Trevor Noah, the South African comedian announced as the new host of the Daily Show. Photo: Justin Barlow/Gallo Images/Getty Images for MTV
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Why outsiders like John Oliver and Trevor Noah are taking over American late night TV

South African Trevor Noah, the newly-announced host of The Daily Show, joins Brits John Oliver and James Corden in the US’s coveted late-night slots.

The internet exploded on Monday morning with explainers of everything you – yes, you – need to know about Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old South African comic newly anointed as Jon Stewart’s successor. Considering that the focus of Noah’s three Daily Show appearances so far, where he played the part of the cosmopolitan mocking American ignorance of everything outside of our own borders, this is somewhat fitting. Noah is a star in his own country (here he is gracing the cover of South African GQ last October), where he hosted his own satirical news show, Tonight with Trevor Noah, a few years ago. But for most Americans (myself included), Noah is a virtual unknown, a young comedian who made his first appearance on The Daily Show just last December.

Yes, it’s a little disappointing that there is still no female late-night US TV host in 2015. (For that we’ll have to wait for Samantha Bee’s as-yet-unnamed Daily Show doppelganger to premiere on TBS later this year.) “We talked to women. We talked to men. We found in Trevor the best person for the job,” Comedy Central president Michelle Ganeless told the New York Times. With Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show at 11:30, Comedy Central will soon have two fake news shows hosted by black men – that’s two more than a year ago, but still one fewer than the number of white men named “James” on network late-night.

The most notable aspect of Noah’s background, though, might be something he shares with another Daily Show-correspondent turned host: he isn’t American. With John Oliver on HBO, the Brit James Corden on CBS’s Late Late Show, and now Noah, foreigners are taking over our late night desks. On both The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s Britishness has been a crucial part of his comedy, letting him shake his head at American injustice with the baffled outrage of an outsider instead of the smug righteousness of one of our own. Oliver has also given his show a more international scope, focusing attention on foreign elections and weird German scandals about Fanta.

However much they may have wanted to, the Comedy Central execs couldn’t get Oliver away from his cushy HBO gig. But as the mixed-race child of a Xhosa mother and Swiss-German father growing up under apartheid, Noah brings his own outsider perspective. “I was born a crime,” he says often in interviews and stand-up acts, where he jokes about confounding America’s racial categories, being mistaken for Mexican, and learning to speak German with a “distinctly Hitler-ish” accent.

Noah’s Daily Show appearances so far have been amusing but not particularly inspired, relying too much on Stewart’s ignorant American shtick. What made Jon Stewart so essential a decade ago and so stale in recent years has been his endless skewering of Fox News, a target that always deserving of scorn but not always worth the effort. As Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote in February, “Stewart’s Daily Show and its progeny have done their job almost too well. Cable news carries on – ideological, craven, and absurd as ever, but also exposed.” What gives me the most hope is that Noah isn’t just a newcomer to America – he’s a newcomer to American cable news. I’m not sure what we can expect from his political coverage; at this point, he probably doesn’t know himself. But I doubt it will be more of the same, and that’s something to celebrate. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder