The Edinburgh Festival is not the kind of place that tends to attract giggling groupies – but then it has never featured a comedian quite like Trevor Noah.
Not only was he mobbed by gaggles of signature-hungry fans after his debut dates there last year, he has, since then, become the first South African comedian to appear on The Tonight Show.
He also has a unique story to tell: the son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father, Noah was ‘born a crime’ under the apartheid regime.
‘But I was lucky growing up,’ says the warm, softly spoken 29-year-old, ‘I was always allowed to question. Some kids were not afforded that luxury. I’m not an angry person by nature. It’s easier to be an abrasive comedian, to be very in-your-face, but I find disarming is more fun. I feel you can get more across if people are laughing with you.
Which is why, even though Noah’s show is called The Racist, white people needn’t be afraid of sitting in the front row when he takes it on tour around Britain next week.
‘I would love everyone to come,’ he says. ‘Everyone in history has some sort of link to racism, somewhere. I guess, in recent history, white people have had the most notoriety when it comes to racism. But funnily enough, racism is almost not a colour thing, but a people thing – people will always find something to be racist about.
‘As the world becomes more and more PC, we don’t tell each other how we really feel – but people are surprised how similar we all are, in terms of what we’re thinking. I live for those moments where I feel like, “ooh, I’m pushing my luck here”.’
The Racist sees Noah go on a journey of identity by attempting to re-invent himself as a black American (the coolest kind of black, in his eyes). It’s a tight, smart, astute show, with Noah oozing charisma.
Even though he seems a natural talent, Noah had to learn his craft his own way. With comedy practically banned in South Africa while he was growing up (‘the first time I watched any was Eddie Murphy on DVD, when I was about 20’), he looked closer to home for inspiration.
‘I definitely get my sense of humour from my mum,’ he smiles. ‘She is wild, she’s crazy, she’s a storyteller. And she laughs a lot.’
He worked as radio and TV host in his home country before focusing on comedy. In 2011, he was taken under Eddie Izzard’s wing after the legendary Europhile spotted Noah (who had ‘no clue who Izzard was’) performing at London’s Comedy Store. Izzard went on to produce Noah’s subsequent, storming stints in Edinburgh and London last year.
‘Stand-up in the UK is a very old art form,’ notes Noah. ‘It’s a very cultured comedy society, and very calmed down.
In South Africa, on the other hand, it has only been legal since the start of democracy, so there’s still a huge excitement – it’s very big, very boisterous.’
Now, Noah says, the country has a thriving, evolving comedy scene. ‘There’s a sense of belief now. The comedy is growing with the country, which is good – we are learning what free speech means. We haven’t gotten to the level of PC yet, so it’s still very raw and unrefined, which is great to watch and be a part of.’
Noah hopes that South Africa’s government leaders start thinking as progressively. ‘There’s still a lot of fixing to be done,’ he says, ‘but we’re waiting for a time when politics is less defined by race and history, and more about what the country needs going forward.’
Whatever the future has in store for South Africa, Noah’s looks glittering – but he’s also taking things as they come. ‘I never make plans that are definitive,’ he says. ‘The only plan is to be the best comedian I can be and to enjoy it. I feel that everything that comes after that is a blessing, a bonus. If I can pay my bills, live a good life and make people laugh while doing that, what more could you ask for?’
Trevor Noah’s British tour begins at Warwick Arts Centre on Nov 26. www.trevornoah.com – metrro.co.uk