So this week, Comedy Central announced their replacement for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: South African comedian Trevor Noah. Noah, known for a somewhat edgy standup routine and a couple of correspondent reports on The Daily Show was immediately praised a great choice.
A few hours after Comedy Central announced that the South African comic would replace Jon Stewart, Salon’s TV critic predicted a surge of “right-wing rage” because “conservative critics have a practiced, doublespeaking method of piling on the heat on figures who stand out because of their race or gender or sexuality,” and obviously their guns would turn on Noah.
Not 24 hours later, Salon published a piece about how Noah’s old tweets—not conservatives—might “kill The Daily Show.” As Sonny Bunch helpfully recounts, the Internet discovered that Noah, who’d grown phenomenally popular in the rest of the Anglosphere, had a bit of a clunker problem.
You can click through to read the offending humor, which consists of tweets that include some Jewish jokes and some fat-girl jokes.
This has all led to some whipsawing in progressive media, from a Trevor Noah welcome wagon to a caravan of pitchfork-wielding villagers. On Monday, Vox’s Max Fisher introduced Noah to readers with “seven of his funniest clips,” and predicted that the host would make his show “a fresh and perhaps invaluable contribution to how we talk—and joke—about race and nationality.” He proved it, with a dive into Noah’s popular videos, pulling out solid routines about how bad Africans looked in famine relief ads and how mixed-race people get “upgraded to black” when they’re famous.
Yet within a day, there was dissent within Vox; writer Kelsey McKinney was explaining why Noah might be unfit to lead TDS. “A Daily Show host should be held to a higher standard than other comedians,” she wrote in regard to the tweets. “These jokes are offensive because they are reflections of cultures that are oppressive and privileged—and rather than being critical of those societal constructions, the jokes instead reinforce them.”
It’s Patricia Arquette all over again. It was fine for Noah to make black jokes, white jokes or anti-American jokes. But he can’t make fun of fat women because he’s above them in the N-dimensional matrix of the perpetually offended. (Weigel reminds us of the Suey Park-Colbert incident, where a bunch of hashtagivists insisted that Colbert’s satire of racism was, in itself, racist).
So what do I think? Chris Rock, a few months ago, gave an interesting interview where he talked about our culture of perpetual offense as it applies to comedians:
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
Exactly. Comedians who live on the edge of offense, as Rock sometimes does, have to work their material to go up to but not over the line. And the only way to know you’ve gone over the line is when people get offended and stop laughing. Think about Rock’s routine on black people vs. the n-word and how much work he must have done to make sure it was funny without being offensive. That’s something that can only come from experience, from trial and error.
For comedians (and really, for everyone), Twitter is a test audience of 284 million. We’ve seen a lot comedians — Patton Oswalt and Louis CK, for example — tweet jokes that went over the line (sometimes way over it). Hell, we’ve seen random people like Justine Sacco have their lives turned upside down because a dumb joke went viral.
I didn’t like Noah’s tweets (which are, granted, a small selection from over 8000 tweets). But I did find his stand-up material good. Not George-Carlin-in-his-prime good, but reasonable. I do think his tweets went over the line and the Jewish jokes did bother me. But I’m willing to give Noah a chance at The Daily Show. If he starts making offensive jokes, I’ll turn it off. But as someone who has occasionally tweeted stupid things, I’m not willing to line up the firing squad just yet.