Yesterday morning, Trevor Noah was announced as the new host of “The Daily Show,” and for much of the day, things were good. We asked “Who is Trevor Noah?” and the explainers came in drove, most of them telling us he was a 31-year-old South African comedian, the son of a Xhosa mother and Swiss-German father, with a unique perspective on global events and a killer bit about Hitler.
Then, the tweets came.
As anyone with a passing familiarity with the Internet could have foreseen — and as someone at Comedy Central undoubtedly should have — writers began combing through Noah’s online history, and it didn’t take long for them to turn up a series of objectionable Twitter posts. There were hacky dick jokes, gags about “fat chicks,” attacks on Israel’s bellicosity, and others indulging anti-Semitic stereotypes. All told, there were fewer than a dozen taken from seven years’ worth of tweets, but that didn’t matter. Noah was a misogynist, an anti-Semite, case closed.
There’s no defending Noah’s jokes — or at least I’m not defending them, beyond the suggestion that humor about how Jewish women don’t like to give blowjobs is less anti-Semitic than flat lazy. But it’s worth considering how differently they might play if they were, say, part of a seven-year-old standup routine rather than social media posts.
In the YouTube clips that circulated freely yesterday, Noah is visibly different than in his small handful of “Daily Show” appearances. He wears leather jackets and sneakers instead of neutral suits, bobs freely around the stage instead of sitting at a desk, wryly informing Stewart of America’s blinkered perspective on the world. You can see how he plays to a large theater crowd and a smaller club audience, how he weaves together sharp-edged social critique and broad mimicry.
On Twitter, there’s no room, no performance, no context, just 140 characters that can travel around the world in the space of a click. Noah’s feed is public — very public, now — but reading a tweet is less like being in the audience than being part of a conversation. You’re not part of an anonymous mass whose job is to listen and laugh. While you’re reading a tweet, the author is talking right to you. Even more than tone, it’s tense that matters. Even though they’re time-stamped, tweets live in a perpetual present. The avatar in the corner reflects not who you were (or who you presented yourself as) then, but who you are now, and they’re published anew ever time you hit reload. Video clips carry context with them, while tweets run free. Savvy social-media users know this, and the new host of “The Daily Show” — a job now ironically subject to the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for politicians, not comedians — needs to as well.
What’s worrisome about Noah’s tweets isn’t that he made some bad jokes, or that they come from an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable perspective. That’s supposed to be one of his selling points, after all. It’s the bad judgement behind posting them, and in leaving them up. (I’ve gone back and forth with colleagues — on Twitter, where else? — about whether deleting the offending tweets would have been a worse move than leaving them up, but I think “I made some jokes that I no longer think are funny, or no longer who represent who I am” is a more tenable position than “Whoo, fat chicks!”) Jon Stewart may insist that his job is just to tell jokes, but “The Daily Show” is no longer merely a court jester. It’s evolved into a national conscience, a place where fraudulent rhetoric is exposed and where people are held accountable for saying terrible things. Noah is capable of much better than these handful of tweets — the Hitler routine linked above is pretty close to brilliant — and he’ll have “The Daily Show’s” amazing staff on his side. But he’ll still be running the show, and his decisions will have weight. I’ve written that whoever the new “Daily Show” host is can and should remake the show in his image, but it would be a shame if that aspect of it didn’t survive.