Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
At a Class Day at Princeton University in May 2021, Trevor Noah said, “Comedy for me has always been that place where we can talk about the uncomfortable truths…We can talk about racism while laughing with people. We can talk about misogyny while laughing with people. We can … hopefully poke holes and reveal some of the light that comes through those holes while using comedy to lessen the burden that the audience is feeling.”
And Trevor Noah reveals that light poking through those holes with his comedy – again and again and again. No wonder the Erasmus Prize for Humour: ‘In Praise of Folly’ is awarded to Trevor Noah. In a CBS Radio interview in 2016, Trevor commented, “Humour is a powerful tool. When people are laughing, they are agreeing. It’s an implicit agreement, isn’t it, when you laugh with someone? Because it means you share something without even realizing it.”
It is remarkable that Noah has brought shared laughter to the world, binding people, enabling us to see through his comedy the dignity and feistiness of many different kinds of marginalized people, never shying away from foregrounding many difficult truths.
Noah, born in 1984 in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa, to a Black Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father, was classified as Coloured, and experienced the horrific and unjust system of Apartheid and its aftereffects in his formative years in South Africa. The jury of the Erasmus Prize wept and laughed as we read Noah’s deservedly much-acclaimed autobiography Born A Crime (2016), which is also a love letter to his mother.
In it, Noah tells in registers that are biting, moving and very funny, the story of his childhood and early youth. Widely considered the most successful comedian from Africa, Noah, now based in the US, maintains very strong ties with South Africa, not least through the Trevor Noah Foundation, which he set up in in 2018. This non-profit organization aims to “empower youth with the foundation for a better life – access to high-quality education”. Noah writes in Born A Crime, “If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind.” The foundation, in this spirit, helps to offer resources that ignite young people’s dreams, to provide infrastructure, to train teachers, and to improve the quality of education. When we read about the Foundation’s mission, we are reminded of a passage in Born A Crime: “with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves? People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That part of the analogy is missing.”
Our laureate became visible in South Africa in a variety of media around 2002, when he acted in a South African soap opera called Isidingo. After hosting his own show, Noah’s Ark, on youth radio in Gauteng, and a number of South African television shows, such as the educational programme Run the Adventure (2004–2006) and a sports show, he chose to focus on comedy, performing at various festivals and shows in South Africa. His stand-up comedy specials in South Africa include The Daywalker (2009), Crazy Normal (2011), That’s Racist (2012), and It’s My Culture (2013). Noah relocated to the USA in 2011 at the age of 27 after having established his name as an international comedy sensation.
Noah’s autobiography offers an utterly gripping account of the evolution of a child, adolescent and young man living on the edge of violence, criminality and abuse, always within discriminatory structures, yet moving beyond them.
Noah distils pain into laughter without ever letting us forget the pain. He brought a unique perspective on racism to his new country of residence. In the ever competitive environment of the US he joked, “Coming from the home of some of the best racism in the world, I don’t mean to brag.. but South African racism is top quality racism, one of the best out there…”
In 2014, Noah became the Senior International Correspondent for The Daily Show in the US, and in 2015 he succeeded former host Jon Stewart. Speaking seven languages – English, Tswana, Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, German and Afrikaans – Noah code-switches between languages, and has crafted fine comedy out of different accents. He shows how one can successfully discuss news satirically, and in The Daily Show became acclaimed for his comedic and satirical work on issues such as Black Lives Matter. After the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers, Noah commented that: “Black people are tired of hearing ‘I’m sorry’ and then nothing happening. Because essentially what they’re really hearing is, ‘I’m sorry this is happening, and I’m sorry that it’s going to happen again.’”
When announcing he would be leaving The Daily Show in 2022, Noah said that he wished to carry on exploring, that he missed learning other languages, going to other countries and putting on shows, and that’s exactly what he is now doing! This year, he has been busy with stand-up comedy tours, notably in South Africa, the US and UK. We are so very honoured to have you here in the Netherlands today to receive the Erasmus Prize, Trevor Noah.
Like the best of your great peers and forerunners – chief among them is Desiderius Erasmus – hence the name of our prize – and after whose great humanist book, In Praise of Folly, our theme is named this year – you are a satirist and humourist who deploys his talents to make us critique injustice, re-think prejudice, and share laughter. You use philanthropy to ignite the imagination of thousands of learners through education. In you, we have a clever, agile, playful, compassionate, socially conscientious and inspiring humourist, who uses satire and humour for the greater good, in an Erasmian spirit.
We congratulate you from the bottom of our hearts, and thank for you for the bite, the pleasure, the opportunity to rethink profound matters – and the laughter, which helps heal so many wounds.