South African comedian Trevor Noah’s debut as a correspondent for The Daily Show generated quite a buzz as he poked fun at Americans’ fear of Ebola, the misconception that Africa is nothing but AIDS, huts and starving children, and police brutality in the U.S.
“I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa. It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days back home,” he joked.
But one group wasn’t as impressed by his performance as you might think: South Africans.
Now don’t get me wrong: Noah is adored in South Africa. During the four years I lived there, he was the country’s top comedian, regularly selling out the nation’s largest theaters. He even did a comedy tour in the U.S and became the first African comedian to appear on The Tonight Show in 2012.
But when I polled a group of my South African friends, their reviews of Noah’s performance were mixed.
The most common complaint was about the “Spot the Africa” segment, in which Noah shows two photos and asks Jon Stewart to guess which is Africa and which is the U.S.
“The segment about how advanced portions of Africa were in relation to portions of the U.S. was a little stale,” says Anthony Stricker, a South African architect and avid Daily Show fan.
I often encounter sentiments like that in South Africa. The idea that Africa actually has good schools, developed roads and thriving businesses (oh my!) might generate laughs among some Americans. But to a lot of Africans, it’s an old joke that they’re tired of hearing.
Another segment that drew some criticism was Noah’s commentary on wealth inequality. He referred to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who’s pointed out that disparity of wealth is actually greater in the U.S. than during apartheid South Africa.
“I think he’s underplaying the inequality and conditions of the poor in South Africa,” says Rhea Quresha, a South African engineer who frequently travels to the U.S. for work.
Her point is valid. While the disparity in income in the U.S. might be comparable to apartheid South Africa, the degree of poverty in South Africa is simply incomparable to that of the U.S. Poor people in South Africa are far poorer — and make up a much higher percentage of the population.
Despite these criticisms, many people I heard from were excited about Noah’s appearance, calling it “smart” and “highly enjoyable.”
The bit that received the most plaudits was about Ebola. Noah joked that many of his South African friends warned him against coming to the U.S. because of the deadly virus.
“Just because they’ve had a few cases of Ebola, doesn’t mean we should cut off travel there. That would be ignorant,” he said.