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We Ranked All 12 Trevor Noah Comedy Specials
Trevor Noah’s stand-up career, which spans from South Africa to American TV stardom, has produced many comedy specials. They are a work of astute observations and satirical goofs. Here’s a definitive ranking.
When Trevor Noahtook the reins of The Daily Show in 2015, many Americans didn’t know who he was. Back home, the South African native from Soweto was now a star. It was a crossover success story that beamed his face into American homes and built a global following. He had started in comedy clubs in Johannesburg, then toured the country while selling out shows. At the time, he had a couple of stand-up projects. It was full of impressionist stuff and the kind of self-pondering “woke” material sure to ruffle the feathers of the conservative right.
It was all up for scrutiny. Race as a recurring theme was more autobiographical than anything. Noah is from a mixed-race family, Swiss father and Black mother. From 1949 to 1985 in apartheid-era South Africa, relations between white and Black people were illegal. This left Noah feeling like an outsider. To a degree, this experience granted him safe passage into the choppy arena of America’s racial discourse. Three Netflix stand-up deals later and exiting The Daily Show after seven illustrious years, Noah’s stand-up catalogue has expanded with acclaim.
Why does he like Indian food? What are his existential fears? What are his thoughts on South Africa’s xenophobia? For someone whose routines often draw from the real world, Noah doesn’t so much contend with the prejudice in his own country. “Is Trevor Noah funny?” is a question lodged in internet discussion boards. Whether asked in bad faith, or just racism-coded, it only adds to the mythology of the comedian.
While Noah’s comic style can be categorized as “intelligent” or “smart satire,” this flattening misses his other charms. It can be brainless, as seen in his early stand-up. The plop sound in detailing a penis joke in 2009’s The Daywalker is rooted in situational political humor. If Noah is now seen as a wisecracking political jester, it’s because it’s who he is.
From puppeteering himself as a drunk Nelson Mandela breaking into Michael Jackson dance moves, to Jacob Zuma having sex, there’s a world where whimsical and politics collide. But there’s an even bigger world where Noah just does what he wants. This we will probably see as he pushes on after The Daily Show.
12. The Daywalker 2.0 (2010)
This extended cut of Noah’s debut one-man special, The Daywalker, feels unkindly bloated. Almost two hours of runtime, Noah regurgitates the same material for a better part of thirty minutes. John Terry and Tiger Woods and their cheating scandals aren’t developed into punchlines, only cursorily mentioned. If anything, it indicates Noah's love for current affairs. The Caster Semenya sequence while doing an impression of Julius Malema freshens up the set.
Other fresh bits in the routine include Oprah building an ultra-expensive school in South Africa. Noah turns disciplining school children into a joke, which earns sincere laughs from the audience. The Daywalker 2.0 cracks open his travels to America, the neurosis of emulating Black American mannerisms and speech. On the whole, the special might be a good place to start for those interested in Noah’s comedy specials.
11. The Daywalker (2009)
Held in an 1,100-seat theatre, The Daywalker announced Noah as a serious practitioner in the stand-up business. Where else would the rising comic film his first solo show other than Johannesburg, the city that holds memories of his childhood? Obviously less flashy in its production and theatrics, we see Noah’s inclination towards politics and real-world events, which will inform other specials to follow.
His mastery of accents and storytelling are almost genius-level, mimicking South African politicians from Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma to Julius Malema. But he’s only as funny as his subject matter will allow, losing audiences who aren’t South African. The Daywalker is also deeply personal. It finds Noah sharing anecdotes on his formative years in apartheid South Africa, and grappling with the realities of being biracial. Mistaken for an albino who could go out in sunlight, this is where the title of the special comes from. The sly nod to the vampire lore in Blade makes this revelation cathartic.
10. Crazy Normal (2011)
Crazy Normal was the fruit of Noah’s relationship with David Meyer, the American director behind the special. Meyer had been in South Africa to film a documentary about Noah: 2011’s You Laugh But It’s True. As before, most of his material is localized. Some observational humor on South Africa hosting the World Cup, metal detectors, airplane experiences, the national anthem, and fun tangents about South Africans wielding lightsabers in Star Wars.
Jacob Zuma is now a recurring gag, whether as throwaway commentary or buildup toward a punchline. There's an interesting mention of Durban’s high Indian population coming next to India. It’s made funnier when the camera pans to the Indians in the live audience. What Crazy Normal shows is that Noah loves South Africa, warts and all.
9. It’s My Culture (2013)
Noah had performed a brief routine on The Late Show with David Letterman before this special. Already infiltrating the enterprise of American talk shows, his rising profile and many travels provide fodder for It’s My Culture. With tales to tell, David Paul Meyer accompanies Noah once more to tape this over-an-hour-long special in his home country.
He mocks Afrikaners (white South Africans) about their support for their favorite rugby team. His voice impression of Nigerians supporting the South African football team to escape xenophobia is more taunting than funny. It exposes how Noah sometimes comes up short, as a comedian, in trying to dislodge issues from their serious contextual roots.
Every comedian has at least told one gay joke before, which makes Noah’s gay humor informed by his time in Zambia a little banal. Butt size amongst different women based on race is arguably a titillating turn. In closing out, there is more gay humor, citing powerful gay men in history before shocking the audience with Shaka Zulu as one of them.
8. Pay Back the Funny (2015)
Installed as the new host of The Daily Show, Noah comes to terms with being famous in Pay Back the Funny. Microphone in hand, he assumes mounting levels of poise about attending his first Met Gala. From having to disappointingly return the Ralph Lauren suit he was given for the event and watching in slight disbelief Jennifer Lawrence attack her food, this bit shows off Noah’s storytelling prowess.
Candid observations on how phones are making humans dumb are especially true when women contort themselves to take selfies, according to Noah. Some jokes aren’t funny, rather they come across as self-contained monologues. An element of Noah’s showmanship is the flair to dramatize material, projecting a slightly burlesque or vaudevillian quality. It works just enough to turn lukewarm material into entertainment. In the end, he indicts British colonization, using India as a case study. But it goes on for too long, a timing issue, negotiating more patience from the audience than it should.
7. That’s Racist (2012)
The beginning of That’s Racist – a song about racial unity from Noah in campy autotune – announces the comic’s penchant for grand gestures. He siphons humor from South Africa’s political antics and idiosyncrasies, winking at Pretoria’s many white people, the police, and road tolls. He riffs on the striking miners from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Thirty-four miners had been shot by the police with several injured.
Noah flattens out their deaths though, turning it into a slapstick about avoiding teargas from the police during protests. If some locals in this audience found this offensive, it wouldn't have been surprising. Obvious by now, Noah sees the funny sides of race and racism. Imagine a rehab for racists where they come in to share recovery journeys on being less racist? Or white people in South Africa calling themselves the K-word to end racism? Noah revels in this reality warping, dipping in and out of absurdism to paint a world finally reckoning with race.
6. There’s A Gupta on My Stoep (2017)
There’s A Gupta on My Stoep feels like a homecoming for Noah after being away for two years. A cheering audience offers both organic and obligatory laughter to his laundry list of observations about South Africa, from Julius Malema being skinny, the haphazard nature of parliament to Afrikaners on strike. Accustomed to satirizing world events on The Daily Show, especially in America, Noah stays in character.
The result? A scarily good voice impression of Donald Trump and his proposal to build a border wall between the US and Mexico. He also does a funny, make-believe interaction between the former president and Melania having a marital quarrel. Noah dips his hand into more American pie; he skirts around the thorny subject of police brutality by making a distinction between its occurrence in South Africa and the U.S.
Straightforwardly, he remembers to thank South Africans for being the biggest demographic tuning in to watch him on The Daily Show. Fun fact: the title is inspired by the Indian Gupta brothers and their corrupt relationship with Jacob Zuma.
5. I Wish You Would (2022)
The third comedy special for Netflix – and the last at the moment – is not Noah’s best work. Taped in Toronto, Canada, there is casual or observational humor about Justin Trudeau, horror movies, the COVID and Ebola crisis, learning German to order food in Cologne, Queen Elizabeth’s death, and the Royal Family. These are just to name a few topics. But it isn’t memorable and feels like something you would hear during water cooler conversations.I Wish You Would is a mixed bag. While there are funny bits, others needed more workshopping to be relevant. The ones about Trump, case in point, are removed from the zeitgeist to have any bite. Noah declares his love for Indian food (curry, to be exact), which segues into a convoluted story about taking his friends out to an Indian restaurant in Scotland.
4. Lost in Translation (2015)
Noah was on the American leg of his Lost in Translation tour when this was shot in The Lincoln Theatre, Washington DC. If you get confused seeing this special as Welcome To America online, do not be. It’s a DVD special release that came out the following year, with the same content. Much of the premise is about race and his experiences in America. He dives headlong into police brutality and how to survive it. It produces a safe, bloodless humor, without explicit disrespect to the well-known lives it had taken.Lost in Translation is a dual study of being Black and African, and the stereotypes associated with them. Noah coughing on a flight to San Francisco during the Ebola crisis is a blood-in-the-water nuance, same as being hyper-scrutinized at TSA checkpoints. He goes on a stereotype-busting streak around Muslims and terrorism, Black people and crime, turning these moments into a call to action.
3. Son of Patricia (2018)
Filmed at a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, Son of Patricia scooped up a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy album in 2020. The opening salvo of mimicking trap music is peak impression from Noah. Those familiar with other past specials from the comic might find the material in Son of Patricia repetitive. Further, his camping experience in Bali is the longest sequence and bogs down the set. “Nothing says American as tacos,” might be a line people remember from the routine. Here, Noah is poking fun at how Americans love immigrant food despite having anti-immigration attitudes.
He’s still enamored with race. Rochester, New York is a significant site for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada. He imagines slaves turning down water transportation because that’s how they came into the New World. “It was this day ‘nigga please’ was invented,” Noah concludes, rewarded with laughs from the audience. Fond memories of his South African mother, especially teaching him how to deal with racism, finds a sweet spot between nostalgia and self-preservation.
2. African American (2013)
Noah loves New York. Even back then, it’s no surprise he teamed up with American cable network, Showtime, to film this special in the city. While it features race-heavy material, Noah’s navigation is both delicate and masterful as he brings an outsider perspective on all things American. There are one-liners about the KKK, American pronunciations, the metric system, and praise for Black American culture. His mixed-race background gives him a vantage point about race relations. “I came to America because I wanted to be Black,” Noah admits, straddling the line between his experience in South Africa and America.
He reprises his joke about Oprah building a school in South Africa, which is received rather well on account of the American setting. Sometimes with mischievous innocence, Noah picks apart American conceits that fuel stereotypes about other countries. “Americans don’t know anything outside of America,” isn’t exactly profound, but it builds into a hilariously barbed joke about American exceptionalism and geopolitical power. He acts out a standout sequence involving a hallway, where countries stand in fear as America passes by and hears a fart. Iran openly takes responsibility, and the exchange between both countries with the accusation of a “nuclear fart” is a blistering gag-house moment.
1. Afraid of the Dark (2017)
This is the first of Noah’s sumptuous stand-up deal with Netflix. It’s a new kind of prestige, the opening seconds catching his name in the marquee lights of New York’s Beacon Theatre. And for a little over an hour, he brings out the big guns, tackling immigration, politics, racism, sexism and international relations with striking intelligence and an easy-going charisma. “Don’t take a drink from the Scotts,” he warns, recounting the night he went out drinking with a friend in Glasgow and dealing with the aftermath.
Afraid of the Dark marries Noah’s accent chops with relatable experiences. Overcoming his fear in the dark by putting on a Russian accent (because it strikes fear in everyone) is as much a personal breakthrough as it is a clever piece of humor. Shoehorning this tactic in helping women navigate sexual assault is rather bold of the comedian, given the sensitivity of the subject.
But the highlight is an elaborately crafted joke about Nelson Mandela teaching Barack Obama how to be a great orator. Noah is perhaps the only one that could have pulled this off. Though long, his commitment to tempo and pitch, and delivery proves why he’s one of the most revered comics working today.
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