Standup comedy is an interesting phenomenon. Even though people have probably always gotten up in front of groups and told jokes it didn’t really take on a form we’d recognize in the United States until the 1950’s. In coffee shops and other small venues performers got up and, instead of repeating borscht belt jokes and other worn routines, would talk. For people of color it was a terribly oppressive time but across the spectrum it was also subtly oppressive with great pressure to conform. Standup comedians acted out against that. It was part of what caused Time magazine in 1959 to dub them “sicknicks”.
It’s Trevor Noah’s birthday today. You probably know him as the current host of The Daily Show, which he took over in September 2015. I wasn’t familiar with him before that and I still don’t watch The Daily Show all that regularly but I’ve watched and listened to Noah and I think he’s hilarious. And I think there’s something very profound about his experience.
Listening to him on NPR’s Fresh Air—it’s an amazing interview–I thought about how Noah, who grew up in South Africa under Apartheid, is in some ways more in touch with the spirt of the original “sicknicks”. Oppression still exists in the United States but what he grew up with was more vivid and maybe even more brutal than it was here even in the 1950’s. He left South Africa after his stepfather attempted to kill his mother in 2009. He came here as a comedian and has really taken hold here, but who he is and where he came from informs his comedy. That’s what makes him a great choice to host The Daily Show. He’s brought an international perspective to something rooted in American tradition.