Last November, a friend invited me to come see a comedy showcase she’d heard about via a South African friend of hers. Expecting a full lineup of stand-ups, I was instead surprised with an hour of original material from Trevor Noah.
And it was pretty damn funny.
The show was what’s informally known as an industry showcase. The middle section of the 50-seat theater was entirely reserved seating, in theory giving agents and executives the opportunity to discover a fresh new voice. And Noah definitely gave off that vibe — topical, young, cool and charming, especially during an inspired run about police violence, race and last fall’s ebola outbreak… Which went on to be the kick-off for Noah’s first appearance on “The Daily Show,” a month later.
Noah’s comedy, in general, tends to focus on race, especially on what it means to be black and American, which makes up the foundation of his 2013 comedy special “African American.” That focus, combined with the sort of outsider perspective that’s made John Oliver such an important voice in comedy, makes Noah an obvious pick to lead a new and modern take on the late night format.
But in the wake of his announcement as the heir apparent to “The Daily Show,” people have dug into the guy’s Twitter feed and found some unsettling stuff.
Criticwire’s Sam Adams examined the question of whether the Tweets should remain online or not, but their existence at this point has been cemented into our awareness of Noah’s comedy.
In response to the backlash, Comedy Central released the following statement: “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”
Their support for Noah isn’t much of a surprise, because you have to go pretty far to get yourself kicked off Comedy Central — after all, we’re talking about the channel that revived the Friar’s Club roast tradition for both ratings and the ritual humiliation of pop culture icons.
The only recent example I found of Comedy Central blacklisting a comedian was when Artie Lange went on a legendarily awful Twitter rant about his antebellum sex fantasies. Lange’s scheduled appearance on “@midnight” was canceled, and he does not seem to have appeared on the network since.
Is anything that Noah tweeted over the last several years as awful as Lange’s “Here’s the scenario I’m using to jerkoff to chick on First Take I’m T. Jefferson & she’s my slave”? I’d say no. In fact, in reading the reaction to Noah’s jokes, the second-most common word I’ve seen, after “offensive,” is “lazy.” Which is its own kind of offense.
As an experiment, I went back through the last month or so of Noah’s tweets, to see if the bad jokes were par for the course, or if things have improved in recent days (the “bad Tweets” referenced above range from 2009-2014). Unlike other comedians, whose feeds are unrelenting joke factories, Noah in general seems to use his account conversationally, tossing out the occasional one-liner in between communicating with fans about upcoming shows. There weren’t any really great zingers, and I did find a couple of his jokes at least a little amusing…
…but I only found those after a whole lot of scrolling and sifting.
What has people so concerned about Noah’s more offensive comments is that like it or not, “The Daily Show” has grown from a late night comedy show into an iconic liberal voice. After eight years of reacting to George W. Bush’s administration, the show now defines the very concept of “speak truth to power” (later evolved by Stephen Colbert into “truthiness”). It “punches up,” as the saying goes, instead of “punching down” — which is to say, it makes the powerful and influential its target, as opposed to minority groups. Jokes about Jewish people and “fat chicks”? Classic “punching down” material. As well as, again, lazy.
At his best, Noah seems to have the comedy chops necessary to take on the role. We all agree his Tweets are not an example of the comedian at his best, but they aren’t really meant to be. The real question is whether he has the compassion and empathy we’ve come to expect from the man behind the “Daily Show” desk; something we’re definitely now watching for.
Stewart was 37 years old when he took over the show from Craig Kilborn (who, let’s remember, was never really an advocate for the downtrodden); Noah is 31. He still has some learning to do. Step one for any good host: Learning how to listen. Hopefully, he’s doing that right now.