Trevor Noah is one of the best philosopher-comedians because of how he thinks about the world
Written by B87FM on July 17, 2023
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Trevor Noah is one of the best modern examples of what I call the philosopher-comedian. I didn’t make that up — lots of people have noted the similarities between philosophers and standup comics here and here. One academic paper called “Philosophy and Stand-Up Comedy” says the two groups are aligned because both “reflect upon our foibles and in doing so generate insights into the human condition.” Most comics don’t fit into this category; most just want to make us laugh, but there are some who can make us laugh and also help us see the world around us a little more clearly The ones who can talk about the absurdity of the human condition can help us see the world in new ways.
Chris Rock is perhaps the greatest of the modern philosopher-comedians. His work can sometimes seem like a TED Talk as he runs through his big ideas about American life. Rock’s work is usually funny but it’s also often intellectually compelling, so much so that if he said he was going to give a speech about America that would not be funny, we’d still watch. I would. We love Rock for his ideas as well as his jokes. I always thought his joke about making bullets really expensive was a brilliant way to impact our gun crisis. Before Rock, there were philosopher-comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, people who used the comedy stage like they were trying to change the world. Which brings us back to Trevor Noah.
What Noah does differently than most of the past great philosopher-comedians is he brings a global perspective. Noah is from South Africa. His mother is South African and his father is Swiss-German. He’s lived in America for years now. In his work, he talks about the whole world — in his last Netflix special, “I Wish You Would,” he leaps from trying to learn German to impress his dad to the roots of his love of Indian food and poking fun at Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It makes his work very modern and helps us see how the world is interconnected.
I began to really pay attention to Noah as a standup when I saw him do his bit about the different sorts of racism in America and in South Africa. I thought it was brilliant that he was worldly and thoughtful enough to think deeply enough about the racism in each country to compare and contrast them. For the record, he says he prefers South African racism because apartheid’s leaders were so open about everything — it was clear where you stood. In America, he said, racism is more covert and nuanced. He once discussed all of this with the audience of “The Daily Show.” Because racism seems nuanced in America, there are lots of people who argue that racism no longer exists because it can’t be seen clearly enshrined in the law as it was decades ago. Systemic racism and white privilege continue to have a massive impact on America, but we also have a national conversation on whether they even exist and whether the past should just be forgotten because it makes so many white people look bad and feel guilty.
Noah is a citizen of the world, and his comedy reflects that. What it takes to be a great philosopher-comedian now is different than what it took years ago, but Noah, perhaps more than any major standup, has lived a life that has set him up to be a great articulator of what’s going on in the world today.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s.” He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
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