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Why mixed-race comic was 'born a crime'

By Jessica Ellis and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
December 4, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South African comedian Trevor Noah is the first African comic to appear on The Tonight Show
  • Noah's mixed-race heritage defines his humor
  • Race and ethnicity are leading themes in his standup

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

London (CNN) -- When it comes to getting ready for a show, fast-rising South African comedian Trevor Noah has it all figured out.

"My ideal setting is I walk from the streets, backstage and straight onto the stage," says Noah, who last year became the first African comedian to perform on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show in the United States.

"Two minutes and I am on the stage. That way in my head I have gone from my world and then into a social setting with my friends. I want my audience to be my friends -- that is when they will get the best comedy. If they see me as a performer, they won't get the best show."

At just 28 years old, Noah is already a big name in his country's fledgling standup scene, as well as a cover star for Rolling Stone South Africa. But despite treating the audience as friends, he's not afraid of provocative subject matter, with his latest show called "The Racist."

Watch Trevor Noah's standup

S. African comedian: I was born a crime
Trevor Noah: Humor is global

The son of a black South African woman and a white Swiss man who met when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa, Noah jokes that he was "born a crime." On stage, he draws upon his particular life experiences to tackle thorny issues with his funny, and sometimes trenchant, punchlines.

"My mom would be arrested, she would be fined and still she was like 'ooh, I don't care, I want a white man, ooh,'" he tells a laughing audience gathered in London's Soho Theater. "And my dad was also like, well, you know how the Swiss love chocolate."

Noah's mixed-race heritage defines his routine. Race and ethnicity are leading themes in his standup, echoing his life while growing up in a Soweto township during the apartheid years and being labeled mixed race.

"In the streets my father couldn't walk with us -- he would walk on the other side of the road and wave at me -- like a creepy pedophile," he tells the Soho Theater crowd. "And my mom could walk with me but every time the police went by she would drop me -- I felt like a bag of weed."

Read: Comic talks Muslim humor and Islamophobia

Last year, British comedy supremo Eddie Izzard took Noah to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, the biggest arts festival in the world. Noah's performance was one of the festival's talking points, enabling the comedian to return later to the UK and perform "The Racist" to a wider audience.

For his UK tour, Noah tailored his standup for an international crowd. He says that South Africa had been living on a high during the years immediately following apartheid, but now that the "honeymoon period is over" many of the country's problems have re-appeared.

My mom could walk with me but every time the police went by she would drop me -- I felt like a bag of weed.
Trevor Noah

"A lot of racial tension has resurfaced but it is not that it was gone," he says. "It's just that because we were having so much fun we didn't have enough time to pay attention to it and now because there is nothing, we realize there is still a lot of racial tension in the country.

"That is why in my [South African] show 'That's Racist,' I just love to talk about that. I believe if you want to talk about it, it is so much easier instead of acting like it's not there."

Read: S. African comic duo stir up stereotypes

Noah says he doesn't write down any of his material. Instead, he prepares his routine by "living life" and evolving the stories that are of interest to him.

"I like to forge the story in my head," he says. "Most of my show is true, like 90% of everything I say on stage is true, I just have to find the way to make it funny, that's the difficult thing."

Noah's quick rise to success was documented in "You Laugh But It's True," a film chronicling the days leading up to Noah's first one-man show in Johannesburg, in 2009.

Working to raise his international profile, Noah lived in the United States for a year, where he also made his successful appearance on the hugely popular The Tonight Show.

"That was a big moment," remembers Noah. "But I think bigger than just being on The Tonight Show for me I was proud to say that I'm the first African that's on The Tonight Show, the first African comedian performing, a live performer doing the thing which people hadn't seen. It was so nice to say that look, this is possible."

He returned to South Africa last June, where he uses his American experience to enhance his act.

"Comedy is really getting quite popular in South Africa," says Noah. "It's moving from the bastard child of entertainment into the mainstream, which is very good. I think the reason it's doing so well is because South Africans need to laugh and South Africans want to laugh.

"We have a lot of stories to share, we have a lot to learn about each other because we were separated for so long, so now we're trying to understand who we are and who everyone around us is as well. Comedy is a great tool for that because if you laugh with people you start to understand that you share more with them than you thought did initially and you learn about them as well."

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