One of the most-underrated talents in stand-up is the art of segue, and it’s something Trevor Noah has in abundance. In his latest Netflix special I Wish You Would, filmed on a gorgeous sapphire-blue stage in Toronto, Canada, Noah manages to have a seamless energetic journey through identity, the royals, COVID, Trump, and a ridiculous evening ordering Indian food in Scotland without any visible cracks in the sequence.
After some solitary vocal warm-up and a little mic testing, Noah walks onto the stage like a rock star, and the atmosphere in the room seems absolutely adoring. This is not a crowd that he is going to have to work hard to win over, and Noah starts with the assumption that the audience and viewers come to the special with a reasonable understanding of who he is. Though who he is, particularly when it comes to his heritage and subsequent perspective, is not something that can be easily surmised.
Noah has wrestled with his identity on stage before, and his approach is unique and complex. He speaks in this special about his South African, Swiss, and German heritage specifically, contrasting the loving expression of his South African mother and his suspicion that “his father never really loved him” with the glorious revelation upon going to Switzerland that that wasn’t the case — his dad was “just Swiss.” But unlike how others may flatten his identity as being simply Black or South African or from a monolithic culture, Noah’s European roots are clearly important to him. He speaks about learning German to connect with his (unimpressed) father and his wider German-speaking family. Unfortunately for Noah, his natural intonation combined with German vocabulary has unintended, but hilarious, consequences.
Beyond what fun blunders it leads to in social situations, his heritage also creates a legitimately singular and fascinating point of view for I Wish You Would. Noah understands many of the ludicrous dynamics around the globe with formidable nuance. That’s not to say the comedy itself is subtle, but that he seems to truly comprehend his subjects in a meaningful way, whether he’s talking about the reaction to Queen Elizabeth II’s death in former British colonies, Trump, Ebola, or the nature of schadenfreude.
This hasn’t always been the case; many Brits were recently annoyed by how they felt Noah mischaracterized the reaction to Rishi Sunak becoming prime minister, which had components of class and capitalism that he failed to consider. But in this special, he keeps his insights closer to home and therefore manages to mock stereotypes without resorting to them. His skill for mimicry does some of the heavy lifting in that regard, be it nailing a plethora of global accents, slipping seamlessly into a series of national dances or an effective Donald “the world’s least surprising man” Trump impersonation. What Noah appreciates is the tiny details, and by observing his subjects so closely, the jokes seem so well-observed that there’s an intelligence even when the jokes themselves could have otherwise spilled over into just being mindless fun.
That’s also not to say that no one will be offended by his latest stand-up hour. Noah’s segment on the Queen may be among the special’s funniest tangents, but any fervent royalists are likely to take exception to his characterization of her death as “not bad news” and rejection that the death of a 96-year-old should protect her from criticism from those her empire colonized. “Of course you can dance on her grave!” he insists “that’s why graves are flat!”
There are plenty of other fun tangents that Noah goes on, but the middle act focuses largely on the pandemic. For those who are sick to the teeth of jokes about COVID, Noah’s virus-based humor is not revolutionary enough to change their minds. While not groundbreaking or profound, there is a whimsy to them that keeps the special’s momentum going. Where on The Daily Show, there’s a level of commitment to political truth grounding him, it is fun, on this occasion, to see Noah free to just be very silly.
Now that his departure from The Daily Show is imminent, with his final episode scheduled for December 8, it’s unclear what Noah will take on next. A 2023 tour has been announced but how, when, and why he will return to our screens are unanswered questions. The only thing that is certain is that given the amount of energy, curiosity, and idiosyncrasy he brings to I Wish You Would, audiences won’t want to wait long to find out.
Trevor Noah: I Wish You Would is now streaming on Netflix.
Leila Latif is Contributing Editor to Total Film, the host of Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast and a regular at Sight and Sound, Indiewire, The Guardian, The BBC and others. Follow her on twitter @Leila_Latif.