It’s hard to say exactly why there was just something a little bit off about Trevor Noah’s “Off the Record”. The former host of The Daily Show is clearly an ustaad at the craft of stand-up comedy. On the third day of the first leg of his India tour, he directed the packed audience at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi with the ease of a master conductor with his orchestra. There were laughs galore, and the “crowd work” (the comedian asks the audience questions, and improvises jokes from what they say) was perhaps the highlight of the nearly 90-minute show. Noah had also clearly done his homework, with bits about Delhi that seemed to resonate with the audience.
Born in Johannesburg in 1984 to a Swiss German father and a Xhosa mother, Trevor Noah began as a radio jockey before going into acting and comedy in South Africa. His brand of humour, particularly the observations around race and politics, saw him gain popularity in the UK and eventually, the US. When he succeeded the iconic iconoclast Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s news satire programme, The Daily Show, there were doubts about whether he could fill the very large shoes of his predecessor. Noah, though, brought his worldliness and understanding of race to America, and in the Trump era, it worked. He courted controversy too, such as when he mocked a possible India-Pakistan war in March 2019 on The Daily Show. But then, a little controversy follows anyone who isn’t a hack.
The “Off the Record” tour is going to multiple countries and the three shows in Delhi last weekend kicked off the shows in India. And given Noah’s history of speaking truth to power while exploring structural inequality with empathy and humour, there were a lot of expectations from the show. Or, perhaps, it was just the anticipation of seeing a global celebrity live.
Noah’s set began with a hint at possible subversion, of being in a room — even if the room is a massive auditorium — where there’s the possibility of discomfort, and even the danger that the comedian’s art now carries with it. He was told, he said, that joking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi might get him kicked out of the country.
Then, in his signature style, Noah donned accents — particularly Indian ones — to make fun of the British (it was good, wholesome humour from a man from another former colony). And it is a credit to his observational skills that he managed a “tu jaanta hai main kaun hoon” joke about Delhi-ites and our obsession with power and status. There was a crowd-pleasing reference to Pakistan, which of course will always get a laugh. Then the old tropes about traffic in India, the chaos and the beauty, the pandering to the presumed nationalism of the audience with references to Chandrayaan.
Halfway through the set, you realise that you are laughing at the skill but there’s something missing in the whole deal. The quality of the laughter is like the tears in a Karan Johar film — a product of the background score, of a skilled manipulation of emotions by people who know how to do it best. But, perhaps, this critique is a product of high expectations based on the false sense of intimacy created by YouTube videos, comedy specials and perhaps most importantly, Noah’s own work and words.
Born a Crime, Noah’s 2016 memoir, achieves something that is rare with most writing but especially so with “celebrity” reminiscences. He breaks down, without rancour, the oppression and absurdity in Apartheid South Africa. The un-reason of racism, the redemption of ambition and love had, perhaps a universal resonance. But in India and for Indians, Born a Crime, could so easily have been about caste. Delve a little deeper into “arranged marriage” or why “love marriage” is an act of rebellion (both subjects of throwaway one-liners) and you have that writer, that comedian who could rip apart the small, petty brutalities that unequal structures force us to participate in.
The sharp jokes about the double standards with India’s “decolonisation” drive hit home, and hinted once again at some humour at our political and social elites’ expense. Instead, we were treated to brilliant (though not novel) Trump jokes and imitations, and great bits about the American president’s past. But then, that’s what Noah is known for. The best of his work — in his televised specials, The Daily Show and Born a Crime — are mostly about South Africa or America. The first is fascinating because even now, we know so little about non-Anglo-Saxon cultures. The second, because some part of the big city yuppies — and even their older friends — in the audience believe being global means being American.
It is also unfair to expect Noah to risk the money and effort put in by sponsors to court controversy. There was that hope because, unlike comedians from more privileged geographies, he is “one of us”, an outsider who fulfilled the dream of making it in the holiest of holies. He could point out the things wrong here, because it wouldn’t be a White person talking down to us Third-World types.
As it turns out, Noah knew the “aspirations” of the Delhi audience better than most. His opening act, Wilner Sylvince too had a good 15-minute set. At one point, he spoke about his father’s Haitian origins, saying that there’s not so much difference between that country and its people and us. There was an uncomfortable silence in the theatre. The well-heeled audience, so keen to laugh at Trump without looking at our own leaders, just a few kilometres away, did not want to be confronted by the fact that we are not American. Or British. Or even all that rich. We just wanted to laugh at the jokes that hurt no one. We are okay with the “chaos” of India but not its poverty, with the jokes about unruly crowds but not about those that turn them into mobs.
Noah’s shows will undoubtedly get better as he performs in Bengaluru on September 27-28 and finishes up his India tour with shows on September 30 and October 1 in Mumbai. By then, he would have more fuel for his brilliant observational comedy. Perhaps he will even get more edgy, and fulfil the promise of that first joke.
But who knows if we are willing to hear it.
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