News of Trevor Noah’s ascension to host The Daily Show is being noted as something of a milestone in Noah’s native South Africa. On Public International Radio (PRI), a South African blogger noted: “Trevor Noah is like a Barack Obama moment” and went on to comment that he “has temporarily reunited South Africa.”
This may read like PR fluff (South Africans will claim anything unites the racially divided country), but the consensus seems to be that Noah will bring an international perspective to America’s often insular, parochial politics. The success of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO, which treats American politics as part of global politics, suggests this might work. Lester Kiewiet, a South African TV journalist, wrote without too much hope in an email to me that Noah will bring a black, African perspective into the mix.
Will Noah live up to the hype? It’s a tall order. Despite being a comedy program, The Daily Show has for a long time been one of the few shows on American television that consistently expresses a coherent, sharp, critical take on U.S. politics. And Jon Stewart himself has developed a clear political and moral voice that will be hard to replace.
Comedy Central clearly feels Noah, because of his South African background, has the goods. The son of a black, Xhosa speaking mother and white, Swiss father, Noah grew up in Soweto in Johannesburg. He presents himself as some kind of equal-opportunity skewerer of stupid racial politics. What’s unclear is how much more he’s got.
Stewart’s political edge and insider take on American politics has been put to good use in interviews and mock public showdowns with rightwing politicians and Fox News pundits. Americans look to The Daily Show for fresh, pop commentary and analysis of very American politics—not just ridicule of them. A befuddled foreigner can only do so much if all he, and the show’s writers, fall back on his “Africanness” as the schtick for most of his punchlines.
Noah, despite his race humor, is not known for having much in the way of politics. A New York Times blog post described Noah’s Twitter feed as “earnest” (though some jokes about Jews and fat people are already coming back to bite him). But not all of the criticism of Noah's tweets is entirely fair. The one, clear political stance he does seem to take is to be critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians; in some of the commentary this has been conflated with his more race-baiting jokes about Jews.
And, among South Africans, including many who are his age, Noah isn’t held up as a sharp political commentator. His South Africa-focused comedy consists mostly of send-ups (more like impressions) of popular politicians (he has a “drunk Mandela” routine) and of racial stereotypes. This is something most U.S. media played up when the initial announcement was made. Many commentators have struggled to locate Noah politically. “With Jon Stewart, it's very clear what drives him. With Noah, it seems less clear (which may be why you don't know what his politics are),” a friend said to me.
Noah’s initial forays into U.S.-themed commentary do not bode well.
In 2012 he made his American network TV debut on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Noah was the first African comedian to appear in the show’s stand-up slot for young comedians (a few big name African-American comedians had been regular, featured guests already).
After doing some decent jokes about the economy (comparing America’s economy to the “credit of a black man”) and riffing on his biracial background, Noah proceeded to tell jokes about what he called “the whole African-American thing.” In a mock African-American “accent” he repeated some tired generalizations and stereotypes of African Americans about language, black people’s names, and of African Americans “trying really hard to reconnect with Africa.”
Halfway through I could not bear to watch anymore—the exaggerated mannerisms, including “walking” like African Americans and making fun of their supposed relation to gun play, were too much. I assume he was going for irony or edginess, but it didn’t work. (Some of the better African-American comedians riff on these same topics, including the “unsayable,” but at least with pathos and sympathy.) I couldn’t help recall Steve Coogan’s advice for comedians: “Comedy can’t always be safe, and sometimes entertainers need to challenge social orthodoxies. But ‘saying the unsayable’ is different from simply recycling offensive cliches.”
Some of my South African contacts plead that Noah be given the benefit of time and that much of The Daily Show is scripted—“Stewart was as good as his writers,” they counsel. And they may be right. One pointed out that Noah’s “racial commentary about African Americans is not so crude anymore. I imagine he internalized some critical feedback from his first U.S. performances and refined his approach in order to have more credibility in the U.S. market and it appears to have worked.” They also cite his work ethic and determination.
In general, while South Africans will be rooting for Noah—the most visible exports of South Africa right now are Apartheid era mercenaries doing Nigeria’s fighting against Boko Haram—to succeed (PRI reported news of people popping champagne), they may not want to ask the person he references the most in his comedy, his mother, about what she thinks. When Noah first appeared on Leno, a South African newspaper tried to interview her, she responded in Xhosa: “Do you want to talk church matters? No, unless you want to talk about church matters, I know nothing. Not at all. I have not even watched one movie or show, and I know nothing about his life. I'm strictly into God’s things—not interested in Trevor’s things.”
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, teaches at The New School and founded Africa is a Country.