Speaking of South Africa, what are your memories of growing up in Soweto?
It was weird. We lived how we were living and it felt normal. So many people were born into apartheid that nobody ever dreamed of a time when things wouldn’t be that way. Black people fought for freedom and independence, but I don’t think many of them could say that they saw a real future where they would be running the country. They couldn’t imagine gaining access to the wealth and opportunities of the country.,P>When you’re poor, it’s sometimes impossible to picture living any other reality. In Soweto, you live in a one-room house, maybe two rooms if you’re lucky. All the adults sleep together in one room; all the kids sleep together in another room. I’m not talking about another bedroom; you have a wall dividing two rooms. There’s no indoor plumbing. There would be an outhouse, and that outhouse was shared by four or five different families. If you were lucky, you’d have running water. We had running water but not inside the house. It was shared among many houses.
You have a book out this fall about coming of age under apartheid. Was it comedy that got you through the hardest times?
You would never think you could laugh about life in a place like Soweto, but there are always funny moments in every situation, and those moments do help you survive. In the book I write about growing up in an abusive household, in a house where myself and my mom were held hostage by an alcoholic stepfather. My mom was shot in the head. That’s not exactly the stuff of comedy gold. But even in the darkest, darkest moments, we found things to laugh about. To have your mom come out of surgery with a hole in her face and the first thing she says when she wakes up is “Stop crying. Look on the bright side. At least now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.” I mean, who says that? But that’s the family I grew up in. We always found some silly way to get rid of the pain.
Your mother converted to Judaism when you were young. Did you have a bar mitzvah?
I did, yes. My mom had always been a religious scholar and had studied the Bible. She has taken multiple Bible courses and is very religious. And one day she converted to Judaism. I had a bar mitzvah when I turned 13, but no one came because everyone in my family and my world is black. Nobody knew what the hell a bar mitzvah even was, so it was just me and my mom going, “Okay, now you’re a man.”
You are the first major comedian to emerge from South Africa. Are people just not funny there?
We are an industry that’s only as old as our democracy. There’s comedy everywhere, but there was no free speech. I’m lucky in that I’m a product of my time. A few comedians laid the groundwork for me. I’m the second generation that got to take it to the next level and make it work on a world stage.
You’ve said before that Americans think of Africa as a place where people wear cheetah skins and sit around waiting for UNICEF. Will that perception ever die?
I don’t think I’ll live to see it die, and that’s because even if you look at America itself, perceptions die hard. I’m very lucky in that I’ve traveled to all 50 states, doing stand-up. I remember I was heading to Tennessee and people told me, “That’s the home of the Klan. Watch out.” But then I got to Nashville and had the best time of my life with the most wonderful people. If people don’t see the nuance of their own country—and this happens everywhere—I can’t expect them to appreciate the nuance of Africa.
As you developed your comedy, who was your biggest influence?
I watched a lot of Bill Cosby. I love Dave Chappelle. But I specifically remember seeing Eddie Murphy’s Raw on VHS and thinking, Holy shit! The guy from The Nutty Professor does stand-up? It was a complete awakening for me because I was starting to do stand-up myself. Eddie is incredible. The honesty, the precision, the talent, the skill. Everything he executed was perfect. His impersonations. The way he walked across the stage. His command of the audience. Eddie watched my stand-up once, which was enough for me to go, I can die now. That’s all I need in life.
What about up-and-coming comedians? Who’s the future of comedy?
Michelle Wolf is hilarious and outrageous. She always makes me laugh. A lot of people don’t know her yet, but they will. You can see her on Late Night With Seth Meyers. If you look on YouTube or Vine or Instagram, there’s a guy named King Bach. He’s huge online, but people don’t know him in the streets. He does short-form sketches. He’s a very funny actor who, because of social media, really made something for himself, carved a path, which I admire. One of the things I love about America is there’s so much comedy. There’s the alt scene with people like Kumail Nanjiani. There are the hipsters, who have a very different style of comedy. There are the mainstreamers. There are black comedians who cross over and do well with white audiences. There are a few white comedians, like Gary Owen, who do particularly well in the black scene. Just look on YouTube. They’re all there.
It seems technology is changing everything about comedy. You no longer need to join the Groundlings or book a set at the Comedy Store to find an audience.
Technology is great for the industry. Comedy is a form that works wherever people are funny. There are people who do comedy shows in the back of a van, in a bus, in a venue, in a small room, a giant room, theater, hall, church, restaurant, phone booth, and all you need is a tiny handheld device to record yourself doing it. When you go to a place like the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, you see all those things happening all over the city, and you realize that comedy is one of the most versatile art forms we have.
How much do you and your writing team focus on creating material that will go viral online?
I don’t believe in working toward a moment just to have a viral moment. I believe in doing what you love and if a moment resonates, it resonates. The Daily Show is different in that it is not all about sound bites and tiny moments. That is a fact of the show that I have to accept. But I won’t lie: It’s nice when you get a moment that goes a little viral. I’m always surprised at which moments take off, to be honest. I create each moment equally, and when one element hits, it’s often foreign to me. Lindsey Graham came on the program and was one of the most engaging guests we’ve had. We played this game of pool where if you missed a shot, you had to give Donald Trump a compliment. That got a lot of attention. Trump tweeted insults at us. I would have never wished for Michael Hayden, ex-director of the CIA and the NSA, to come on the show, but honestly, I had some of the best moments with him.
How much rivalry do you feel with your late-night competitors?
Because I come from the world of stand-up, I realize that success is a cycle. People rise and disappear, they succeed, they miss, they return. As competitive as it is, you learn to celebrate the success of your peers because you know how hard that cycle is. I remember when I first came to America, Amy Schumer was running around doing comedy clubs. She was funny, but she was nowhere close to where she is now, and I loved what she was doing. Then you see her hit her stride, and it’s beautiful. There’s nothing more fun than seeing a comedian come into their own, especially if you’ve watched them on the rise. So for me, it’s Amy Schumer, it’s Jerrod Carmichael, it’s Hannibal Buress, it’s Michael Che. It’s people where I go, Man, we are the class of now.
Who has given you the best advice?
Jon said, “Don’t listen to anyone. Just make the show you believe needs to be made.” Jerry Seinfeld was supportive long before I got the show. That helps in general with confidence. Louis C.K. said to me, “Regardless of what happens, don’t forget to enjoy every single moment, because you can never get it back.” He said, “One day you’ll go, Man, remember that time when no one believed in me? Remember that time when no one thought what I was doing was good? I didn’t take the time to enjoy and savor that moment.” Amy Schumer just looks at me and goes, “Fuck it, have a good time.”
What do you do for fun, by the way?
I love boxing. I ride bicycles. I love roller coasters. My dream is to go on a tour and bounce around to every great roller coaster in America. But I’ll settle for another ride on T3 at Six Flags. I love the feeling that you’re going to die even though you know there’s no chance of being harmed.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to the new Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered. I’m listening to the new Rihanna. I listen to Otis Redding almost every day. He just makes me happy. I like the most recent Justin Bieber. You may not like him; you may not like how popular he is, but don’t deny his talent. The guy learned to play musical instruments, worked on his singing, worked on his dancing, worked on his social media. That’s why he is where he is.
Any fanboy crushes?
Charlize Theron. Not just because she’s South African. I think she is aging majestically. She’s so beautiful. Jennifer Lopez as well. Does she even have an age?
No doubt your dating life has improved since getting the show.
Things are good there. I have a girlfriend. But yes, you definitely get more attention all over the place. You suddenly become a little more good-looking, a little funnier to everyone. Remember, though, that I had some level of notoriety for a very long time. It just moves from place to place. I mean, don’t get me wrong, getting the show was huge because I understood it was going to change my life forever, and it has. American fame takes everything up a level. Seeing your face all over New York City—no one can deny that’s an insane experience. It’s New York fucking City. It’s the Sinatra song. It’s Jay Z. It’s Beyoncé. You can’t deny what it is and how weird it is, even though many people still don’t know who I am. But put it this way: I’m very lucky in that if this had been my first experience of fame, I probably would have caved. I would have crumbled. I would have gone mad. You can’t go from zero to The Daily Show.
So many comedians get caught up in drugs and alcohol. Have you struggled with that?
No. Never have. I’ve never smoked pot. I’ve never smoked, period. I was never drawn to it. I’ll have a few drinks occasionally. Sometimes I regret the fact that I missed that era, because that’s what comedy was all about at one point. Comedians were rock and roll. Now you go to a comedy club and comedians are ordering kale salads and telling you about how they’re going to the gym in the morning, which is really interesting to see, because comedians were the first ones who switched over. All comedians used to be drunks and drug addicts. You’d hear about a suicide in the community every single week, and that has slowed down dramatically, which is fantastic.It is often said that pain is the source of all comedy. There’s the need to have people laugh at your jokes, the need for validation. Is that part of who you are? It’s part of most comedians. It’s our dark bond. We all carry the heavy burden of depression in a different way. We all deal with it in different ways. For most of us, our therapy is on stage. I meditate. I exercise. I always try to aim toward the light in life. I surround myself with positive people. I move toward positivity. I try to find the things that help me quell that voice in my head. It’s one of the reasons I love Kevin Hart, who was the first guest on my show. Comedy was associated with skepticism and a general pessimism for so long, but Kevin came in with positivity, and he still does. Look at his Twitter. He’s eating right, working out, adding value to people’s lives. I’m glad for his success because he shows there’s another way to do it.
Does earning more money make you happier?Ironically, I’m not necessarily making more money as host of The Daily Show than I was before. I was doing very well for myself as an artist, as a businessman, as a performer. So it’s not a lifestyle change for me. Mine is not a Cinderella story.
You know, it’s good to have enough money. I like to splurge on friends and family and people and charity. I like watches. I guess growing up with a Swiss father will do that. I don’t buy expensive watches, but I like unusual ones. I have a Hamilton Jazzmaster Face 2 Face, and there are only 888 of them in the world. I love the fact that it’s a watch whose face flips over to another face, which makes it two different watches in one.
Honestly, having possessions gets boring. At some point, you have all you can have. I completely understand why Bill Gates is working to eradicate malaria. Yeah, he can own 10 Bugattis, but so what? He can drive fast in a straight line. It’s much more exciting to fix problems, education, help children. Maybe it’s my African perspective on the world.
So do you want to go ahead and walk us through the process of putting together The Daily Show?
Wake up at seven. Spend a good 10, 15 minutes meditating, just taking time to prepare myself for the day. Then I’ll read the news, as much of it as I can. It’s usually The New York Times, The Washington Post. It’s BuzzFeed News. It’s The Skimm, which is a daily newsletter that pulls together the most interesting reads of the day. I’m a big fan of Vox and everything Ezra Klein is doing. I really love German Lopez. I love Rachel Maddow. I’ll do a bit of a workout just to get the body moving, and I’m at work by 9:15.
You spend less time actually sitting at the desk than Jon Stewart did. Is that intentional?
It’s funny. In my head I go, I didn’t work all these years to get a desk job. I sat because I was told that it was the format, because that’s what everyone did. Then one day I stood because I was like, This is who I am. This is what I do. Standing up is how I got here.
You continue to do comedy on the road even with your busy schedule.
I have to. Stand-up is where I live. Stand-up helps me articulate my point of view. Stand-up helps me exist in my purest form, and that is talking to people, sharing and discussing ideas. I try to go out every second weekend. Honestly, that’s where I feel alive. I get to relax. I get to explore myself, and I get to see America, which is very important to me. I find it weird to live in a place and comment on a place but have a level of ignorance.
If the show ended tomorrow, what would you do?
I would pick up my U.K. tour where I left off. I would go back and carry on touring Australia. I would go and do my shows in Germany. I would do more shows in South Africa, maybe start some TV shows somewhere else. As long as I’m doing comedy, I’m alive.
Source: By David Hochman, Play Boy Magazine