I’m incredibly excited about the news that Trevor Noah is going to be the new host of The Daily Show: I think it’s an inspired choice, and I know that it’s going to make an enormous difference in terms of how Americans think about Africans in general and black Africans in particular.
It’s going to change the way that Noah thinks about Americans, too. And so I’m hopeful that the current mini-storm surrounding old Trevor Noah tweets is going to turn out, in hindsight, to be the first act of one of those rom-coms which will end up as a glorious love affair between America and one talented African immigrant.
To understand how far Noah has come, it’s helpful to watch this stand-up routine from a couple of years ago. Noah’s funny, he has great stage presence, but his American stereotypes are off: the adept Malibu surfer who’s also a dumb-as-sand Valley girl?
Stick with it, though. The genius of the bit comes at the end, with a joke that explodes like a depth charge. There’s a lot of Californians-are-stupid humor, followed by some slightly weird AIDS humor — and then Noah comes out with the punchline (“then you just take a shower”) and the audience just dies. Noah’s done an amazing bit of ju-jitsu: it turns out that a monologue which looked at first glance to be about Americans is actually a lethal bit of political satire aimed directly at the sitting president of South Africa. (Some background here, if you need it.)
Noah grew up in apartheid South Africa, and even today almost every interaction in the Rainbow Nation is tinged with undertones of race and discrimination. Far more than even in the USA, the legacy of racism is everywhere in South Africa, inescapable, every hour, every day. Which means that it makes perfect sense that the humor of a biracial South African man is going to be grounded in stereotypes in general, and racial stereotypes in particular.
That humor — humor aimed at South African audiences, from a South African perspective — is clearly not the kind of humor that Noah is going to bring to The Daily Show. But I do wonder at the people who say that Noah, or Comedy Central, should have scrubbed his Twitter feed of who he was in the past, and where he has come from.
Noah, just like Lena Dunham, should easily be able to survive attacks from Jews who find his Jewish jokes offensive. (If he can’t, or doesn’t, that will reflect terribly on Comedy Central and Viacom.) Noah is smart: he’s not going to go for cheap jokes about women getting fat on national American TV.
Much more depressing is the rush to scour more than 8,000 tweets for any which might be considered offensive. Why would people even do that? Twitter is a place where comedians try out material, much of which turns out not to work very well. Some comedians delete a lot of those tweets; others don’t. I’m just glad that the TV industry is still committed to hiring actual fast-thinking stand-up comedians, rather than people who are just good at reading a Teleprompter and reciting their writers’ jokes.
So welcome to big time America, Trevor Noah. You might experience a certain amount of discomfort at the start. But stick with it. You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re talented: you’ll do just great.