Trevor Noah steps away from 'The Daily Show', embarks on new standup tour
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," is stepping down next week after seven years. When he took over from Jon Stewart, he 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. Noah grew up during the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. He became famous in South Africa as a comic and TV personality, and spent years doing standup internationally. And on "The Daily Show," he developed his own style and audience quickly and intelligently. He became looser and even more daring when hosting remotely during COVID. And by the time he hosted the infamously tricky White House Correspondents Dinner earlier this year, with President Biden in attendance, Trevor Noah was in easy command of his skills and the room. He even joked about his invitation to host the event.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TREVOR NOAH: You know, I was a little confused about, why me? But then I was told that you get your highest approval ratings when a biracial African guy is standing next to you. So...
BIANCULLI: Watching him on "The Daily Show," it was often funny and enlightening to hear his take on American life and politics. We're going to listen back to portions of two of Terry's interviews with Trevor Noah. The first was recorded early in 2016, a few months after he'd taken over "The Daily Show." It began with a segment from the show in October 2015, when he was comparing Donald Trump's rhetoric with statements made by African presidents and dictators.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH")
NOAH: What I'm trying to say is Donald Trump is presidential. He just happens to be running on the wrong continent. 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.
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: People love 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.
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 point.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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 because 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, you - 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?
GROSS: Your show's great, you feel great. Your show's bad, it's like, oh, this is so horrible.
NOAH: 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: 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, because 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 COMEDY SPECIAL, "TREVOR NOAH: AFRICAN AMERICAN")
NOAH: She was really helpful. She was like 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. So, OK, I don't know what to do here. And she's 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. I was like, choose whatever? I was like, I've never been given that option before. I looked at the boxes. I mean, there was Black. That's the reason I came. The Black box was there. I was like, well, that's it. So I'll choose it. But then I looked to the left, and there was the white box. And, oh, it looked good. It just...
NOAH: I mean, don't get me wrong. It was the same as the other boxes. But there must have been a reason it was first in line. It's 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. I played it safe. I said, so I can go with Black? She's like, you know what? A lot of them choose Black. Yeah, yeah. And so just because she said that, 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 woman 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 the emotions. And then they almost have like this malfunction, like a robot. I don't know. It's amazing to see because 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's like, oh, OK. OK. OK. Like, white? Yeah. Yeah. It...
NOAH: Bzzt, bzzt (ph).
GROSS: That was Trevor Noah in 2013.
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 I - one thing I suffer from and I also feel is my gift, is the ability to see the other side.
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 or be like, hey; you can't think like that. You can't hold these views because you're generalizing everybody. So I've always been on both sides.
BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah speaking to Terry Gross in 2016 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER SONG, "MIGHTY MIGHTY")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with Trevor Noah, shortly after he had begun hosting "The Daily Show." Next week, he steps away from the Comedy Central TV franchise after seven years.
GROSS: 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. He's Swiss.
GROSS: And your mother is Sosa (ph).
GROSS: Thank you. I don't think I can do that.
GROSS: And I know your mother was jailed - briefly, I hope - in South Africa, I assume...
GROSS: ...For opposing apartheid, for doing some kind of dissenting action.
NOAH: Yes. Well, the dissenting action was being with a white person and going into...
GROSS: Oh, that's why she was jailed?
NOAH: (Laughter) Yes, yes.
GROSS: Was the white person your father?
NOAH: Yes, he was. Yeah. So - but that...
GROSS: Was he jailed for it, too?
NOAH: No, 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, is that in my family, we 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: 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 were allowed to downgrade. So, you know, you could go - you could almost forfeit your rights and then go live in an area that was deemed inferior to the one that you were allowed to live in. So I was living with my mother in Soweto and my grandmother and the rest of our 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 - even today, Soweto is a - it's a beautiful community, you know? Everyone knows everybody's names. You know, there's a - 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 our 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 a 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 - but this is how everyone lived. And because everyone was doing it, then it's normal. So, you know, 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.
NOAH: If everyone's suffering together, it doesn't seem so bad.
GROSS: Were your parents still a couple when apartheid ended?
NOAH: No. No, no, they weren't. They weren't. I - 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, 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 - I was living my life. My mom would - she was - she went through very elaborate - you know, 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 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 is a functional thing I need to get my family together. So that - 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...
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 - 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 reason, 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, you know, and that was the craziest thing is you're living in a world where it happens - it happened sporadically. Like, you know, it wasn't an everyday thing, but it was - 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...
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 really 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 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 was - 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 a bullet completely passes through the head, then you almost have to concede. I mean, who was I to say I don't believe in miracles when I've seen this happen in my life?
So, you know, we laughed about it. We joked. I mean, that's really the hallmark of my family is - I mean, a few days afterwards in the hospital, my mom was the person who cracked 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, and 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.
BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. Last week, he unveiled his third standup comedy special for Netflix, called "I Wish You Would." Next week, he steps down as host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and is about to embark on a new stand-up tour. After a break, we'll listen to another of Terry's conversations with Trevor Noah. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Eternal Daughter," in which Tilda Swinton plays both a mother and her daughter. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE TRIO'S "HAM HOCKS AND CABBAGE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to our interviews with Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," who's stepping down next week. He took over in 2015 after the departure of Jon Stewart. We're going to listen to another interview with Noah, recorded with Terry later in 2016 after the publication of his memoir, "Born A Crime." Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984 during apartheid.
GROSS: Your book is called "Born A Crime" because you are officially the product of a crime. Your mother is Black. And your father is white - part Swiss, part German. And your book opens with the law, with a word-for-word version of the law that made that relationship illegal.
GROSS: It's the reason why your book is called "Born A Crime." I want you to actually read the wording of this 1927 South African law.
NOAH: So this is the Immorality Act of 1927. (Reading) To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto. Be it enacted by the king's most excellent majesty, the senate and the house of assembly of the Union of South Africa as follows. Point No. 1, any European male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a native female, and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female, shall be guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years. Any native female who permits any European male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her, and any European female who permits any native male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her, shall be guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding four years.
GROSS: So how aware were you growing up that you were the product of a crime, and if people saw you, they might realize that your mother was officially guilty?
NOAH: I wasn't aware at all. And I was really lucky that I wasn't aware because I think that would've changed my childhood and my view on the world drastically. You know, I existed in a space where my mother was a Black woman, my father was a white man. And that's how I saw the world. I was just like, you know, some dads are white. And some moms are Black. And that's how it is.
GROSS: But that's not how it was in South Africa.
NOAH: Definitely, yeah.
GROSS: So how were you protected so that you were able to see yourself and your parents that way?
NOAH: Well, it was just how my parents treated me. It was the world they decided to show me. I was really sheltered. My grandmother kept me locked in the house when I was staying, you know, with the family in Soweto. And every household, for instance, had to have a registry of everyone who lived in that house.
And so the police would check in on you randomly. And they would come into the house. And they would look through that registry and look at all the names of all the people who were registered to be living in the house. And they would, you know, cross-reference that with the actual inhabitants of the dwelling.
And I was never on that piece of paper. I was always hidden. My grandmother would hide me somewhere if the police did show up. And it was a constant game of hide and seek. But I didn't know why anything was happening. You're a child. If you're told to go to the bedroom and, you know, go under the bed, then you go under the bed. But you don't - I never saw it as a fearful moment. I never saw it as something that was governing my life because I was so young that I didn't ask questions.
GROSS: Your mother was arrested several times during your childhood...
GROSS: ...During apartheid because of her relationship with your father, because they had carnal, sexual intercourse.
GROSS: And you were the product of that. So how much time would you estimate she actually spent in prison?
NOAH: I was really lucky in that my mom and dad never got caught in the act, so to speak. So my mom was caught fraternizing with my dad. My mom was caught, you know, in the building that my father lived in. My mom was caught in a white neighborhood past curfew without the right permits. My mother was caught in transition. And that was key because had she been caught in the act, then, as the law says, she could've spent anywhere up to four years in prison.
So on and off, my mom would spend a week in jail. She would spend a day in jail here - a week again, a week and a half, two weeks. My grandmother tells me stories of how, you know, because I would be at the house, I wouldn't notice that my mom was gone because she would be at work sometimes. So it was just, like, time when my mom would be gone. And my grandma would tell me she'll be back. And nobody knew where anybody was.
The police didn't afford you a phone call. You just disappeared for a while. And what was scary was we lived in a state where some people disappeared forever. You know, if the police believed that they were planning any form of resistance against the state, then you were just gone. Nobody knew where you were. And you just hoped to see that family member again.
GROSS: I found it interesting that there were Black people who also hated your mother for having relations with a white man. You tell a story about being in a minibus, which basically functioned like a taxi...
NOAH: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...Because there were no taxis in the townships. So you're in a minibus. And the driver, realizing that you are your mother's son, you know, figures out that she must've had relations with a white man. And he starts calling her a whore.
GROSS: And she tells you, when the minibus slows down, you got to jump. And she, like, throws you out of the van. And you had an infant brother at the time. So she jumps out, holding him in such a way as to protect him when she jumps out. And then you had to hit the ground and run. But anyways - so it must have been totally bizarre to get that kind of hatred from Black people, too.
NOAH: But that's the sadness. And I guess that is the strange part of the human brain that, you know, people have studied for eons, is hatred and self-hatred, you know? People going, how can you hate somebody that is of you? But that's what people do successfully in any regime that is governed by hate. You can convince people that the problem is not coming from the top but is, rather, being created by the people who are being oppressed.
And so what the apartheid system was really good at doing was convincing groups to hate one another. And so what you do is you convince Black people that the reason they are being oppressed is because there are some within their community who just can't behave. And if only they could behave, then everyone else would have more freedoms and liberties, which, of course, is not true.
But if you can convince people of that, then you can get them to focus their hatred on their fellow man, who is trying to achieve freedom, as opposed to focusing on the oppressive government. And we see that happen all over the world, regardless of race. It's a tactic that is used over and over successfully.
BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK'S "DECK THE HALLS")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with Trevor Noah, who has a new comedy special on Netflix and is stepping down next week as host of Comedy Central's "The Daily "Show" after seven years.
GROSS: Your mother sounds incredibly brave because she was always kind of flaunting the law when she married your stepfather, who's - they're separated now.
NOAH: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: He wanted her to be, like, the traditional wife, and she refused to be that.
GROSS: She - like you said, she just defied all conventions when she wanted to, and she talked back to people. I mean, she...
NOAH: It's funny you say that because I - when I wrote the book, I thought that I was the hero of my story. And in writing it, I came to realize, over time, that my mom was the hero and I was - you know, I was just a punk-ass sidekick.
NOAH: I was lucky to come along for the ride. And she really is an amazing woman. And the world we lived in, in South Africa at the time, was a very matriarchal society because so many Black men had been removed from the home.
GROSS: Either in prison or in exile.
NOAH: Either in prison or in exile, or even sent off to work in the mines. And, you know - and so families were living separately from the fathers. And so although, according to African culture, men were the head of the household, the truth is women were the ones who were raising everybody including men. And growing up with my mother, that was something I really learned to appreciate.
GROSS: Because your mother is Black and your father was white and you were officially designated as colored...
GROSS: ...In South Africa, wherever you were, you were the anomaly.
NOAH: I was.
GROSS: Yeah. And so it was always hard for you to figure out, like, where do you fit? And you seem to have learned so many ways of dealing with that including learning different languages and different dialects. So how many languages do you speak?
NOAH: I speak six currently.
GROSS: Name them?
NOAH: So I speak English obviously, Afrikaans, which is a derivative of Dutch that we have in South Africa. And then, I speak African languages. So I speak Zulu. I speak Xhosa. I speak Tswana. And I speak Tsonga. And, like, so those are my languages, the core. And then, I don't claim German, but I can have a conversation in it. So I'm trying to make that officially my seventh languages (ph), and then, hopefully, I can learn Spanish.
GROSS: And it sounds like this is something you picked up from your mother, who also spoke several languages...
GROSS: ...And used them in a very kind of cunning way when she needed to, to make sure that she wasn't, you know, imprisoned or - although she was imprisoned. (Laughter) But I mean, she got out of it sometimes.
NOAH: Yeah, but she got out of many situations, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And so there's a passage from your book that I'd like you to read that's about how your mother used language and how you use language...
GROSS: ...To help navigate difficult situations.
NOAH: (Reading) Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once. And the shopkeeper right in front of us turned to his security guard, and he said in Afrikaans, (speaking Afrikaans) - follow those Blacks in case they steal something. My mother turned around and said in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans, (speaking Afrikaans) - why don't you follow these Blacks so you can help them find what they're looking for? (Speaking Afrikaans), the man said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then - and this was the funny thing - he didn't apologize for being racist. He merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. Oh, I'm so sorry, he said. I thought you were like the other Blacks. You know how they love to steal.
(Reading) I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast - give you the program in your own tongue. I'd get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. Where are you from, they'd ask. I'd reply in whatever language they'd addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion. And then, the suspicious look would disappear. Oh, OK I thought you were a stranger. We're good then. It became a tool that served me my whole life.
(Reading) One day as a young man, I was walking down the street. And a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me. And I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me - (speaking Zulu). Let's get this white guy. You go to his left, and I'll come up behind him. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't run. So I just spun around real quick and said, (speaking Zulu) - yo, guys, why don't we just mug someone together? I'm ready. Let's do it. They looked shocked for a moment, and then, they started laughing. Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren't trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.
(Reading) They were ready to do to me violent harm until they felt that we were part of the same tribe. And then, we were cool. That, and so many other, smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you. But if I spoke like you, I was you.
GROSS: That's Trevor Noah reading from his new memoir, "Born A Crime." I like that passage so much in part because when I hear you on "The Daily Show" and on some of your stand-up comedy that I've heard on recording, you do accents and voices so well. Like, you can mimic other people really well. And it seems like that's something you learned to do out of self-preservation when you were young.
NOAH: Yeah, definitely. I think it was something I inherited from my mother, who learned to do it. You know, I, like a baby duckling, was merely mimicking the survival traits that my mother possessed. And I came to learn very quickly that language was a powerful, powerful tool. Language and accents govern so much of how people think about other people.
GROSS: I want to ask you another question about your life. We've talked about how race and being biracial affected you growing up in South Africa. You mentioned in the book that you had terrible acne as a teenager - like, really bad.
GROSS: OK. So that affects how people literally see you.
GROSS: It covers your face. So people were already seeing you through a certain lens because of your race, you know, because of being biracial, and you didn't fit in any place as a result of that. How did having acne complicate your whole sense of identity?
NOAH: Well, the one thing I was lucky - I feel I was lucky about is when this happened, I was in high school. And during the period I was in high school, race almost went out of the window because high school was oftentimes almost like a classist society. But the classism isn't about money, it's about coolness. What is your cool factor? How much cool do you possess? And that determines where you go. Are you good at sports? Then you get to go into the coolest places. Are you super good-looking? Then you get to be in the cool club, and so on and so forth.
And I possessed none of those qualities. I wasn't good at sports. I was on the chess team. I had, like - I had such bad acne. I mean, people ask me now - they go, well, let me see pictures. I'm like, I didn't take pictures for that reason. I shied away from any type of photograph that you would find because I thought that I was hideous because in my eyes, I was. I had to go on medication repeatedly. And the medication makes you suicidal and depressed. And then you have to go off it because of your kidneys. And it was just such a trying time.
And, I mean, in school, that's your cachet. How you look and what you can do determine everything in school. And, you know, so I was one of those kids who just stayed in a corner and watched the world pass them by. You know, you're watching the world, and the world exists without you.
GROSS: You mentioned that the medication led to depression. And in - The New York Times Sunday Book Review has a Q&A called "By The Book." And you were interviewed for that. I think it was in that that you said - the question was, what books would you have that we would be surprised that you were reading? And you said self-help books about depression.
NOAH: Yeah. That's one of the biggest things. And I'm proud to say that. That's another stigma that I think we need to get rid of is improving our minds and our mental health. You know, when you suffer from depression, you go, this is something that I have, and I can work on it, you know? I often think of depression, though, as more of a symptom than a cause. You know, I go - I trace depression back to things.
So I go, OK, I look back, and I say, my self-esteem was affected because of my skin and because my family had no money and I was ashamed of how poor I was. And I look at all of that, and I was trying to hide myself. And so I felt like I was less than I was. And so that then leads to you being depressed. And I work on these things, you know.
And I think all of us should seek help. And not help as in a - you know, help shouldn't be seen as a frightening thing. Help shouldn't be seen as a weak thing. You get help at the gym. No one complains about that. You get help from your trainer. That's commonplace. And I think we need to spend more time doing that with mental help. You know, a lot of us have issues that we don't work on, and we don't deal with. And I try. I try my utmost.
GROSS: Trevor Noah, thank you so much.
NOAH: Thank you for having me. Thank you. I'm a huge fan, so thank you. This is great that we get to be in the same studio for a change.
BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. His newest stand-up comedy special premiered last week on Netflix, and he steps down next week after hosting "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central for seven years. Here he is talking to that show's audience during a recent taping explaining that one reason he wants to quit the show is to do more traveling. He asks for suggestions about where to go, and one woman suggests Easter Island.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Easter Island.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Rapa Nui - Easter Island, off the coast of Chile.
NOAH: Easter Island. I thought you said Eastern Ireland. I was like, no one's ever said it like that.
NOAH: It's like Eastern Ireland - (impersonating Irish accent) ah, yes, Trevor, a part of Ireland no one's ever been to before, a special part that nobody's ever been to.
NOAH: OK. Easter Island. All right. All right. I'm going to check it out. I will. And Ireland - I'm going to go back to Ireland. This is - it's too much fun. The world is like - you know, if you can travel, travel. That's the way I see it. And I've - you know, I was locked up like many of you were. We all - and then, you know, now I'm - see what's out there in the world. You know, get out and about and, you know, taste the food and, you know, that experience - tasting a new thing and being like, ah, this is disgusting. But I love the experience.
NOAH: I love the experience.
BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah, who's leaving "The Daily Show" next week after a very impressive seven-year run. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Eternal Daughter," in which Tilda Swinton plays dual roles as a mother and her own daughter. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO'S "HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.