Trevor Noah, a comedian raised in South Africa whose “Daily Show” gig finds him mostly in New York City, took the stage of the Orpheum Theatre Friday night and asked a room full of Memphians one question: “Does everybody here work at FedEx?”
In that moment the ginormous theatre full of Bluff Citians and those from surrounding areas was on his side. It also served as one of many times the host of a politically driven Comedy Central institution chose to riff off topics he doesn’t get to regularly address.
That isn’t to say Noah didn’t have his moments atop a soapbox, (some met with applause rather than punchlines) or even that politicians themselves weren’t in attendance. I happened to bump into Tennessee congressman Steve Cohen on my way out and asked him what about Trevor Noah brought him to the show.
“He’s one of the funniest men in America, and I saw him at the Democratic caucus,” Cohen said. “He came and talked to us and did a routine in Baltimore. So I wanted to see him again. He’s a great political satirist.”
Cohen is right; political satire is something Noah excels in and that the crowd was expecting, but (and this surprised me) it took roughly 30 minutes for Noah to begin to mention the president.
“Because of him we are living in a unique and exciting time,” Noah said during his set. “For the first time in history, we are learning about the presidency at the same time as the president.”
While Noah did take shots at “the wall,” seemingly-constant regime changes and the idea that Donald Trump doesn’t want to “do president,” just “be president,” the Jon Stewart protege offered a pretty pertinent truth to those in attendance.
“You know more about the presidency than you ever have in your life, admit it,” Noah said during his set. “You’re more engaged in politics than you’ve ever been in your life.”
The audience was also heavily engaged with responding to Noah during the show. In what was the most surprising and poignant moments of the night, following a joke about getting pulled over, a loud and robust voice of an audience member echoed through the theatre wall-to-wall:
“Fuck the police!”
Noah responded off-the-cuff with “No, no, no. Don’t fuck the police,” which drummed up tension-easing laughter, and he continued.
“I think a lot of police are unfortunately victims of the same system that has caused them to oppress people, but I don’t think that really helps us to be honest,” Noah said in response during his set. “I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think that really helps. You meet a lot of police, you talk to them, and you realize that … they’ve got quotas; it’s a money-making exercise.
"It’s been designed as a mechanism to oppress black people, but I don’t think that all police are bad people. I think many of them came in with noble ideas, and over time the system doesn’t allow them to exercise that nobility, you know?”
All of this was said by the same man who, minutes before, was making poop jokes about eating tacos and comparing modern hip-hop artist Lil Uzi Vert to the sound a toddler makes when they are complaining. The point I’m trying to make is, when it comes to public speaking, the man has range.
At a time when protests find Americans asking whether there are “areas where discussing politics should be avoided,” Noah reminds us that social issues and society are simply intertwined. In the same hour and 15 minutes, Orpheum-goers laughed just as hard about climate change as they did about Noah singing “XO TOUR Llif3” in the voice of a 3-year-old.
For those who feel like the world is on fire, it helps to have comedians like Noah help us laugh while we cry. Let’s just try not to sound like Lil Uzi Vert when we complain to those who don’t believe we’re burning.