When Comedy Crosses the Line
By Kelsey Eiland
This past March, Comedy Central announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah was chosen as the next host of The Daily Show. He will be replacing current host Jon Stewart, who has anchored the satirical news outlet for over sixteen years.
Noah’s career began in 2002 when he landed the star role on the South African soap opera Isidingo. Besides hosting a radio show, he hosted a comedy talk show called Tonight with Trevor Noah starting in 2010. Noah first appeared on U.S. television in 2012 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has also guest-starred on the Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show.
But just as the curtains were pulled to unveil Noah’s takeover, his past was put under scrutiny. Noah is a frequenter of the social networking platform, Twitter. Some of his old tweets have been deemed misogynistic, racist, and anti- Semitic. Other news outlets have been forgiving of his comments due to his own mixed heritage: Noah was born to a Swiss father and biracial South African mother—she is Xhosa and Jewish.
So if Noah is a quarter Black and a quarter Jewish, is he entitled to make arguably offensive jokes so long as he identifies with the groups he’s antagonizing?
Personally, I don’t think so. Comedy should not be a forum to jab at historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, but rather a space to critique those in positions of power and privilege. One should not be exempt from that rule based on his or her own identity.
This is where Noah walks a fine line. Most of his comedy does critique systems of power, racism, and ignorance. And aside from his sometimes crude and distasteful jokes, Noah’s comedy usually reflects well-thought out critiques of social climates and popular culture.
For example, when Noah guest-starred on The Daily Show last December, he commented on the disproportionate rates of police brutality against Black males as well as Ebola outbreaks in the United States. In the sketch, he pointed out that he feels safer as a Black man in South Africa than in the U.S. While addressing the notion that the U.S. is far more industrialized and advanced than countries like South Africa, he exposed the ignorance of many Americans who are quick to judge others but fail to recognize systemic problems within their own society.
So, even if Noah is often well-informed and tasteful about his comedic deliveries, his presentation of information in the form of comedy should still be carefully critiqued.
On the one hand, Noah shouldn’t be let off the hook for a poorly delivered joke. Even if he is of mixed racial heritage, this kind of comedy creates a recurring problem of “punching down”. That is, it targets groups that have historically been disenfranchised, instead of calling out groups that perpetuate discrimination. Punching down happens all too often on social networking sites; people feel protected behind a screen and entitled to say whatever comes to mind.
On the other hand, Noah should be granted some leeway. These tweets are nearly three and six years old, and Noah has shown through his more recent routines that his comedy has become more tasteful.
Platforms like Twitter have opened up the stage to anyone who has something to say in 140 characters. Unfortunately, complex issues like race and gender are often reduced to a few words due to the nature of the platform. But social media can also provide an open forum for grassroots activism. Noah has tweeted nearly 9,000 times, using Twitter to rally against xenophobia, support anti-apartheid rallies at the University of Cape Town, and promote solidarity movements on college campuses.
This is not, however, to justify Noah’s distasteful comedy with his social activism. At the same time, it is not honest to only criticize him without recognizing his constructive commentary. In a world of hyper-political correctness, comedians like Noah don’t have room to talk about issues like race and make mistakes doing so. It’s important to call Noah out when his jokes reinforce stereotypes and power dynamics, but he also needs to be given the space to learn how to “right” his “wrongs”.
If a primary purpose of comedy is to critically examine what’s going on in mainstream culture, then comedians should tackle issues of identity, power, and injustice.
Further, commentators like Noah and The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore are minority voices in a media world that is dominated and controlled by White males. Having a presence on television can grant underrepresented groups a sense of affirmation and identity. Representation provides young people with role models in public spaces as well as a more realistic view of the world’s population. Moreover, diversity in media dismantles assumptions and over-generalizations of minority groups often portrayed in the mainstream.
Part of comedy’s appeal is that it can provide informative commentary not only on world events and systematic narratives of how we socialize one another, but on how information is exchanged through digital discourse. Through a well-planned and researched comedy routine, comedians like Noah should be supported in dismantling systems of inequality rather than sensationalized for their poorly-delivered one-liners.
In light of the critiques, Jon Stewart defended Comedy Central’s choice to hire Noah. “I can say this without hesitation: Trevor Noah will earn your trust and respect … or not,” said Stewart. “Just as I earned your respect … or did not.” Either way, Noah must be given the chance to try—both to fail and succeed.