For South African comedian Trevor Noah, the son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, mixed ancestry was the ultimate license to speak his mind.

Share story

JOHANNESBURG — Years before he was chosen to succeed Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” before he made his debut on that Comedy Central news satire show or appeared on any American television program, a rising stand-up named Trevor Noah explained why his racial background was empowering and confining.

Speaking from his native South Africa in 2008, Noah, the son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, said his countrymen had variously accepted and rejected him as being black, and embraced and denied him as being mixed race.

Never fitting in anywhere, Noah said in a documentary, “You Laugh but It’s True,” was the ultimate license to speak his mind.

“You’ve lived everywhere and nowhere,” Noah said. “You’ve been everyone and no one. So you can say everything and nothing.”

Now 31 and seemingly plucked from out of nowhere to follow Stewart, one of America’s most influential and outspoken late-night hosts, Noah has been provided an unparalleled platform on which to share his voice.

Though his comedic sensibilities are largely unknown in the United States, they have been fundamentally shaped by South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, his challenging upbringing in that still-developing democratic nation and by a racial identity that is no more easily categorized in his home country than in the one where he is about to become a television star.

These experiences have imbued Noah with a kind of fearlessness when it comes to talking about the complexities and contradictions of race, the hypocrisies that persist in South Africa, and how his personal story embodies them. The result is a strain of comedy distinctive to him, in which race is often dominant but rarely in the way Americans experience it.

In a 2013 routine on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Noah talked of being taken aback when someone told him he did not look like he was from Africa and had grown up “in the shade.”

“Africa’s not a color — it’s a place,” Noah said.

Few if any topics seem too delicate for him to make fun of — for better or worse, as illustrated by a controversy this week over jokes he made on Twitter about women and Jews.

But, like the man he will follow at “The Daily Show,” when Noah is told a subject is off-limits, he seems to want to go right for it.

In a weekend interview before his “Daily Show” appointment was announced, Noah spoke of being part of “a new, young generation of comedians of color, in a space where our parents didn’t have a voice that was recognized.”

He added: “Comedy plays an important role in us weathering the scars of apartheid.”

Over the past few years, Noah has gained rapid success and a reputation for his prodigious talent and hard work in a South Africa now mature enough to find humor in its history and lingering racial divisions.

Propelled by a breakthrough 2009 stand-up show, “The Daywalker,” a 75-minute set that relates the story of his upbringing, he has built a comic arsenal that melds a wide knowledge of national and global politics with a range of voices and accents — an impersonation of a drunken Nelson Mandela holding court at his 91st birthday party — and an unsparing self-scrutiny.

His jokes may spring from brutal circumstances, but they are told with an air of straightforward ease, by a performer who is mindful but not resentful of the past.

In one routine from “The Daywalker,” Noah recounts traveling to Britain, where another comedian tells him not to call himself “colored,” an appropriate South African term for people who are biracial.

Noah recalls this comedian telling him: “You call yourself ‘mixed race,’ all right? That’s the PC term.”

“On the flip side,” Noah adds cheerfully, “you come to South Africa and say to a colored person, ‘Excuse me, are you mixed race?’ They’ll probably be like, ‘Your ma’s mixed race.’ So you must be careful.”

Born in Johannesburg in 1984, Noah grew up in the final years of apartheid, when South Africa’s white-minority government became an international pariah, backed by a dwindling number of allies, particularly Israel, its longtime economic partner and arms supplier. To this day, as a result, many blacks — and whites who supported the liberation movement — tend to reflexively criticize Israel and support the Palestinian cause.

Apartheid remained a rigid system where race determined many aspects of one’s life, including choices of culture and entertainment. The government, for instance, financed separate film industries for blacks and whites.

Relations between blacks and whites were illegal, and when Noah was born, his parents could not put his father’s name on his birth certificate. His family had to engage in elaborate ruses to hide the fact that Noah was their child.

In “You Laugh but It’s True,” Noah talks about being shuttled between his mother’s home in Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg, and a Johannesburg apartment in an all-white neighborhood where his father lived.

At his father’s residence, his mother posed as the maid so that they could live under one roof.

In his 20s, when Noah began to pursue comedy, it was an almost unthinkable career path for him. Although white comics had performed for white audiences in the country for decades, stand-up was an unknown form of entertainment among most nonwhites.

Noah said in his interview that comedy “wasn’t something I knew existed.” When friends first turned him on to the work of Eddie Murphy, Noah knew him only from his movie roles.

“Somebody said, ‘Hey, have you heard of this Eddie Murphy guy?’” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yes, “The Nutty Professor,” of course.’ I couldn’t believe he was a stand-up first.”

When South African blacks entered into a fledgling stand-up scene after apartheid, their routines focused primarily on race and politics. But as stand-up comedy boomed in recent years, a younger generation of black performers began incorporating their personal experiences.

Takunda Bimha, a comedy manager who represented Noah from 2006 to 2008, described him as a hungry talent who performed relentlessly before any audience, whether at corporate functions or beer promotions in the black townships.

“Trevor was right there in the trenches, performing at clubs where five people would turn up because people didn’t know what stand-up comedy was or appreciate what the art form was all about,” Bimha said in an interview.

Among fellow comedians, Noah became known for his obsessive attention to his work and his extreme ambition.

“You could get onstage, and when you come off, he could give you a full page on what you should improve or not improve,” said Loyiso Gola, 31, a comic who hosts the South African TV satire “Late Nite News.”

Kagiso Lediga, a 36-year-old stand-up, said that from early on, Noah knew where he wanted to take his career.

“He used to say to us, ‘Look, it’s really cool here, but I want to be a comedian in the world,’” Lediga recalled. “It’s not by chance or luck that he’s in the position that he is.”

In 2009, Noah embarked on his one-man show “The Daywalker.” From 2010 to 2012, he performed widely throughout the United States, although he said he did not have the specific aspiration of becoming a star in America.

“You must remember, I came from a world where I was the first person in my family to be on an airplane,” he said. “I was the first person to go to a school where there were children that weren’t just black. The first to have friends of a different race.”

He added: “America was a thing I saw on TV — that wasn’t a real world. That wasn’t within my realm of dreaming.”

But his trajectory changed when he was scouted by Stewart and his “Daily Show” staff about two years ago, and he made his first appearance on the program in December.

In February, Stewart announced his plans to step down, and Noah soon emerged as a potential candidate to succeed him, although he said he did not lobby for the job.

“I’m not a big Hollywood guy,” Noah said. “I don’t know how the machine works. I leave that to people better than myself.”

But, he added, “Jon said to me that he believed in me, which was an amazing thing.”

It is too soon to know how Noah might adapt “The Daily Show” to his tastes, or tackle the frustrating specifics of American government and news media. But he said that his new viewers expect him to live up to Stewart’s standards, and he knows he must earn their continued attention.

“As a comedian, I’m forced to have a tough skin,” he said. “Until people laugh, they are detractors. You walk into a new audience where nobody knows you, they go: ‘Make us laugh. Show us what you’re made of. Prove why we should be listening to you.’”