My Day at Madiba's House
Posted By dpmeyer, December 14, 2013, in Production
Nelson Mandela, one of the funniest human beings I've ever met. --Trevor Noah
My favorite day of filming You Laugh But It's True was when we traveled with Trevor Noah to Soweto to visit his grandmother. Trevor's one of the most quick witted and fearless people I know, but Frances Noah knows how to check him. Her humorous banter with him is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It also made clear to me how much she fiercely loves her grandson. It was an incredible relationship to witness.
Trevor's friend from Australia had joined us on our trip, so after leaving Grandma Noah's, we headed down the road to The Mandela House. It's definitely a tourist destination, but the impact it had on me was significant. My knowledge of Nelson Mandela had been limited to the inspirational elder statesman who had ushered in the New South Africa as its first black president. It wasn't until visiting the Apartheid Museum that I learned about Mandela the young revolutionary. And it was here at 8115 Orlando West, Soweto where I got a small glimpse into his personal life.
Our guide talked a lot about Mandela's sense of humor--how he pulled his microwave trick with those who visited him at Victor Verster prison. With Mandela's passing, there have been other stories mentioning how he used his sense of humor as an effective tool in his political diplomacy.
Hearing these stories made me realize that we often have the tendency to inadvertently dehumanize iconic figures. The truth is, icons can be pranksters too.
But even more than that, I think Mandela understood how comedy can bring people together, how it could heal a nation. I also think he realized that when used effectively, it could be an agent for change. It's part of his legacy, and I see South African comics like Trevor Noah, Loyiso Gola, Kagiso Lediga, Eugene Khoza, and many others carrying out that legacy when they perform on stage.
Look, I understand that might sound like hyperbole--these are stand-up comedians we're talking about, right? Today if you were to go into the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip and watch an LA comic blabbering on and on about his made-up sexual conquests, you're not likely to view him as a humanitarian. And sure, you'll see plenty of that in the South African stand-up comedy scene as well. But to me, one of the primary reasons that Trevor Noah is exploding onto the global stage is because he can bring his social commentary to the masses like few others. He doesn't just make people laugh--he's a hilarious guy who changes the game.
Case in point: when I first saw Trevor perform in 2008, audiences at a lot of the comedy shows were pretty segregated. Then again, comedians of color in South Africa had only been performing publicly since the late 90's. To me, the bigger surprise is how rapidly the audience changed at Trevor's shows in just a few years. Go to a Trevor Noah show today, and you'll find an audience even more diverse than what you'd find at a show in the US.
This is no accident. In the film, Trevor talks a lot about comedy and laughter being about people, period: "there's so much we share in common, that we don't even realize. And when you laugh at the same things you start to realize how much you actually share."
It's a powerful sentiment that's helping to heal South Africa from its past--the best comedy really can come from tragedy. What better way to pay tribute to the man South Africans call "Tata"--the father of a nation.