Review: Trevor Noah Charms and Dazzles with ‘Off The Record’ India Tour, But Leaves Comedy Fans Wanting More

By Ravina Rawal 3 October 2023 5 mins read

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I always linger after a big comedy show to eavesdrop on exit chatter—us critics can wait, this is where the real reviews are. In the lines that bleed back out of the bubble everyone was suspended in for two hours, in the pileup of familiar strangers waiting to use the restroom, in the gleeful post-show smoke huddles; between those waiting for their taxis and rickshaws back home, and BFF crews planning their after-parties.

On Sunday night, after Trevor Noah had wrapped up the India leg of his Off The Record world tour with a final show in Mumbai, nobody sounded like they wanted to go first. I heard a lot of “No, what did you think?” and “Enjoyed or what?” being volleyed back and forth with non-committal answers. This is unusual. Comedy audiences normally have painfully confident opinions post-show, when the laughter-induced dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins have swapped out the day’s cortisol from their brain. They not only want to tell each other precisely what they thought, drawing from the mental notes taken during the performance for this very debrief, but they are often convinced they should be on stage themselves next time. There’s a lot of terrible jokes and playful elbowing involved.

It was definitely quieter this time.

Urban India loves Trevor Noah. Between his standup comedy, The Daily Show, and his 2016 memoir Born A Crime, there’s at least one version of the man that everyone is familiar with. When he announced his India tour, he immediately sold out all seven shows across New Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. Based on online buzz, some press coverage, and notes from the Delhi team on DeadAnt’s Slack channel, the kickoff in the capital was a success. Then the Bengaluru technical issues fiasco happened—both shows had to be cancelled—and that had everyone talking about it for completely different reasons. Mumbai, then, was really holding its breath, waiting for the luck of the draw.

Noah came through—I can say this with a high level of certainty for the audience that primarily gets out to watch international comedy stars and Indian headliners in arena/adjacent venues. More than anything, the 90-minute run was a powerful showcase of his hold over the craft, given that he was able to magic a full show of observations about India, a country he only set foot in for the first time 10-odd days ago. Funny-enough stories about his sweltering visit to the Taj Mahal and tour guides, observations on our traffic (“it’s a game of Chicken, and the winner is the one who cares the least”), our security systems and personnel, flying on Air India, “Ambani house, Ambani daughter house”, and the hastiest reference to our dear leader (“they told me not to make any jokes about [Him]”)—all of it full of incisive detail and his signature impressions. When he zoomed in on Delhi’s infamous “tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?” attitude with act-outs and at least four different Indian accents, it had everyone wheezing with laughter.

By structuring the entire show around observations about his short visit to India, Noah flipped the script on the more seasoned comedy fans in the audience.

Have we heard a version of it all before? Yup. Was it funny anyway? Sure. It’s always fun to be reminded of how objectively brain-breaking some of the things we have normalised are, from the perspective of someone experiencing India for the first time. He had the best Indian traffic and immigration officer jokes I’ve ever heard, bar none, and his ability to shift seamlessly between cultural contexts and tonal nuances is a joy to behold live.

And then came perhaps the story of the night: what happened in Bangalore. “The shows did not happen. On the bright side, I will always remember India,” Noah said to huge applause from an audience that loves schadenfreude.

But by structuring the entire show around observations about his short visit to India, Noah flipped the script on the more seasoned comedy fans in the audience. For those immersed in the art form’s evolution—and emotionally invested in artists’ success enough to be at dive bars and pokey comedy rooms weekly—it was a confusing approach.

Almost every travelling comedian uses topical jokes and local observations to warm up the crowd, pandering and pandering to get the room on their side through playful riffing that everyone has come to expect. But usually that comes up top, the first 10-15 minutes or so. Before the ‘real’ show—the shared experience that every city and country can boast of having been a part of during an artist’s tour run. In this case, it never came.

Instead of learning something new about him, we re-learnt a lot about ourselves. He had enough insights and premises to clock in the laughs, sure, but these were themes we’re all used to being teased about. That’s not what his dedicated fans came for. When he said goodnight Mumbai, there was a feeling of “that’s it?”

When you’ve reached the level of success and respect that Noah now commands, the bar is very high. Noah has always spoken fondly of India and its influence in his life and this was his first time here—the anticipation of what he might bring to the table was palpable. I cannot assume what everyone expected that to be, but it was not literally curry.

I’m not sure what I was hoping for myself on a personal level. I didn’t read up on it, didn’t look for reviews—I wanted no spoilers, a fresh slate for his fresh slate. In a former role as the editorial head of a global comedy channel, I’ve previously enjoyed the privilege of watching Noah workshop his material at small venues in New York City, infuse his energy into the writers room of The Daily Show, and even catch the taping of an episode of the show. I will never forget what it felt like to watch him in action behind the scenes and in front of the camera—instant rapture and goosebumps—and what a lesson it was professionalism and on-stage power.

Noah stepped down as the host of The Daily Show last year so he could focus on his standup career and touring. He went back to comedy with all that influence. Who is he after The Daily Show and where does he want to go? That was perhaps what everyone had come to see. In a 2022 interview with Today after he’d wrapped up the last episode of the late night show, he talked about comedy being his first love and being excited to get back to it in a fuller way. “[With standup] I relax, I get to enjoy a city, I get to explore the cultures of the places I’m going to. It’s how I learn different languages, it’s how I explore the world.”

That is what this tour seems to be about. Getting loose, getting back in the game, and exploring himself as he explores our worlds. He’s an excellent performer and has enough star power to fill every seat in the house, no contest. But here’s the rub: At INR 12,000 a pop for tickets, I wasn’t there for what ultimately felt like a trial show, I wanted his A-game. And that’s where this set fell short.

Baaki sab maaf. We made up our minds a long time ago that South Africa-India same same, Trevor hamara bhai hai, so there’s no love lost. Come again Trevor, wear seat belt. Just have more to say next time.

Feature Image Courtesy: BookMyShow


Ravina Rawal

Ravina Rawal is the founder and editor of Dead Ant.


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