In February, a news alert popped up on my phone from the New York Times. Such alerts often bring word of natural disasters and notable deaths. This one announced that Jon Stewart was stepping down from The Daily Show on Comedy Central with the kind of “this just in” declaration typically reserved for tsunamis, mass murders, antitrust charges, and coups. In the ensuing days, the flash flood of “think pieces” and tweets (worried, jubilant, speculative) confirmed that Stewart’s departure, after more than 16 years on the job, was a big deal. The resonance of his resignation was only amplified by NBC’s announcement that same day that Brian Williams had received a months-long suspension from his job at the Nightly News for fabricating stories about his reporting from Iraq. The simultaneity of the two events created the impression of a crisis: TV anchordom — real and fictitious — was in its death throes.
In Williams’s place, NBC installed Lester Holt, a mainstay at the network who might turn out to be more than a placeholder. Holt speaks with a faint lisp and conducts himself with a blandly jovial demeanor. He always seems ready to pick you up after track practice. A few weeks later, news broke that Stewart’s replacement would be a little-known 31-year-old South African comedian named Trevor Noah. The announcement was met with a mix of excitement and bewilderment that turned up some unflattering Internet search results. Old tweets of Noah’s resurfaced. His stand-up routines were put through unfavorable close readings and reinterpretations. Taken together, it all cast him in an instantly incriminating light (as a racist, a sexist, and an anti-Semite) that neither the pretext nor context of comedy could adequately shade.
There’s this tweet, from September 18, 2009: “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.” This one, from June 2, 2010: “South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.” From October 14, 2011: “‘Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!’ – fat chicks everywhere.” From November 28, 2011: “A hot white woman with ass is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you’ll probably never get to ride it.” From December 20, 2012: “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position.” In July 2012, @UberFacts tweeted that the more you fear something the bigger it appears, to which Noah responded in a retweeted quip: “So I must make my woman fear my penis?”
Neither Holt nor Noah is white. Holt’s family has roots in Jamaica and India. Noah is the son of a Swiss German father and half-Jewish Xhosa mother, parentage that became part of the story as the days passed. His being biracial and Jewish served both to explain the nature of his comedy and insulate him against criticism: He’s licensed. At the Washington Post, Wendy Todd examined some of his jokes, particularly from his first nationally televised U.S. appearance, in 2012 on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. “The bulk of his routine was composed of jokes about black Americans,” Todd wrote. “The United States, he said, was not ‘the America he was promised,’ and ‘America has the credit of a black man,’” a reference to the stereotype that black people have negative credit ratings. Todd went on:
Then Noah joked that black people are misidentified as African Americans. “They’re not African, but we’ll play along,” he said, adding, “Many of them really try to connect with Africa, you know? Some of them have these African names. They’ll be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s my girl, Wanda, yeah, yeah. Yeah that’s right, that’s Dashiqua, or dat’s Taniqua.'” Noah emphasized all this “hilarity” by using stereotypical B-Boy hand gestures to drive it home — because this is how all black people communicate, obviously. Leno’s predominantly white audience ate it up.
As a soft product launch, the post-Stewart Daily Show was already a disaster. Within 24 hours of the announcement, there was clamoring for Noah’s firing — from a job he wasn’t due to start for many months. The following day, Noah posted a response on Twitter: “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.” It was a mild, earnest explanation that irked some people for lacking the wit or hilarity associated with Stewart’s job, and irked others for its lack of contrition. Last week, Jason Zinoman, who writes about the comedy world for the New York Times, smartly covered another minor scandal, in which Noah stood accused of stealing jokes from a fellow South African comedian. Zinoman observed that Noah’s underwhelming and dodgy clarifications of the assortment of controversies would be the sort of thing that Stewart might have mocked. For his part, Noah has been on a sold-out small-venue stand-up tour that began in Arlington, Virginia, and has been closed to the press. He’s been calling it the “Lost in Translation” tour.
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What’s surprising about the entire scandalette is that it’s a scandalette at all. The Daily Show has averaged fewer than 2 million viewers a night for at least the last four years, almost half of the number for Jimmy Fallon’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night shows. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten shrugged — with data — that the media cares far more about Stewart than the general population does, even once Twitter and Facebook are factored in. Stewart is “overhyped,” Enten wrote. He’s not wrong. But it’s too late for that sort of reality check.
There are the actual numbers, and then there’s the subtle influence that has accumulated around the show and around Stewart. While people may not tune in every night, when there was major news or when the show had a particularly strong segment, they certainly found his clips, via DVR, YouTube, or the standard “Jon Stewart destroys …” clickbait formation. Ratings and tweets never quite measured the sphere of The Daily Show’s power. When something big happened, you had to know what Stewart thought, especially if you were on the left. The show has become a pillar of the American political conversation, irrespective of ratings. The controversy around Trevor Noah threatens to compromise that well-earned legacy.
Noah’s casting as the new face of a kind of American comedic liberal outrage would seem to prompt some reasonable concerns. First, the job as dictated by the show requires a specific ideological immaculateness. The Daily Show is chiefly a testy satire of American politics as it is portrayed in the American news media. It draws on certain local-news idiocy and the classical nightly news model of a man in a chair recapping what’s going on in the world. Jon Stewart’s early incarnation of that complicated mix was brilliant. It managed to account for the history of the nightly news anchor model (Cronkite, Sevareid, Murrow, Rather, and Jennings on down) as a source of rectitude, an object of admiration, and the apotheosis of trust. Stewart then quickly — and shrewdly — widened that model of rectitude so that it could incorporate the rise of blowhard talking heads and cable news absurdity. He did so while also leveling the show’s own critique of the American political system and incorporating secular Jewish and black inflections for emphasis. Stewart often spoke in Yankee Yiddishisms, and joined Margaret Cho and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw as one of the few non-black personae naturally comfortable saying things like “Oh, no you di’in’t.”
The show leaned left and was ultimately deeply moral. The “news” was never truly fake. It was just the news delivered with a lit fuse by fools. And Stewart deftly deployed an atavistic, avuncular tone in the on-air conversations with those faux-fools. He always gave you the sense that the news and the nation were doomed if nincompoops like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jason Jones, and Samantha Bee were doing the reporting. (Of course, Colbert would ultimately depart to do sustained nincompoopery on a news show of his own.)
The embrace of The Daily Show by liberals is directly proportional to the simultaneous ascendency of media conservatives. The latter’s disdain for the liberal bias in broadcast journalism and the show’s corresponding critique of that disdain ultimately empowered Stewart as an actual face of news. His fight with the cohosts of CNN’s Crossfire, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, gave him the independent legitimacy that is the key to Stewart’s importance. (In some ways, his stepping down makes sense. The idea of him seems to have grown bigger than the show. It’s been less sharp since he took it back from John Oliver, who filled in while Stewart directed a movie.) In any case, it’s true that Stewart came to the job in a different media landscape. His so-so stand-up and middling way with talk shows weren’t shoved into the kangaroo court of social media and the global press the way they would be now. He and the staff were free to make the show what it became. And throughout, Stewart maintained a kind of persona, one you don’t notice the way you do Colbert’s. Stewart stayed clean. So much so that he stopped the cigarette smoking that, to me, was one of his trademarks as a comedian before The Daily Show.
The controversy over Trevor Noah is probably best viewed through the lens of what Stewart embodied for those who’ve championed him, and what Williams has appeared to squander: trustworthiness. The Daily Show is no longer just a comedy news show. This is not James Corden taking over for Craig Ferguson. It is, ironically, Dan Rather taking over for Walter Cronkite. A mantle of trust is being passed, and the questions about Noah — is he actually racist, misogynist, or funny; what is South African comedy, anyway? — are reasonable, maybe even crucial to ask. Ultimately, they amount to this: Can liberals trust him to carry the mantle?
Noah is being positioned by both Comedy Central and himself as an honest-to-goodness successor to Stewart. Who knows what doing that successfully would entail, but he didn’t come from nowhere, and nothing about his stand-up work — or, for that matter, his radio work — says “pass the mantle to him.” That the same was arguably true of Stewart, who began as a replacement for Craig Kilborn, doesn’t quite matter under these circumstances. The show Stewart inherited is worlds different from the one Noah has been tapped to do. And Stewart had a profile in America as being a misfit with promising, untapped talent. Before The Daily Show, he seemed professionally stuck — at age 36. It is Stewart’s show now. So the controversy that has arisen around Noah seems inevitable, thoroughly modern, and entirely necessary.
If The Daily Show were a sitcom, four-year-old derogatory tweets about women and one’s penis wouldn’t matter. Neither would the fact that Noah’s comedy’s extensive forays into race are humorously unimaginative at best and appalling at worst. But Noah is being handed a now-venerable news program to which there are standards of taste, respect, and propriety, none of which a comedian should be expected to uphold, but which are certainly desired in a newsman. In Noah’s work as the former, he’s run afoul of the latter. Now the questions are, do we move on and wait to see him on the show (which will take months to evaluate)? And what does it mean to do so? Noah not being American (or British) could be bracing. So, too, should his being biracial. Larry Wilmore’s show, primarily about race, frees a Trevor Noah Daily Show from the bedeviling limitations of race without keeping the subject off-limits — and Comedy Central’s new late-night lineup would also put television of any kind in a potentially exciting new place.
In his comedy, Noah’s race functions as a cover to do, in part, the sorts of jive impersonations that Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy once did and that form the basis of the entire personae of many less iconic but very successful black comedians. Noah’s national and cultural foreignness work both for and against him as the host of an American news show, in a way similar to how being an outsider worked for and against Sacha Baron Cohen, on his HBO show and in his films Borat and Brüno, two prank-driven satirical X-ray farces of some aspect of the American character.
Thus far, the difference between Cohen and Noah is that race has dominated Noah’s comedy in America, and American racial comedy requires a sophistication he has lacked in the past. That sophistication is what has made Dave Chappelle’s satire such a crucial well. It ran dry 10 years ago, and a lot of us are still thirsty.
American racial comedy requires some firsthand experience that also eludes him. For instance, in his 2013 stand-up special, African American, Noah has a routine in which he observes that multiracial people are called “mixed” until they become successful, at which point they become “black.” “Everyone” says this, he observes. But no black American I know outwardly considers a partially black person to be “mixed.” More often than not, that person is simply black, as both a matter of fact and for the sake of argument. But Noah presents his comedy and himself in such a convincing package — neat, preppy, blazer-and-tie handsome — that it’s tempting to take his findings as notes from the field, as anthropological performance.
African American is almost 70 minutes of condescension and backhanded compliments. In a long passage on black language, Noah pauses to consider the convenience of truncating the expression “Do you know what I mean?” to “na’ mean?” When you stop to think about it, it is an effective contraction. But in Noah’s delirious discovery, “na’ mean” simply affords him the opportunity to declare his superiority over people who use it, to mock them. “I hope and I pray someday that I have a daughter,” he says. “Just so I may name her Na’ Mean.” He surmises that Shakespeare would have loved that phrase. He’s trying to get at the way in which black American culture has taken over pockets of the world. How it has informed his impression of black Americans. But he never gets out in front of the joke. It’s unclear whether he’s as bothered by that impression as, say, I am bothered by his version of it. Some of Noah’s material in African American is inspired — Hispanics disappointed that he’s not Latin (all of his Latin impressions sound Mexican); Africa’s portrayal in the media — and some of that inspiration is funny. A lot of it makes you cringe: His comedy doesn’t allow for self-deprecation. He is smarter than we are because, alas, we are American. Noah in 2013 was clever, but the problem is that he’s performing as a guy who knows it.
It could be that Noah is either doing something completely new with so-called outrage comedy — winking without his eyes appearing to move — or he’s using his blackness as a Trojan horse that disguises the reinforcement of putdowns and stereotypes. He appears to be neither a button-pusher with an asshole shtick like Andrew Dice Clay nor an ingenuous performance-art chameleon of racial provocation on par with Sarah Silverman. Noah’s comedy really does appear to be feeling its way toward something that’s actually funny without quite having reached its destination.
Americans’ recent exposure to South African popular culture extends to the films of Neill Blomkamp, a 35-year-old whose science fiction apocalypses — District 9, Elysium, Chappie — contain tepid considerations of race and class. As works of politics, they’re messy. The apartheid-era and post-apartheid ideas are only half-explored. In District 9, space aliens stand in as metaphors for oppressed people until the metaphor can no longer withstand scrutiny. The film has the nerve to make this comparison, but the dominant point of view belongs to a white bureaucrat who has begun turning into an alien.
In Chappie, a robot cop is given a dual, dueling education by an enlightened, classical-minded Indian computer scientist and two white criminal slackers who speak in a version of black slang. Blomkamp hints at South Africa’s more variegated racial universe without ever touching the third rail of revolution and offensiveness. Each of his movies culminates in botched empathy. It’s as if, with both Blomkamp and Noah, merely turning the fact of race into entertainment is a kind of triumph over racism, irrespective of whether the results can be read as racist.
Who knows how much of this self-congratulation Noah will bring to his new job? What is inducing panic in so many people is that 2016 might not be the time to find out. Stewart’s announcement that he’s ending his run in the midst of a presidential election cycle would have always been troubling for liberals and triumphal for conservatives. But if the primary season comes down to a bunch of Republicans on one side and an uncontested Hillary Clinton on the other, The Daily Show would seem to be made for Clinton: pulling for her while endeavoring to keep her honest. Without Stewart, Clinton’s biggest opponent stands to be Kate McKinnon’s astoundingly complex caricature on Saturday Night Live. It manages to be at once admiring, scathing, and out-of-this-world.
One upside to Stewart’s legacy is that his show has already groomed John Oliver to provide presidential campaigns with a necessary antagonist. Oliver is an Englishman and former Daily Show correspondent who leans left but can land devastating blows with either hand. His HBO show can be more searing than Stewart’s, by virtue of the uninterrupted format. It doesn’t have to obey a bell. Of course, it runs only on Sunday, which means that in an election season the desired post-debate critiques will come reliably but too infrequently. Nonetheless, Oliver is Stewart’s true successor. You want to know what he and his show notice in a busy American presidential election. What’s unclear about Noah is what he’ll do with — or to — Clinton and what he’ll do with — or for — her Republican opponent.
That uncertainty gets at what tuned-in liberals fear: It’s possible that that presumption of American liberalism doesn’t at all suit Noah. What if we’ve been misreading his political orientation? What happens if people expecting Barack Obama get Ben Carson instead? What if Noah really is a kind of conservative on a television network whose content only happens, now, to feature the stoners of Broad City and the racial sketch comedy of Key and Peele? What if the mantle he’s inherited isn’t Stewart’s at all? What if it’s Colbert’s? What if it’s South Park’s? Does Noah’s Daily Show have any obligation to remain liberal? South Park continues to turn sacred social, cultural, and political cows into meatloaf. In its 18 seasons on Comedy Central, it has managed to spend long stretches on both sides of the political line until the difference between what’s a jest and what’s a stance utterly clouds up.
The Daily Show began as a satire of news that evolved into a version of the news that conservative critics say the media already is. The Colbert Report was the funhouse mirror of that critique: A gleamingly polished bloviator hits the day’s news and the country’s politicians with over-the-top pomposity. Colbert was doing performance art at an impossible degree of difficulty, and for a staggeringly sustained period of time. He’ll soon take over for David Letterman on CBS, and who knows what he’ll do in a more conventional late-night format — more, hopefully, than the glorified talent contests taking place on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and Corden’s Late Late Show.
Both Fallon’s and Corden’s shows are mesmerizing, dreamy reimaginings of the format — as some utopian conflation of karaoke, The Muppet Show, and the carnival sequence at the end of Grease. But both shows underscore how far American comedy has drifted from satire and jeremiad into the arms of dudes and bros, into self-referential, hypo-masculine safety. The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore has a little jeremiad but not enough of either. His show relies heavily on panelists to spark debate. There are usually too many of them, and it’s unclear what role Wilmore wants to serve among them. But Wilmore, like Oliver, was a correspondent with Stewart and can be coolly bruising. His show’s current format just doesn’t permit him to swing freely.
Some of this is attributable to the rise of Judd Apatow. I know: When in doubt, throw the book at him. His ideas about intimacy and companionship really have helped alter the landscape of American comedy. Toothlessness suits him. Armando Iannucci’s Veep and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley are satires with fangs, as was Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Her new Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, continues her vision of a world in which the stereotypes around race, class, ethnicity, gender, and trauma are detonated so that, from the shards, some daring new parallel universe forms, where these classifications and experiences still exist but their meaning and power have been scrambled. Fey’s kind of comedy is all but gone from the movies — even the ones she stars in. Paul Beatty has just published a flawed but pointedly funny racial satire called The Sellout that’s crying out for a smart director unafraid of Beatty’s high-metabolism zinging. But in a satire-averse culture, the book might be too incendiary to film.
Some of that aversion has to do with the very touchiness that has swarmed Noah. In a kind of defense of him, and in a mockery of college-campus-based, social-media-borne hypersensitivity, the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt composed a 53-tweet screed around a hypothetical joke: “Q: Why did the man* throw* butter* out of the window*? A: He wanted to see* butter fly*!” The ensuing posts questioned, apologized for, and preemptively parsed every word of the joke until the joke had lost its meaning and the joker had lost his sense of humor. This was a jeremiad. But in zeroing in on a particular kind of well-documented dumbing-down of discourse in the name of so-called safe spaces and trigger avoidance, Oswalt seemed to miss the point of the Noah controversy. Noah’s speech wasn’t being policed, per se. It was being inspected — for comedy. Little appeared to be found.
The Oswalts of the world are arguing that this is a terrible time to be a Trevor Noah stepping in for a Jon Stewart. Just do lip-syncing contests! Otherwise they’ll flay you! But this could also be the right time for a Noah. Things are upside down. They have been for years. At any moment Brian Williams could have hosted The Daily Show and Jon Stewart could have anchored NBC’s Nightly News, and it would have seemed only loosely surreal. Whoever Noah is — whoever, on The Daily Show, he turns out to be — it’s likely he’ll be what late-night comedy desperately needs: unsafe.