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'Daily Show' Host Writes About Growing Up Biracial In South Africa

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Taking over the host chair after John Stewart left The Daily Show, Trevor Noah faced a high bar. After all, he was a South African comedian riffing on America's issues.

Like the election: "Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Obama ... and now Trump. One of these things is not like the other. And if you're thinking it's Obama because he's black, you probably voted for Trump," he joked on a recent show.

Trevor Noah and his comedy were shaped in a big way by the politics of his home country. He was born in 1984 to a white father and a black mother — the rarest of rare unions under South Africa's oppressive system of apartheid.

His mother was pretty, with a strong sense of adventure and a taste for fun. Still, marriage to his Swiss father was out of the question — even their relationship was against the law.

And became even more complicated when Noah was born. His mother sometimes disguised herself as a maid, "so she wasn't questioned as to why she was in a white area," he recalls to NPR's Renee Montagne.

She looked like she was my caretaker as opposed to my mother. The same would go for my father, not holding my hand or anything because he couldn’t be seen to be the father of a mixed race child. You know, I’m running down the street, and he’s running away because he doesn’t want us to get into trouble — and I think I’m playing a game. And what you don’t realize is that they’re basically running away from the law.

In his new memoir, Born a Crime, Noah finds humor even in the toughest times in Johannesburg. And he details the peculiar and charged racial world he had to navigate as a little boy who was not quite black and not quite white.

Interview Highlights

On what his mixed-race status meant within his own family

As crazy as it sounds, in my own family I would have been given more privileges than my own mother and half of my family, and I would have been given fewer privileges than my father and the other half of my family ... yeah, the white half.

My grandmother and grandfather were very much from a world where they had been taught the importance of, you know, respect between the races. So my own grandmother treated me as if I were a person who was of a higher standing than they were. In her eyes, I was closer to being the white man than I was a member of the family. So she was terrified of administering any form of discipline. You know, when my mom always used to be — she'd be furious about that, she'd go, like, "Oh you should hit him harder than the rest, he's the naughtiest of all of them." My grandma ... she'd be like, "Ooh, I can't hit him, I can't. Oooh, he's going to become black and blue and green, I don't know what to do with white children. Black children are easy, you can hit them, they stay the same ... I can't hit that one, I can't hit white children."

On his mother

I've always loved my mom, and I've always thought she's amazing, but even I was shocked at how amazing she was.

My mom never believed in the norm. She still doesn't. And she wouldn't fight it — she would expose it by living her life, I guess. So when my mom learned how to type, when she took a secretarial course, it was the most ridiculous thing she could have ever done — even when taking the course, the person said to her, "You do realize how ridiculous this is. Black people work in the service industry. You work as a maid, you work as a gardener. There is no job for you where you are working on a typewriter." And my mother said, "I don't care." And she took a typing course, and when the country started employing a few black people into major corporations, now my mother had a skill that very few black people possessed, and that was typing. She found ways to break the system. She found ways to exist beyond what people said she could do.

On trying to get out of going to church with his mother, who became a born-again Christian

All the time I would say, "I have a headache." My mother would say, "Pray to Jesus to get rid of the headache." Then I would say, "Or you could give me some money to go and buy some aspirin," and she would say "No, just pray. And the headache will go away." And then I'd say "Oh, I've already prayed that God will give us money so that I can go buy aspirin, and I will pray to thank him for the medicine that he has given me." And so we would always have these little, what I thought were very high-minded arguments about religion and the different ways in which we processed the information.

On how his life prepared him for a career in comedy

I think it set me up for where I am now in life. More of my comedy and my showbiz, and that feeling came for me partly from my mother, came for me from the world that I lived in. But I always say to people, I think I was a comedian before I knew that comedy as a line of work existed. So I was just doing it without getting paid. And then luckily I made up for that.

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