NOAH: Oh, well, the story I told in South Africa was the American one because you have to - that's something that we got rid of on a lot of our forms. That was, like, a big thing that we just decided not to do. We said there's no reason for race to be on a form. In America, I understand - it was explained to me that the reason that happens is so that there would be no segregation, funny enough, so that there would be no discrimination. So when you were filling out forms for bank accounts and for - they wanted the racial breakdown so that they could go back and then analyze the statistics to make sure that there was no implicit bias. And ironically, that sort of creates a bias, which is very strange. I mean, it's funny and it's sad at the same time. But, yeah, we don't have that on our forms. It's not something that you fill in.

GROSS: So were you taken aback when you realize you're no longer in apartheid South Africa but you have to write down what your race is?

NOAH: Oh, yeah, but I think I was more surprised by the fact that you can choose whichever one you want...

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: ...Which is entertaining to me. I always tell my friends, I'm like, why doesn't everyone just check white? Just check white and see what happens in the system. What's the worst that could happen?

GROSS: So when you started doing comedy - which was when? What year are we talking?

NOAH: I started comedy - 2005 I want to say. Yeah, 2005, 2004 - somewhere there.

GROSS: So apartheid was already over. Were you performing in front of black and white audiences? Were the audiences mixed?

NOAH: Yes, yeah, the audiences - one thing South Africans rushed to do as soon as segregation came down is South Africans rushed to meet each other, you know? That was a beautiful thing about it is that a lot of people do want to integrate. A lot of people do want to but it's just - the question is how? And one thing that was great about comedy was it presented people with the how. It gave them a place to come together and laugh.

GROSS: So what were some of the subjects that you talked about in your early comedy when you were first in front of diverse audiences?

NOAH: First it was - I guess it was just stories. I relayed stories of my life, things that I was going through - observational comedy, anecdotal stuff. And then I spent a lot of time talking about what was happening in society, you know, because I've always been in the middle. So I've always felt one thing I suffer from and I also feel is my gift is the ability to see the other side. I, you know, I grew up in a world where people were very, very, very angry and hated a lot of white people, if not all white people. And I would have to speak up to my friends and say, hey, I know white people that are really cool, you know? My dad is one of them. And so because of my dad, I met his friends and people like him who were great. So I can't put all white people in the same bucket. And by that same token, I would meet white people who would be terrified of black people. And I'd have to explain to them, I'd be like, hey, you can't think like that. You can't hold these views because you are generalizing everybody. So I've always been on both sides.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." So racial identity is a big part of your comedy when you're doing stand-up. Your father is white, your mother is black. Your father is, I think, of Swiss and German ancestry - do I have that right?

NOAH: Yeah, he's Swiss.

GROSS: And your mother is Xhosa?

NOAH: Xhosa.

GROSS: Thank you. I don't think I can do that (laughter).

NOAH: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I know your mother was jailed - briefly, I hope - in South Africa, I assume for opposing apartheid - for doing some kind of dissenting action?

NOAH: Yes. Well, the dissenting action was being with a white person.

GROSS: Oh, that's why she was jailed?

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: Was the white person your father?

NOAH: Yes, he was. Yeah.

GROSS: Was he jailed for it, too?

NOAH: No, no, no, white people didn't get jailed for that. That was - white people were warned and asked not to do it again. But then if you were a black person caught fraternizing across color boundaries, then you'd be arrested. But my mom opposed the system as a whole. So she never let that stand in her way. You know, and I think I pick up a lot of - I have a lot of my mom's demeanors that she never even - even when she told me the story, she was never angry. She just went, it's a stupid thing, and so I refused to listen to it. But she never came at it from a place of anger. If anything, she defied it, and she didn't give it the credibility that it was trying to create in the world. And so that's something that I inherited from my mom was that in my family we were just - we're not quick to anger. If anything - you know, I mean, obviously there are moments where you find things ridiculous or ludicrous, but not quick to anger - rather, find a way to laugh about it or to minimize it using humor.

GROSS: Were you born yet when she was jailed?

NOAH: Yeah, yeah, I was.

GROSS: How old were you?

NOAH: I was everything from 3 years old all the way through to 6 years old.

GROSS: She was jailed for three years?

NOAH: No, no, no, I'm saying during that time period. No, no, no, she was jailed for a month here and there, and then, like, for a weekend or for a week, and so on. But I was so young I didn't really notice it.

GROSS: She kept going in and out of jail for being with your father?

NOAH: Yes, yes, yes, but it wasn't just her. I mean, this was a common occurrence. This was the state of the nation at that time, is that many people of color would get arrested for what today is not considered a crime in most places in the world. It was just randomly made-up laws.

GROSS: So your parents couldn't live together. That would have been illegal.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: And they couldn't marry. That would have been illegal.

NOAH: That's correct.

GROSS: So how were they able to have any kind of relationship?

NOAH: Well, I guess they just went for it, you know? I always joke and say that, you know, my mom was just crazy and she said, I don't care about the law. She was like, I want a white man and that's that. And my dad, you know, you know how the Swiss love chocolates so (laughter) that's the two of them in a nutshell. They went for it. And that's really what the story was in South Africa. As much as there was the people, there were the people on the forefront fighting, really every movement is also - I guess it's also underwritten, to a certain extent, by the people who undermine the restriction or the laws that restrict people by just refusing to adhere to those laws. They just - in their own small way, everyone is opposing what is happening.

GROSS: So they couldn't live together. Where did they live and where did you live?

NOAH: Well, I lived with my mom. So the way it works in South Africa is you're allowed to downgrade. So you could go - you could almost forfeit your rights and go live in an area that was deemed inferior to the one that you're allowed to live in. So I was living with my mother in Soweto and my grandmother and the rest my family. And then my father lived - he lived in the city center. And so I guess there were times when my mom would sneak us in to go meet and hang out as a family when we could. But for the most part, that's where I spent most of my time.

GROSS: So describe what your neighborhood in Soweto was like when you were growing up.

NOAH: Oh it was wonderful. It was electric. You know, it's a - even today, Soweto is a - it's a beautiful community. You know, everyone knows everybody's names. You know, there's just a sense of togetherness. And I think because everyone was going through the same thing, it was a shared experience. It was - it didn't feel like it was suffering. You knew that there was a cloud hanging over a nation, but there were lots of moments of joy within that time period. So, you know, the streets were dusty. There weren't many tarred streets. You know, the houses were very modest because the government would allocate land and that's where you could live. So everyone found a way to make ends meet. I mean, there were seven or eight of us at one point living in a one-roomed house or two-roomed house at some point. And, you know, we had outdoor sanitation. It was, like, everyone - every four or five houses would share one toilet outdoors, and then you would have one faucet outdoors that you could go and get your water from. And so this is how everyone lived. And because everyone was doing it, then it's normal. So I'm very lucky in that I never look back at it as a tough upbringing because it was the only upbringing I knew. And everyone was doing it with me. So essentially it's like being in a very stringent fitness class. If everyone's suffering together, it doesn't seem so bad

GROSS: My guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how his mother was shot by his stepfather. We'll talk about the land mines you have to watch out for doing social and political comedy in the U.S. And we'll hear more of his stand-up comedy. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Trevor Noah, who has been the host of "The Daily Show" since late September. He grew up in South Africa during the apartheid and early post-apartheid eras. His mother is black. His father is white. Their relationship was illegal when he was born because apartheid mandated separation of the races. Were your parents still a couple when apartheid ended?

NOAH: No, no, no, they weren't. They weren't. Well, I think they were - let me think, actually, they were probably until I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. But they remained friends if I guess because they had been through so much that I always knew them the way they were. So I wouldn't call it a split because essentially they were never together. So they spent as much time together after apartheid as they did before.

GROSS: But there didn't need to be a charade anymore. Like, what was the charade that you would have to enact when the family got together under apartheid?

NOAH: Oh, well, I wasn't enacting anything. I was a kid, so I was just living my life. My mom would - she went to very elaborate - through very elaborate schemes. I mean, she would disguise herself as a maid to act like she was working in my dad's apartment so that she wouldn't get caught. She would act like she was she was babysitting me for somebody else. And, you know, it was all these, I mean, very elaborate scams, I must admit - very funny when you think about it because everyone - you know, everyone thinks of, like, a maid outfit as like a very sexual or interesting costume. And yet my mom - she was like this a functional thing I need to get to - to get my family together. So then she was going through all of that, my dad didn't have to do much because he was on the - I guess the right side of the law, as they would say. So yeah - so my mom was doing all the heavy lifting for all of us.

GROSS: So after your parents separated, your mother married a man who became the father of your two brothers. How old were you...

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: ...When they married?

NOAH: I think I was maybe 12 years old or 13 - yeah, maybe around there.

GROSS: So you've described him as becoming alcoholic and abusive. Did he abuse you?

NOAH: No, no, no, no, my mom was very protective of me. So I didn't suffer, you know, much of that. But I mean, a home that is terrorized by an abusive drunk is terrorized all the same. You know, I feel like we were all in the same boat because we were. But physically, I was spared much of that torment.

GROSS: And what - did he hit her?

NOAH: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is - you know, it's widely documented. And it's something my mom raised me not to be ashamed to speak about because that was always the biggest thing she said was we live in a world where for some strange women are taught to be ashamed of the fact that they have been abused. And then the victims are running around with the shame, whereas we should be shaming those who are the abusers. So yeah - so he hit my mom, and that was the craziest thing is you're living in a world where it happens sporadically. Like, you know, it wasn't an everyday thing but once is enough, you know? But it was a very harrowing experience to go through. And so, you know, the combination of the alcohol and a bad temper led to that environment.

GROSS: She left him and then...

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Went with another man. And when he found out about this other man after he and your mother were divorced, he shot her, twice.

NOAH: Yeah, well, my mom didn't leave to go to another man. So my mom completely left the home, moved out with my brothers. I was already out of the home at that time. And she went and set up a new life. And then at that point, one day they came home from church, and then - and then he pitched up and he was drunk. And then he threatened to kill the whole family, including himself. And then he shot my mom twice.

GROSS: In the face and in the back?

NOAH: Yep, that's correct.

GROSS: But she survived.

NOAH: She did. She did.

GROSS: What kind of shape is she in now? Did she have a full recovery?

NOAH: Oh, yeah. My mom is a soldier. And now - I mean, now we joke that she's bulletproof because it was - I mean, it really was a miracle. And the doctors hated using that term, and they were the ones who said it, you know? My mom is deeply, deeply religious, and her and I have always fought about religion over the years. I challenge her on it, and she completely immerses herself in it. But then I mean, when someone gets shot in the head and suffers no brain damage and is alive and needs to go through no surgery and bullet completely passes through the head, then you - (laughter) you almost have to concede. I mean, who was I to say I don't believe in miracles when I've seen this happens in my life? So, you know, we laughed about it, we joked. I mean, that's really the whole mark of my family is, I mean, a few days afterwards in the hospital, my mom was the person to crack the first joke. You know, I was crying by her bedside, and she said to me - she said don't cry. Look on the bright side. She said, now you're officially the best-looking person in the family. So (laughter) you know, so we've - you know, we've overcome a lot because of laughter. I think that's why I love comedy so much. It's because it's the thing that has kept my family going through every single type of adversity.

GROSS: So when you started performing in America, did you have to learn where the landmines were - where the things were where if you said something about it, people would be offended?

NOAH: Yes, definitely.

GROSS: So what was that process like of not realizing that things would be interpreted in a way that you didn't mean.

NOAH: It's a process of trial and error. You work through the material. You talk to the people. It also helps to live here, you know, which is something I could only do with time. So, for instance, in America, there's a huge sensitivity around fat, all right? If you say somebody's fat or if you say - because there's been a cultural of fat shaming and, you know, there's clearly an epidemic, I mean, partly because of the food and just because of the lifestyles and so on that this is now no longer being seen as, like, a choice thing anymore, whereas where I'm from, you would be teased more for being skinny. You know, fat and thin were two sides of the same coin. It was never something that could be held over anyone. So it doesn't hold the same - like, it's not judged as much. It's just a statement of a fact. That's what people go - they go that person is fat, that person is too thin. And then you get laughed at regardless. It was just, like, a thing that you can play with. The same goes for national pride. In America - and obviously I understand because of, you know, the wars that were waged and post-9/11 I guess it increased tenfold - the national pride is very different. So if you go to the U.K. and you insult the British or the British identity, they're very open to that because as a culture and as a society, they've gone hey, we - you know, we have a history of destroying the world and we colonize the world. And I guess they've worked through a lot of that in the way they see themselves is in a very self-deprecating way. Still proud to be British, but they allow those jabs a lot more, whereas in the U.S., you have to be very careful as to how you speak about America to Americans because a lot of people have been told - and you see it every day on the news - that America is under attack. And so people have this culture of we need to defend ourselves. And so these are small landmines that you pick up as you go from one place to the next. You go OK, this is sensitive here but it's not sensitive there. This is a thing that's an issue here but it's not an issue there.

GROSS: In terms of the fat example, I think you might be referring to a tweet that you sent that was criticized. You had retweeted when a woman is loved correctly, she becomes 10 times the woman she was before. And then you added, so she gets fat? That was in 2014. Were you surprised at the response to that?

NOAH: Oh, no, I'm not surprised by the response to any comedy taken out of context. That's = comedy is all about context. If you think about the things you say to your friends or to people you know, if a stranger hears them, they would think you're the most horrible human being in the world, you know? When you know someone, that's when it becomes comedy. That's exactly what comedy is. It's a familiarity that is combined with you breaking down a commonly-held - you know, a commonly-held belief. So I mean, what was ironic about that tweet that you're reading is that was me and my girlfriend at the time - like, that's something that no one even bothered to check. You go who was he messaging? I was speaking to my girlfriend at the time in public, and that was - we were both fat at the time. We had gained a lot of weight. We were both happy. We were both lazy, and so we were joking about it. But people don't bother - they go oh, you were, you know, fat shaming a stranger on the Internet. You're like this is not a stranger. This is somebody I live with and somebody that I love. So - but any conversation taken out of context is - these are things that I know about comedy. That's why comedy has existed for so long in a safe space, and that is in a comedy club. You know, but with the change in social media and sharing and videos and soundbites, we now live in a world where people are part of conversations that they originally weren't really. So you're now overhearing everything that everybody's talking about and you're not part of the conversation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." So you came to the U.S. in time for a succession of police shootings of African-Americans that, with the help of cell phone cameras and social media, became public in a way that those kinds of shootings never were before. And it really raised awareness of why so many African-Americans are afraid of the police. So you talked about that in your Comedy Central special "Lost In Translation," and I want to play an excerpt of that. So this is my guest, Trevor Noah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOST IN TRANSLATION")

NOAH: Because every day I turn on the TV, it seems like another black person is being shot. So I just want to know how not to get shot.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: You know, I try and learn. I really do. I try and learn. You know, it all started in the lower echelons of enforcement, community watch. George Zimmerman shot Trayvon, the young boy. And the story started off with man shoots boy, everyone was like, yeah, this is horrible. This is disgusting. But then the news, for some strange reason, the next day they just forget and then they start asking other questions - well, why was he wearing a hoodie? What was he doing, and why was wearing a hoodie? And I was like, oh, is that - so that's - so don't wear a hoodie. That's what it is. The hoodie. It's very frightening. You don't know what's going on under there. Yeah. We've all seen Star Wars, it's the creepiest thing ever.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: Yeah. It's the dark side. And so I was like oh, so if I don't wear a hoodie, then I'm safe. No one's going to shoot me if I don't wear a hoodie. But then a few - you cut forward and then the next thing you know, it's Mike Brown in Ferguson, and he gets shot by the police. Unarmed, he gets shot. And they're all like, a man was unarmed and he got shot, and I was like, oh, this is disgusting. And they said but also, he approached the police officer, apparently, and he may or may not have scuffled with - we don't know, but he approached him. And I was like OK, so don't wear a hoodie and don't approach the police. Don't go towards the police. You see police, you go the other way.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: You go the other way from - OK, cool. I got it. So no hoodies, no approaching the police. This is it. I'm learning. But then the next guy comes on the news, Eric Garner in New York City. And there he is, he's standing and the police, they apprehend them and they start choking him. And he doesn't go towards them, he doesn't go - he's standing there with his arms crossed, and he gets choked to death by six policemen. And then they come on the news and they say - and they go well, you've got to understand, for these police - I mean, this was a pretty big guy. He was a pretty big guy. He was scary. He was a really scary, big black guy. And I'm like, OK, cool. So don't be a big black guy, and then you should be fine. Don't be a big black guy, and then I should - and every day, I look in the mirror and I'm like, good job.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And I'm like, OK, fine. OK, so don't wear a hoodie, and don't approach the policeman, and don't be a big black man. I think I've got it all down. I think - and then I turn on the TV, and then I see Walter Scott, a 50-something-year-old man running away from a policeman, getting shot in the back. Running away from the policeman. And again, the media, for some strange reason, just seems to forget what the main purpose of the discussion is 'cause on day one, they go unarmed man shot in the back. Day two, they're like, who was Walter Scott? Let's find out about it - apparently, he had a charge of assault against him in 1987.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: So he gets shot for it? How hard did he punch the guy that he gets shot for it in 2015?

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: What, did he punch the guy into the future and then he came back to get him? Is that what happened?

GROSS: That's Trevor Noah from his 2015 Comedy Central special "Lost In Translation." Have you been stopped by a cop in America?

NOAH: I have. I have. I've been stopped a few times actually. Yeah. But they were very nice to me.

GROSS: Was this driving?

NOAH: Yeah. It was in California. The officer was - he was really very nice to me. Like, these are - it's so funny when you talk about these things. In a strange way I feel like, you know, like there times when you will share the plight of the person you feel is oppressing you, and it's a very strange thing that happens. You know, it happened in South Africa between the Afrikaans population and the African population. The Afrikaans population felt that they were being oppressed by the British, and so that's why they needed to stage a revolt. And then ironically, they turned around and oppressed the Africans after going through that oppression. And it's funny because sometimes, I feel the same thing is sort of happening in America. It's like a role reversal that then gives you a different perspective, you know? I don't think all police are bad. I think most police are good people that have a very tough job that they have to do every single day, the same way I don't believe that all black people are criminals. Most black people are law-abiding citizens who, you know, are living their lives and have to go through a very tough situation of being perceived as criminals, which we see in studies all the time. And it's ironic that this plight is now shared because, you know, you get police saying we're good. Just because of a few bad policeman doesn't mean we should be labeled. And you're like, that's exactly what black people have been trying to say for years. Just because of a few, you should not label an entire group. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the fact that these things are issues. You know, just because it is a few doesn't mean that the many don't have to deal with it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show." You've said that there was a period when you were overweight and there was a period when you were very depressed. A lot of comics feed on that kind of thing. Like, so many comics have dealt with depression and have dealt with all kinds of, like, neuroses and anxieties, and that becomes part of the subject of their comedy. I haven't heard you talk about that kind of thing in your comedy, you know - to talk about those really personal things.

NOAH: I think it depends on where you meet me in the world and when you meet me in the world. Because I'm still new in the United States, the conversation I'm still having is about me being in this world, it's still me getting to know the general audience. In South Africa, I've talked about everything - like everything from the abuse in my family all the way through to depression. So it's about a conversation and it's about a relationship. Because, again, like I said before with context, it's about knowing the person. If I met you and I started talking to you about depression, that's not a very good conversation to have between strangers. But amongst friends, we can approach it from a different place. And so what I - I have different relationships going at the same time all over the world with different audiences. You know, in South Africa, I have a relationship with an audience that's been going for 11 years. In the U.S., I have a relationship that's only been going for four years. So over time, that evolution occurs and the conversation slowly shifts. But it's never been something that I'm afraid to speak about because I find often times, you talk about things, and there's people in the audience who are going through the same thing or feeling the same way. And then you become a mouthpiece for what they're internalizing.

GROSS: And so there's another excerpt of your standup comedy that I want to play. And this has to do with being in a room. And an African-American guy in the room knows that there's an African in the room and he doesn't realize that you're the African. And he's misled by that because you're so light-skinned. He doesn't think that you would be the African. So here's Trevor Noah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOAH: Like I do shows, I've been doing shows around the country - around the world where I've been blessed. And I remember one day, I'm in LA and I'm doing a show. And we're sitting backstage. And this comedian comes in to the backstage area and he's got a list of all the guys that are performing. And so he looks around and he looks at the darkest guy in the corner - just the blackest guy he could find - and he goes, hey, yo, you the dude from Africa?

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And the guy looks up and he's like, no, man, I'm from Detroit.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: He's like, all right. My bad, my bad, my bad. All right, yo, OK, Detroit, yeah, yeah, you - all right, OK, cool. LA, OK, cool, cool, cool. And then he looks at me for a second, does a quick calculation and he's like, all right, all right - yeah. And then he looks and he goes, yo, where you from, man? I said I'm from South Africa. He's like, oh, you the dude? Oh, Damn, man. Damn, all right. Yo, I didn't even know they got - yo, you the dude from Africa? Man, I didn't even know they got light-skinned [expletive] out there, man. Damn, all right. Yo, that's the motherland, man. That's the motherland. And all of a sudden, he just started giving me this speech. He was like, man, you know, yo, man - that's where we got to be, man. That's, you know - that's the motherland out here, man. Yeah, I got to get out there, Man. I got to - yo, I got to go home, man. You heard? I got to go home. Man, you tell them, all right? You tell them. You tell them I'm coming home, all right? And I was like, we're not waiting.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Trevor Noah in 2013. So what is...

NOAH: Here...

GROSS: Yeah.

NOAH: So when I first got to the United States, I mean, this was something I always joked about and joked within was the longing of African-Americans to return to a place they considered home, which was Africa, the motherland. And I always joked about it because as an African, you're going, we're so far apart, we're so different, that this is not your home. This is not - you know? No one's waiting for you here. No one is thinking of it like that. And it was a joke that I played around in because I had no idea how excluded African-Americans feel in America. And that's why I say comedy's all about context because two things happened to me. One, I realized that there was a pain and a pride that was attached to that statement of the motherland, which I took for granted because I'm from the motherland. And the second thing was - and this was probably one of the most painful things. And you can't control this all the time in comedy but you try to. And that was I will never forget the day - there was a white middle-aged man. And he heard that joke. And he laughed, but he laughed in such a mean way. And he laughed and he said, I love it. He said, I love it, Trevor, you know? You know what I love about this is that you showed them that they're not real black people. They, you know, they act like they're suffering, but you can show them. You can tell them what the real black is about 'cause you're from Africa. And you can tell them. And it was the weirdest feeling because I realized in that moment, he had used what I intended to be playful teasing, and he had used it as a weapon. In his world, he was going, I've found something I can use to oppress those who are already oppressed. Like, I found something I can use to hurt people even more.

GROSS: And feel justified in doing it because it's coming out of the mouth...

NOAH: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Of a black man.

NOAH: Exactly. And once that happens, that's something that no comedian really wants. I mean, I - it's funny 'cause Dave Chappelle is a friend of mine, and we talked about that. And he told me stories of how that broke his heart as well when people, you know, felt that they could run around saying the N-word because he said it and they were like, no, no, I'm just saying Dave Chappelle's joke. I'm not saying - you know? And he was like, I'm not giving - this is not - it wasn't supposed to be a license for you to go out and hurt other people using me as an excuse. It was me expressing myself for my audience. And so that was something that I came to realize is that you have to be careful. You don't have full control over it. But you have to be careful because what you may create as something designed to be harmless, could be used by someone else to be harmful.

GROSS: So does that mean that you wouldn't do that comedy bit that we just played?

NOAH: No...

GROSS: You wouldn't do it anymore?

NOAH: ...It doesn't mean I wouldn't do it. But if I did it, I would do it in a way now that I make sure that I don't allow anybody to steal it from me. That's the key thing is not allowing anyone to hijack your message and use it...

GROSS: How do you do that?

NOAH: Well, it's just about - it's funny. It's like people do with the Constitution. It's just - it's about amending it, that's all it is. I amend my comedy. I go, this is open to interpretation. This might be confusing and this might get people fighting unnecessarily. So let me amend my joke so that it is less confusing so they see where I'm coming from and what my intention is. And that's literally all I do. So if you realize something is vague, you have an opportunity to go in and amend it to impart more clarity.

GROSS: Did you amend that routine?

NOAH: I haven't - no, I haven't done - because it's such an old routine, I haven't done it.

GROSS: Right, OK.

NOAH: So, you know? So I haven't needed to go back. But I have amended many routines just because I've learned. You know, sometimes someone will go, hey, that actually means this here or that touches on a different thing in this country. And then I go, oh, and I amend it. I'm never afraid to admit that I'm wrong.

GROSS: Well, Trevor Noah, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you good luck with "The Daily Show." I've been enjoying it very much. Thank you so much.

NOAH: Thank you very much, I appreciate your time.

GROSS: Trevor Noah is the host of "The Daily Show." The show is in reruns this week, but it returns with new episodes Monday. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Sue Klebold whose memoir is about being the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, or our interview with the author of a book comparing the drug cartel's business model with those of big-box stores and fast food franchises or our interviews with Zach Galifianakis, the Duplass brothers and Joel Grey, check out our podcast. You'll find those and many other interviews.

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