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‘Daily Show’ comic Trevor Noah: sensitive, not soft

Just hours before comedian and new “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” contributor Trevor Noah spoke with the Sun-Times, armed terrorists had stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, reportedly screaming ‘Allahu akbar, we’ll avenge the Prophet!’ and murdered 12 members of its staff. Past issues, news reports were quick to note, contained cartoons that derisively depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The talk with Noah, then, led to pushing the envelope. How far is too far, and how far would he go in his own act? Would he ever ridicule the Prophet Muhammad?

“No, I wouldn’t, because I don’t know anything about the Prophet Muhammad,” said Noah, 30, who tours the world and grew up the son of a South African mother and a Swiss father amid political and racial tensions in South Africa. “I think the biggest obstacle you’ll face in comedy, [with] both the audience and the comedian, is genuinely just ignorance. That’s all it is. Whether you’re talking about religion, whether you’re talking about race, whether you’re talking about gender — all those things are only hampered by your ignorance.

“So let’s say a white comedian gets onstage and starts talking about black people. It has nothing to do with what he’s talking about, but rather what point of view he’s coming from. Does he actually know black people? Does he actually know what he’s talking about? It’s just ignorance that will separate a comedian that’s really good and a guy that’s connecting with the crowd [with] somebody who’s offending them.”

Starting out in South Africa, Noah was forced to be sensitive while at the same time conveying sometimes-hard truths. The experience, he said, made him a more nimble comic. (He finished up a run at UP Comedy Club in Old Town on Jan. 18.)

“You learn how to broach topics in so many different and interesting ways, which is something that I really appreciated,” he said.

“And I know it sounds strange, but you find ways to playfully insult people that are with you, or to mock their ways. It really is what you do with friends. That’s why I believe the best comedy shows are the ones where you feel like the audience is your friends, because with your friends you will say things that, if a stranger said [them], it may come to blows very quickly… Your friend knows when you say something about him, you’re not saying it to offend him, you’re not saying it because you hate him, but rather because you’re using comedy to tackle something that may be sensitive.”

Then again, he said, sensitivity doesn’t necessarily preclude offense. The way in which people react to his comedy is something over which he has no control. Moreover, he stressed, being sensitive is far different from being toothless.

“If you’re being toothless, you’re holding back on what you should be saying because you’re afraid of offending somebody or being seen as being in the wrong,” Noah said. “If you’re being sensitive, you still throw the punches, but you understand how those punches may affect another human being negatively. And so you may have a punch, but maybe behind it you’ve prepared a hug or a compliment.”

Stewart is no doubt counting on Noah’s unique approach and cultural awareness to bolster “The Daily Show’s” team of correspondents (the show airs at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central). And though Noah is thrilled to be on board (he has done only one segment so far, in December), he initially had reservations.

“I honestly wondered, ‘Am I even smart enough for ‘The Daily Show?’ That’s what I genuinely asked myself at one point: ‘Am I smart enough to be part of this world?’ [Jon] had faith in me, and I’m glad he did.”

During his intro for Noah’s December debut, Stewart announced that “we’re always excited to find new and talented voices that can contribute to our program.” And while Stewart couldn’t be reached for further comment, Noah’s best guess for why he was hired is this: Aside from admiring his style, Stewart appreciates that he has something to say — a point of view. And, as former “Daily Show” standout Stephen Colbert recently remarked, Stewart wants his contributors to have well-defined points of view.

“I’ve never been a very good joker,” Noah said. “I’m not a jokesmith, in particular. So I’ve usually always gone with sharing my opinion and my stories in my life. And the one thing I do is I talk about things I see. I’m not afraid to talk about things that maybe some people find uncomfortable. I’m not afraid to alienate some people who don’t want to have a difficult conversation. Because I do feel we do need to be talking about these things.”

Even in this day and age, when comedy can lead to tragedy.

Noah, however, isn’t concerned for his safety.

“I think it’s one of the safest times right now,” he said. “Yes, there will be danger. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, whenever there’s free speech, there’s going to be something. But I do think there’s also a certain level of responsibility that comes with that. What is the real purpose that you’re doing it for?

“You can never stop something from happening. You can never stop somebody from taking offense at what you’ve done. But what you can do is at least deliver [material] in such a way that you know why you did it and that you stand by what you’ve done.”