Trevor Noah and the policing of comedy in a digital age

After months of speculation, we finally have a new host for The Daily Show—South African comedian and Daily Show correspondent Trevor Noah. Personally, I was surprised by the choice since he’s pretty new and I thought seniority would have more to do with the final selection, but from what I’ve seen of him, he’s very funny and I’ll reserve any further judgements for later. The fact that a foreign black man is not only taking the helm of one of the most popular news/comedy shows of this generation but that his appointment as host has been met with mostly positive reception has been bypassed though, because this is a topical subject to discuss and it’s in our nature to clamor for something to complain about no matter what.

Many people would assume that the Trevor Noah backlash would be caused by hyperbolic internet racism. But no, the controversy is all about how the stand-up comic told jokes on Twitter once that could be construed as offensive. Noah himself has called the jokes in question “duds,” but he ultimately defended himself against the accusations of racism and sexism being thrown at him. Comedy Central is also defending him, and good for them. He shouldn’t have to apologize for making relatively benign jokes on Twitter (many years ago, at that), and I’m glad that he didn’t give into the pressure often foisted upon celebrities to just do what the public demands that they do in order to save face.

 Whether or not the jokes are “duds,” is irrelevant. I actually have a bit of an issue with Noah referring to them as such: it implies that if someone finds a joke offensive that the joke was just a bad one — a dud that just didn’t hit — ignoring that being offensive is a huge part of what makes lots of comedy, well, comedy. So I don’t see why the jokes should be written off entirely as the means of justifying them and excusing them from criticism. They can be defended without self-depreciation. And even if Noah thinks that they’re stupid jokes that he made many years ago before he was a more refined comic, we’re all allowed to make stupid jokes.

What are some of the issues people have had? He’s been accused of anti-Semitism because he tweeted some jokes that involved Jewish people, one of the main ones being, “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.” I don’t really understand how that’s anti-Semitic seeing how he’s disparaging toward his own country as well, and it perpetuates the notion that any criticism leveled at Israel is inherently racist, which doesn’t do much to help discussions on the topic, humorous or otherwise. Replace “Israel” with literally any other country (you could replace it with “America”) and no one would bat an eye over it.

He’s been accused of being sexist for saying fairly benign, if raunchy, things: “A hot white woman with ass is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you’ll probably never get to ride it.” Are people not allowed to tell sex jokes that mention women without being sexist? Are the analogous penis jokes also sexist? If that comment was just too disrespectful to women for you, do not listen to “New Math” by Bo Burnham, because every type of human you can think of is “disrespected” in that song.

Having a joke about something does not automatically entail that the joke is targeting that something. Even if it is, being targeted in a joke is not automatically a negative thing that should be avoided. Comedy is tragedy with levity added. If you spent the day listening to all the comedy that wasn’t dark in some way you’d have very many hours to spare. Something being in bad taste often has less to do with the joke itself and more to do with when and where it’s said, and to whom. And since these Tweets are years old, that doesn’t seem like a level criticism to make of them. Noah has stated, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian,” and it hits the nail on the head. Someone’s sense of humor is often divorced from the rest of their character anyway, so judging him by the jokes he makes even now would be questionable. There are nice people who love dead baby jokes. How about all the nurses and doctors and their well-documented love of gallows humor that’s self-depreciative as much as it targets their patients? Are they bad people because they make cancer jokes? Cancer is a serious matter, after all.

 Social media immortalizes everything you say. That’s the world we live in. Since it’s the world we live in, people need to learn to take what they see with a grain of salt. Perhaps, something someone posted years ago isn’t something they would say anymore. Perhaps, even more shockingly, maybe how someone behaves on the internet isn’t an accurate depiction of their actual personal character. I’d hate to be judged by some of the needlessly inflammatory YouTube comments I’ve made in the past. Many commenters have wondered why Trevor Noah didn’t sweep his Twitter as soon as he found out he got the job, but, in all honesty, nothing I’ve read of his seems “sweep-worthy.” It ultimately seems like people are making much ado about nothing, and it continues the distressing trend of art being policed and labeled “offensive,” as if that’s an ace-in-the-hole criticism of the world.


  1. This is a nicely balanced article, but I feel I should highlight that Trevor refers to himself as ‘being as white as he is black’ and doesn’t seem keen to give one part of his race priority over the other.

    I’m intrigued to see his shows in terms of what he’ll bring to the debate – or maybe better how he handles – issues around race, being an adopted American and an actual African without being African-American.

  2. Other tweets:

    “Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man.”

    “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!”

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t get the job, mainly given these tweets were so long ago. But to straw man the anti-semitism by bringing up one tweet about Israel and ignoring the ones that were just about Jews is indicative of a wider problem of people using Israel as an excuse to say anti-semitic things.

  3. It’s worthwhile to look at other examples of anti-Semitic tweets by Trevor Noah: Although I agree that humor can and should be politically charged, protections against hate speech apply to all minority demographics, including Jews. Issues with your over-generalized critique of the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism aside, your singular choice of joke is highly misguiding. Trevor Noah has other anti-Semitic texts as well. These includes offensive jokes about the Holocaust and the historically violent connection of Jews with money. On top of that, publishing this Op-Ed so close to Yom HaShoah–Holocaust Remembrance Day–is very insensitive. Hopefully, this implicit defense of anti-Semitism will open a greater dialogue about the often-ignored marginalization of the Jewish people.

  4. More thought out comment:

    Yay for nice articles on Holocaust Remembrance day. Citing the one Trevor Noah quote about Israel as a reason that he isn’t anti-semitic. Ignoring the others that were just about Jews. Good to see we’re honoring Yom Hashoah by doing what really matters: criticizing Jews for overreacting to anti-semitism. Here are some other jokes that some people “don’t really understand” are anti-semitic.

    “Messi gets the ball and the real players try foul him, but Messi doesn’t go down easy, just like jewish chicks. ”

    “Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man.”

    “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!”

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t get the job. I realize these tweets are from a long time ago, plus Stewart clearly trusts him. That’s not the issue I’m concerned with. But to straw-man the obvious anti-semitism of his past jokes by bringing up one tweet about Israel and ignoring the ones that were just about Jews is indicative of a wider problem of people bringing up Israel whenever Jews complain about anti-semitism.

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