Stand-up comic and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah’s recently released Netflix special, Son of Patricia, offers a number of insights into U.S racial politics as a South African, his qualms with “authentic”tourist experiences, and the difficulty of delivering political comedy under President Trump. While at times a little unfocused, it serves as a reminder of Noah’s own useful insights as a South African as the head of the United States’ biggest political comedy show, and his undeniably likeable manner as an entertainer.
In his first major piece of the special, Noah masterfully delivers a segment on the problematic nature of “authentic” tourist experiences while on holiday and the intricacies of participating in these as a black South African. Chronicling his own experience with a group of white tourists in Bali, one of the biggest laughs is in his recollection of being invited into a house by a local villager. In his humorous impersonation of the villager, who warmly greets each of the white tourists, his face drops when he sees Noah, bemused at the comedian’s involvement in such an activity as a black South African. After the man chastises him for being involved in the event, Noah responds, “I thought this was an authentic experience.” The villager replies, “Yeah, authentic for white people. [Laughter.] You’ve got your own poor. Go back to where you came from.”
In a successive piece, Noah notes that his cautious instincts as a black South African leads him to take a backseat during a snake charming session, in contrast to white tourists who mock him for his wariness and without hesitation sit up front. After the snakes revolt and scare the living hell out of the front-row, Noah exults in how his cautious instincts saved him. “Being black saved me!”, he exclaims. His material works best when it connects his experiences as a black South African to an American and international context. This material delivers an effective reminder of his unique racial placement within comedy, and one that gives distinctive insights into U.S racial politics. For example, at one point in Son of Patricia, Noah mocks the naivety of an American friend who asked him if he’d like to escape all the racism and bigotry of the United States by moving back to South Africa. These small snippets of Noah’s stand-up encapsulate the comedian’s strengths in recognising America’s substantial social, political and cultural progressiveness in certain areas without trivialising the very real issues that he aims to tackle and the distance that has yet to be covered.
Noah continues by retelling his experience of meeting President Obama. While his reverence for the former president dilutes the possibility of any critical material in this segment, he balances this effectively with some pertinent material. This is particularly true when he recalls how he misinterpreted Obama’s request for him to perform a show “for his aides” for something very different. However, the most insightful segment of Son of Patricia is when Noah muses on the spectre of Trump:
“I still can’t believe the things Donald Trump says…For me, Donald Trump is an emotional paradox. I’m not going to lie. You know. Logically, I can process him, emotionally I struggle. On the one hand, I will admit, I wake up many days terrified at the notion that he’s president of the most powerful nation in the world. But I also must admit I wake up many days knowing he’s going to make me laugh. There’s terror and there’s joy, and I don’t know how to feel. You know what it feels like sometimes? It feels like there’s a giant asteroid headed towards the earth. But it’s shaped like a penis. [Laughter.] Like, I think I’m going to die. But I know I’m going to laugh.”
As an example of Trump-era political comic commentary, this segment chronicles the seemingly inescapable issue of many of the President’s opponents finding him simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. In my own research on Trump’s unprecedented destabilisation of broad culture during the 2016 presidential election, I argued that by often being more cartoonish, more exaggerated and more bombastic than any satirist could possibly imagine, Trump floored comic responses to him, leaving 99% of the field enervated by the kind of candidate that at first seemed like the ultimate satiric motherlode. Furthermore, a huge question mark that led all the way to election night was the difficulty of interpreting the margin between responding to / trivialising / mocking Trump’s entertaining, comical qualities and becoming complicit with promoting and normalising his candidacy. Saturday Night Live struggled with this in particular, and received a substantial amount of criticism for allowing Trump to host the show in October 2015 and for what many critics saw as successive moments that betrayed the enormous comic / cultural unity against Trump’s campaign. And much like Noah’s material two years into the Trump presidency, in a beleaguered comic world that has still not recovered from its humiliating defeat in 2016, many can’t help but laugh at the imminent dick asteroid hurtling towards them. The apocalyptic colours of Noah’s material not only give a good chronicling of comic crisis under Trump – and significantly, one delivered by the host of political comic tycoon The Daily Show – but also its complicity as a cultural agent lost at sea against a seemingly satire-proof president, and the field’s own begrudging role as a cog within President Trump’s ever arresting comedy value.
Noah’s Son of Patricia, while lacking focus at times, is altogether worth watching, with his segments buoyed by the comedian’s amiable take on life and his warm recollections of his childhood in South Africa. His takes on racial politics, Trump, and life in the U.S are told with a clever mix of scepticism, interrogation and warmth, exemplified in one of his final segments on how he learned to handle racism in the U.S through his mother’s Christian teachings as a child. While not his best stand-up, Noah carries the show with his characteristic likeability and his own wrestling as a political comedian under Trump.