This article takes up the transnational comedy career of Trevor Noah as a way to explore how the political work of racial comedy can manifest, circulate and indeed communicate differently across different racial-political contexts. Through the close textual analysis of two key comic performances –“The Daywalker” (2009) and “Son of Patricia” (2018), produced and (initially) circulated in South Africa and the USA, respectively – this article explores the extent to which Noah’s comic treatment of race has shifted between the two contexts. In particular, attention is paid to how Noah incites, navigates and mitigates potential sources of offence surrounding racial anxieties in the two contexts, and how he evokes his own “mixed-race” status in order to open up spaces of permission that allow him to joke about otherwise taboo subjects. Rejecting the claim that the politics of Noah’s comedy is emancipatory or progressive in any straightforward way, by means of formal analyses we argue that his comic treatment of race does not enact any singular politics, but rather that the political work of his racial humour shifts relative to its wider political contexts. Thus, rather than drawing a clear line between light entertainment and politically meaningful humour, this article argues that the political valence of racial joking can be understood as contingent upon wider discourses of race that circulate in national-cultural contexts.
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