David Paul Meyer’s feature documentary, You Laugh But It’s True, enlightens the audience to the existence of South African comedian Trevor Noah. The son of a racially mixed family, Noah’s unique life experience allows him to cross racial barriers to spread his particular brand of hilarity. As the film tells Noah’s story, it also shows his preparations for a one-man comedy show, named “Daywalker,” that he’s decided to put on after only a few years as a stand-up.
His decision to put on a solo show is not without its critics, most notably other comedians who feel that Noah is not only arrogant, but clearly hasn’t paid his dues. That negative sentiment from his peers, when coupled with South Africa’s struggling comedy scene (no comedy clubs exist; only off-night music clubs put on comedy shows), means Noah has more going against him than is initially apparent. By the time his family is hit by a shocking development, you wonder if anything good can come from what seems to be a doomed endeavor (most people on the street have no idea why the show is called “Daywalker,” let alone what it is about).
But Noah persists, and we get to see his tenacious commitment to his dreams. We also get to see bits and pieces of his comedy routine and, thankfully, he’s pretty damn funny. I mean, documentaries about stand-ups, or the act of stand-up in itself, tend to fall down if the comedians on display aren’t actually entertaining.
A lack of entertainment is not an issue here, however. The film is extremely well-made, and is certainly a good-looking and polished documentary endeavor. If you found nothing else interesting (which would be a challenge), it’s extremely easy on the eyes and ears.
There’s also an education to be found concerning South African politics and social dynamics. Just as Noah’s mixed racial background enables him to relate to multiple elements of society, so too does it make him a welcome ambassador to those of us who aren’t as knowledgeable (a lack of understanding that is particularly embarrassing for someone like me, who was actually born in South Africa). Thus what could be cynically dismissed as a vanity project instead works on a number of levels.
And that’s ultimately what elevates the entire film, its willingness to focus on Noah but allow him to disappear into the background when his story becomes less about specifically him and more about South Africa itself. Apparently an actual recording of the “Daywalker’ performance does exist, so the film doesn’t need to be simply a concert film, and thus can expand it’s view more. The resulting study of South Africa, mixed races and a burgeoning comedy scene is more than worth the time it takes to watch You Laugh But It’s True.
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