Review: Trevor Noah charms but lacks bite at Dubai Comedy Festival

South African comic Trevor Noah's Dubai Comedy performance is high on charm but lacks in content.

South African comedian and presenter of The Daily Show Trevor Noah during the final night of the 2015 Dubai Comedy Fest at Skydive Dubai. Alex Atack for The National
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Trevor Noah is presently one of the most hard-working people in show business.

As well as occupying the hot seat on Comedy Central's The Daily Show — which is shot and aired live in New York Monday to Friday — the South African remarkably maintains his successful stand-up career by jetting off on the weekends to perform in packed theatres. Sources close to the Dubai Comedy Festival said the 31-year-old flew into the country to close the inaugural event at SkyDive Dubai a mere six hours before hitting the stage.

Noah showed no sign of jet lag with a charming set that lacked in bite. A frequent performer in the UAE, Noah started well, with a cavalcade of winning observations about Dubai life, from the rowdy brunches to interaction with the Emirate’s fast-moving cabbies. It was the latter that provided one of the night’s biggest laughs: “I love going in Dubai taxis,” Noah quipped. “Because I just don’t know whether I would be alive to pay the bill at the end.”

His material may not be the most innovative, but Noah delivers them with such aplomb that its easy to forgive the redundancy. The menacing sound of the Russian and Arabic accent is a field plundered by many, but Noah does the shtick well — accents included — and sharply connects them to the present political landscape. Particularly inspired was the bit about Arabic accents on aeroplanes. Where at first instance it seemed lame, the way the passage surprisingly unfolds is a testament to his ability as a recanter.

Unfortunately, while the jokes and laughter did come at a regular space, a great deal of Noah’s material, no matter how polished the delivery, lacked the punch needed to truly resonate. There is no doubt Noah is a sharp observer of social dysfunction; however, he seems unwilling to truly explore the messy and uncomfortable nub of the matters at hand. Whether the Ebola crisis or racism, Noah set the jokes up promisingly, only to deliver punch lines that were more crowd-pleasing than provocative.

This, perhaps, explains the reason why he finds hosting The Daily Show such a challenge at the moment — Noah is certainly as charming as his much-loved predecessor Jon Stewart, but he lacks the gravitas that made the programme so influential.

This was best illustrated in Noah’s concluding set piece centring on the trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius. Noah waded into the issue under the interesting topic of his homeland’s volatile society. However, he used the tragic incident — where Pistorius was convicted of shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in their home — to launch a tired riff about marital bliss. Sure, it produced a few laughs, but after the show, you are left with an empty feeling.