Schadenfreude: A Review of Trevor Noah’s Loud and Clear Tour
Nov 28 ● BY Nkiacha Atemnkeng
I spent the last two months of 2018 writing on an island in Germany called Sylt. It was very cold and windy and quiet and dark, but Trevor Noah’s comedy was one of the few things that enabled me to survive the homesickness that caught me during my writing residency. The lady who worked at the front office, Frauke, had told us when we arrived—a Nigerian writer friend, Sada Malumfashi and I, that we should pass by the residency office every now and then, even if it entailed just walking past the exterior of the glass building and waving at her from outside, so that she would see us, just to make sure that we were present and doing fine.
We didn’t have to though, as our voices did the waving for us. Whenever new editions of The Daily Show by Comedy Central appeared on YouTube, together with the new Trevor Noah Netflix show titled Son of Patricia, we would congregate together, either in his or my apartment, watch the clips, laugh our lungs out and imitate Trevor Noah in that unmistakable loud tone which West and Central Africans are known for. Frauke, whose office was on the ground floor, directly below our apartments on the first floor, later told us that the intensity of our laughter alone was enough to assure her that we were present and probably doing fine. She said our laughter was also nice because it even warmed up the place, so we didn’t need to pass by her office anymore.
I returned to my country, Cameroon, at the end of January 2019 and went back to my Swissport job at the Douala International Airport. Someone sent me a digital poster of Trevor Noah’s schedule for the 2019 Loud and Clear U.S. Tour after a few days, which I began to share with my friends in the U.S. on WhatsApp. One of them replied.
Bros, you dong start do PR for Trevor now massa? Yi go gi you money?
I smiled, because my friend would never understand. Trevor Noah was not just a source of laughter for me in Sylt and my life in general; he is kin. That a small-town boy from Soweto, who claims to have been born a crime, has become the host of The Daily Show in a big town such as New York, is a success story I feel personally invested in because I’m also a funny bone from a small town, Kumba, who moved to a big town, Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, to work. And even though I worked in aviation, not comedy like Trevor, my airport experiences still inspired me to start an aviation blog, where I published humourous airport vignettes.
I traveled to America in August 2019 to study for an MFA in Creative Writing at Texas State University. I made new friends in my small university town, San Marcos. One of them invited me to lunch in her apartment complex one day, a delicious meal of rice and chicken stew. We spoke about many things as I ate. One of the topics was, of course, Trevor Noah.
“I don’t think Trevor is funny,” she said.
The fork of rice which I raised to my mouth froze in front of my teeth. I disagreed immediately.
“Well, he’s not as funny as he used to be. Dave Chappelle is a much better comedian.”
My eating came to a halt and we started arguing in jest. She, in her gentle voice, elucidating how his material is pandering to the West. Me, in my big, exuberant Central African voice, energetically listing all the reasons why he is still very funny. I said that it was Dave Chappelle himself who had even predicted that Trevor Noah would blow up on the American comedy scene, even as a newbie from South Africa. My friend, however, was steadfast in her opinion.
“Dave Chappelle is the GOAT.”
“Then why did The Daily Show team choose Trevor Noah over him when Jon Stewart retired?” I joked. She told me that Dave Chappelle turned down Comedy Central’s fifty million dollar deal a decade before Trevor even became host of The Daily Show. She still respects him because of that. We agreed to disagree, and I finished my delicious meal and left. A few days later, she sent me a message on WhatsApp.
Hey, I just found out some good news which will interest you. Trevor Noah will perform at a show in Austin on November 2nd.
I remembered the Loud and Clear tour poster which I’d been sharing with friends in the U.S., while I was still in Cameroon, and got excited. The loud guy now had the opportunity to attend his first live comedy performance in America, coincidentally named the Loud and Clear Tour by Trevor Noah. I didn’t know what to expect because I had never attended a live comedy show before, but the event was fully booked and packed. I was surprised that I even had to queue in front of the venue, the University of Texas Bass Concert Hall. I was happy for Trevor though, because he has worked hard and deserves his success.
He started the show by contrasting courtesy in New York and in Austin, saying New Yorkers are not kind at all, they curse and swear everywhere, even in traffic, unlike Austinites who are so kind.
“When you break a traffic rule in Austin, even another driver who is not at fault is still nice to you. You guys are incredible,” he complimented us.
“I don’t know if everybody here is nice to everybody because everybody thinks everybody else has a gun.”
The 180-degree reverse punchline made the crowd chuckle hard, but Trevor was only getting warmed up. It’s a joke which really flaunts Trevor’s improvisatory skills because it’s a joke that cannot land anywhere else quite like Texas. Trevor did not only joke about the Texan fascination with a gun, but also the ownership of multiple guns and the hypocrisy therein, when he purported to be a Caucasian male owner of five guns.
“But why five guns?” Trevor asked the man.
“Well, you never know.”
Yet, Trevor wanted to know. In case the five-gun owner was shooting a bad guy and exhausted his bullets, would he tell the victim that the bullets in his first gun are finished, so he wants to go and collect his second gun to continue shooting the victim? The crowd cheered, but Trevor chaired his impersonation further, to that of an eighty-two-year-old woman and her raison d’être for keeping a gun; protection, to which Trevor replied as himself.
“If I am eighty-two, I would leave the burglar to shoot me anyway.”
Noah cruised through the session about gun owners shooting the bad guy as rescue-act in the narrative of their lives skillfully, without letting anger distort his work, without accusations, but in an insightful way that made me reflect deeply about the senselessness of gun laws in Texas. It was a jumping off point which carried on for me even after the show. Great situation comedy, as Zadie Smith once said, expands in the imagination.
As is the norm with his form, Trevor jetted away from Texas to China and made jokes about the Chinese, before landing at a restaurant in Germany, precisely the dinner with his German friend. Trevor informed us that he had been learning how to speak German, so he could communicate with his father better—who is Swiss and speaks German, as well as English. He revealed that one of the words he had learned recently in the German language was schadenfreude, which he said means “to take pleasure in the pain of others.”
My little German lessons in Sylt sprang to life. While on the island, I had learnt a bit of words on an app I installed called Wordbit, but I was not familiar with this new word, schadenfreude. Not that I learned anything substantial in Sylt anyway, but I connected with the learning German theme. Trevor told us that his German friend encouraged him to familiarize himself with German by placing an order for pizza. When the server came to their table, Trevor mustered courage and screamed a fierce, army-captain-voiced caricature of a pizza order. The server lady shivered and shrieked in German, which Trevor quickly translated as.
“The Black Hitler!”
The joke landed, although sort of awkwardly for me, as I thought it was slightly insensitive. More so, it is old Trevor Noah material. Jetting off once more, he landed in his home country, South Africa, and explained why aliens never go to Africa in the movies; they only go to New York and other cities around the world. He made an impression of the aliens who dared to be different in an imaginary movie of his. As the aliens flew over South Africa, examining the ruin from their spaceship, one of them turned to the other and said in an androgynous voice:
“It’s like the British were here before us.”
Trevor lampooned Britain some more and we laughed. He returned to America, and linked America to Britain by unlinking both nations. He said America is the only country in the world where you can walk on the streets chanting, “USA!” without being frowned upon or considered crazy, but nobody ever goes around in Britain chanting, “United Kingdom!” America is radically different from Britain like that. Then, he added:
“You know the degree to which you hate someone when even your voltage and plugs on the wall are entirely different from theirs.”
The crowd laughed even more when Noah joked about American culture and shouted comically, “We all have to respect the American anthem!” But when you turn on the TV in America, you only hear cartoonish renditions of the national anthem, with multiple variations even. In Canada, he said, the national anthem is sung as it’s meant to be sung. To my surprise, Trevor sang the Canadian national anthem, rather melodiously, before proceeding to mimic a parodied version of the American anthem, usually performed during major sporting events like the Super Bowl. His was an American anthem which donned blaring horns and glaringly flunked musical harmony for showy theatrics. Trevor exaggerated the falsettos, the tessituras, the dramatic pauses in the singing and the audience went mad.
Fifty minutes into the show, Noah morphed from comedian into political commentator, musing deeply about America’s political leaders, Trump’s first impeachment, female empowerment, sexual assault, and racial inequality, which got folks clapping profusely instead of laughing profusely. The material was surely tailored to suit his base: a sort of live version of the “Behind the Scenes” clips from The Daily Show. While some attendees dismissed the segment after the show as preachy, I thought it was pertinent for one reason; the show was dubbed The Loud and Clear Tour, not The Trevor Noah Comedy Tour.
Being a political commentator with power, I think Trevor felt he had to paint his picture of the current political and socio-economic map of America directly, and in his truest voice, without coating it in the cloak of any joke. It still killed, something which will be hard for most comedians to pull off. That is not because Trevor Noah is the funniest guy. It is simply because he is a born superstar, whose presence alone prompts an audience to listen to him, even when he’s being jokeless. That is why The Daily Show’s “Behind the Scenes” is equally popular. It also killed because Trevor is an innate entertainer with an effortless global outreach component, and a polyglot who swims in a sea of accents and cultures. Trevor Noah is not only clinical at interpreting America, but also interpreting every other part of the globe, from Cape to Cairo, Odessa to Russia, India to Indiana.
The concluding act was the story about the surgery that fixed the injury to his vocal cord, which he sustained in South Africa, after emceeing at the Nelson Mandela concert. He had lost his voice after the concert, after screaming into the mic for long periods. Doctors had ordered him not to speak at all for some time, if not, he would permanently lose his voice. Trevor had previously spoken about the fear of permanently losing his voice in a few TV interviews, as the most poignant moment of his career. What is a comedian and talk show host without his voice? I remember that at the time, Trevor sat mute on set, next to his The Daily Show colleagues, Mike Acosta, Roy Wood Junior, and Ronny Chieng, performing hand and facial gestures only, as the others vocally piloted the show.
Trevor has narrated stories about his mother processing pain through comedy. After his mother was shot in the head by Trevor’s stepfather, (she had broken up with Trevor’s father many years prior), she lay on a hospital bed in a critical condition. Yet, Patricia still whipped out a joke from the terrible situation when Trevor visited her.
“Trevor, please know that you are officially the cutest person in the family now.”
He wasn’t before uh? And just like his mum, Trevor succeeded in finding a silver lining from the voice loss experience for his Austin audience. The throat surgeon who performed the procedure was a physician named Dr. Wu; a male doctor whom Trevor posed as. He described his feelings as Dr. Wu inserted the laser machine into his throat as strange and slightly painful, which left a weird taste in his mouth. Trevor repeated the words Dr. Wu had uttered, as he guided the surgical instrument further down his throat, so that its laser beam could burn the targeted tissue there.
“Open wider. Good. Open wider again Trevor. Very good. Okay, don’t bite Trevor. Open it!”
As the crowd laughed at the sexually suggestive commands, Trevor said he wondered if Dr. Wu was enjoying the fact that he was in pain, until Dr. Wu, as if mocking his thoughts, blurted out mischievously:
“I take pleasure in the pain of others, Trevor.”
The crowd cheered Trevor’s rewind technique, as he brought back schadenfreude at the end. The punch line was the perfect crowning moment for a witty, fun-filled show.
As I left the venue, I remembered that Trevor had also used the rewind technique to conclude his Netflix show, Son of Patricia, an ode to his mother, Patricia, which I watched in Sylt. It also got me thinking about the way Trevor executes the delivery of his deeply layered acts. Noah always zooms in on the lucid snapshots of life and excavates an issue, then expounds on that issue slowly, employing observational humour to place it in context and give it meaning, after which, he generally rewinds to where he started from.
It is like Noah carefully picked up most of the cues of the human condition, at every single rung of his ladder-rise to fame and whipped all of that into his game. Sure, he’s at the peak of comedy and satirical journalism in America, and all the trappings that go with it. He panders to the West sometimes and his act is somewhat watered down now, probably to play it safe with his base.
However, there’s one thing I still admire about Trevor Noah. He is a humble and compassionate commentator who doesn’t make jokes that stereotype Africa. He doesn’t denigrate people at the lowest rung of the ladder of life—which is frankly a rich source of comedy which he could easily tap into and reap from, which many comedians of colour before him have done. Noah instead chooses to make jokes about stereotypes, not make the stereotypes himself. Trevor’s forte, I think, are his jokes that show the difficulty in communication between people from different cultures and different social classes, as well as his jokes that critique “American cultural supremacy,” therefore delivering the message that other cultures also matter. He’s also good at humouring America’s tendency of focusing on trivial issues, sometimes in place of more pressing issues.
Some of Trevor’s fans who used to watch him when he was a star comedian in South Africa complain that he is not as funny as he used to be. Maybe he is skeptical of offending more people in his wider western audience in a currently tense political climate; Trevor was thrust into controversy within hours after he was announced as Jon Stewart’s successor in 2015. Attention was drawn to some of the jokes on his Twitter account, which were criticized as being offensive to women and anti-Semitic. Though Comedy Central stuck with him, Trevor took down most of the “controversial” tweets.
Rapper Ice T once said that nothing is as raw as it was when it first started. Every artist undergoes change with time, so does Trevor Noah, a man who jokes that he takes pleasure in the pain of others. Schadenfreude style. Coincidentally, I also took pleasure in Trevor’s comedy, which helped me to deal with the pain of loneliness on Sylt Island. Trevor Noah once said comedy is what he uses to process the world, that it is therapy for him, even when his experiences are painful. It is the same for me, not just in Sylt, but also in Texas, where I’m away from my family and close friends, and even generally in my life.