By Jesse Lichtenstein, Newsweek magazine| When the young South African comedian Trevor Noah took the stage on The Tonight Show earlier this year to deliver a five-minute set, Jay Leno and guest Glenn Close could be seen roaring in the background, echoing the studio audience that was eating out of Noah’s hand. It was a big moment: for the first time, an African comedian had taken the mic on stand-up comedy’s biggest traditional showcase, and he’d killed. Back home, sub-Saharan newspapers trumpeted Noah’s appearance as if it were breaking news, and MSNBC Africa rebroadcast the show across the continent.
Noah—just 28, handsome, thoughtful, and very funny—is already a huge deal in South Africa. In a few short years, he’s risen from amateur clubs to being a headliner capable of selling out large theaters for his one-man shows. All this, in a nation where stand-up comedy is still a maturing art. Noah’s DVDs are bestsellers, and he’s already had a run as a talk-show host. When a clip of his routine ridiculing South Africa’s abysmal phone service went up on YouTube, the CEO of a local mobile provider took out a full-page ad in Jo’burg’s Sunday Times to apologize to Noah directly—and then hired him as a pitchman