Who’s allowed to tell jokes? Who’s allowed to laugh at jokes? Should certain jokes never be said? Can certain comics say things, and others not?
In the space of 24 hours, Trevor Noah has been announced as the new host of The Daily Show, hailed for his supersonic rise as a relative unknown to one of the most gilded jobs on television, and then—of course—inevitably slayed, as his Twitter back catalog was ruthlessly mined for prejudice, slights, and insults deemed unacceptable by the flaming pitchfork-bearers of social media.
On Tuesday, Noah tweeted: “Twitter does not have enough characters to respond to all the characters on Twitter.” Then he deleted the tweet, but not before it was snapped by MSNBC’s Anna Brand.
Noah’s alleged crimes, to date, then—many captured by Buzzfeed’s Tom Gara:
Misogyny and anti-Semitism:
Gross and unfunny, plus sexist:
Quite besides this, combing through his recent tweets, he comes across as a genial, football-mad guy, who while not wildly funny is not wildly unfunny either.
For example, when he flew into London:
And upon Obama’s election victory, a fairly dreary one-liner linking it to black men’s penis size:
Now, Twitter was certainly outraged over Noah’s tweets, and a portion of the online howling is certainly concern over how “safe” The Daily Show will be in his hands, as Noah takes over the hallowed chair of Jon Stewart, brilliant skewerer of political hypocrisy and shortcomings.
On Tuesday, Comedy Central released a 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.”
Were Noah’s musings racist or sexist in the most pernicious way? They used the tropes of race and gender to make puerile jokes. Funny or unfunny? Personal taste, surely. Actively hateful? For me, no. Noah comes across as a middlebrow comic not willing to go for the truly bloody jugular in search of a punchline, and falling softly between chairs.
And are his jokes really that alarming? The true joke-tellers who use offense in its edgiest forms do so unapologetically. They sail, or would have sailed, proudly through any Twitter storm, uncapsized or bruised, and on to much wilder shores than Noah.
Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Scott Capurro: They have proudly and openly courted controversy—controversy is their stock in trade, it’s why people enjoy them, or watch them, or like to be shocked by them.
There’s a danger with these comics, the unsayable about to be said, the edge about to be gone over, the boundary about to be crossed.
Race, sex, gender, and sexuality are all up for ruthless mining and mockery by them. They didn’t care, don’t care, about any offense taken. Indeed, they hope you got it delivered first class with a bow on top.
And often in saying the unsayable, in making a joke that seems beyond the pale, such comedians illuminate a larger truth about society, or our own hypocrisy. Unapologetic joke-telling can not only tell the truth about a subject, but in confronting us so blatantly force us to observe our own complicity with the subject, or our double standards.
Rivers was unmatchable in making you gasp in horror, then scowl at you, “Shaddup. You were thinking the same thing.”
Edgy comedy that is truly on the edge is like acknowledging our unruly id: the forbidden, verboten, given voice. Stereotypes and prejudice are not what we should cleave to, but they are part of our world, and so part of humor.
The Anti-Defamation League has said it hopes that Noah and Comedy Central “will make a conscious effort to ensure that ‘The Daily Show’ remains funny and irreverent without trafficking in bigoted jokes at the expense of Jews, other minorities and women.”
The ADL also once demanded Joan Rivers apologize for making a joke comparing Costco to Nazi Germany. She told them to “Shut the fuck up.”
We live in an age where everything is said, and social media provides an outlet for all views, and yet we have become vastly more sensitive about what is said, and who has a right to say it, in this roiling ocean. One false move, as Noah found out, and you’re Twitter roadkill. But comics like Rivers had the bravery and savvy to rise above it. It just made her more intransigent.
I’d rather cherish the freedom of speech Rivers represented than the supposedly left-wing student unions in 2015 banning feminists they don’t like.
On the strengths of Noah’s facetious, prattling tweets, he is nowhere near the Joan Rivers/Lenny Bruce faultline yet. The irony about him being set upon on Twitter for sexism, anti-Semitism and whatever else, is that—if he really is squaring up to causing offense—he’s got a funny, milquetoast way of going about it.
Every one of these jokes that got everyone so riled is flat, fizzling out way before it can elicit the kind of gasp that Rivers or Bruce could cause: the “I can’t believe they just said that” gasp. Noah is not a daring enough comedian to merit the controversy currently engulfing him.
“Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position,” Noah tweeted in December 2012. Is this anti-woman, or an acute observation on male power, or just a stupid joke, with no wider malice intended? Can a joke ever be just a joke?
Noah has also beseeched black people to behave in a certain way
The comedian’s tweets and postings, far from overly acquainting us with his cultural shortcomings, show a comedian in awkward, cringing formation, not sure of how far he can go and should go in pursuit of a laugh.
Let Noah take the Daily Show chair, reveal any sexist, anti-Semitic shortcomings to the world, and then let the pitchforks rain down.
At the moment, the outpouring of vitriol ill matches the scant evidence of a dyed-in-the-wool prejudiced doofus. Nor is he anywhere in the league of the truly gold standard controversial, outrage-reveling comedian.
Presenting a daily news and comedy show will mean Noah shows himself pretty soon: the format necessitates it. Until then, how about a Twitter novelty? Dial down the outrage.
As for Noah, he could perhaps best live by the spirit of a tweet from March 13: