Trevor Noah was recently announced to be taking Jon Stewart’s place as the head of The Daily Show towards the end of this year. I haven’t been a regular viewer of the show for some time, though it and The Colbert Report hold a special place in my heart from high school and college.
The news was met with excitement that finally someone other than a white straight cis man was going to head a major late night show, even if it’s in a slightly different, “comedy newsy” category. I went to watch a few of Noah’s segments from the past few months he’s been on the show.
“Spot the Africa” is fantastic, juxtaposing Americans’ expectations of what Africa is with the reality that it’s more similar to the US than we perceive. The impact is so strong that the audience clearly gets a little uncomfortable.
“Boko Haram in Nigeria” is similarly powerful because it highlights a huge oversight in our public consciousness on current events in Africa and their similarity to the Middle East, pointing to our priorities and misperceptions.
Within a day of the announcement, though, scrutiny of his past behavior has become the more dominant headline…
AV Club on “fat chicks” and anti-Semitism:
"Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!" – fat chicks everywhere.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) October 14, 2011
Mail & Guardian on transphobia:
Happy Women's Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Caster.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) August 9, 2013
The Daily Banter on ridiculously simplistic atheism critiques (worse ones deleted, linked in article):
I always wonder why atheists don't spend as much questioning satan's existence.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) December 16, 2011
This afternoon Noah did respond to this change in tone with the following tweet:
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.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) March 31, 2015
I frankly don’t know what to make of Trevor Noah at this point. I’ve swung from being very excited to very angry to simply being in a state of limbo. That tweet is not enough for me to be happy again, for a few reasons.
First is that he attributes the backlash to the fact that the jokes “didn’t land”? As in they’re not funny? Even if I grant that humor can be found in any subject, it’s even rarer that a joke is funny while punching down, which I believe the above examples are doing. The problem is not being unsuccessful at being funny. At this point it’s his views and respect for marginalized people in general.
Second is that while it may be unfair to characterize an individual by a handful of statements from years ago, for many of us this is the first time we’re really getting to know Trevor Noah. We don’t know if he is fat-shaming, anti-Semitic, transphobic, or anti-atheist or just was. Sending out a single tweet half-notpologizing and half-criticizing the media for jumping on this conflict isn’t helping much.
What will actually help is concretely expressing how he’s changed in some way more elegant and more explicit than the one message today. Maybe he reformed quite a while ago, in which case I’d love to read about it. As of right now I simply don’t know, and he’s not being extremely clear.
Jon Stewart’s seat is a big one to fill. The person taking his place will be scrutinized. Stewart and The Daily Show have long been a kind of comedic stress relief from the oft-ridiculous world out there, from a liberal’s perspective. I shudder to call it a safe space, since Colbert at least has definitely been criticized for transphobia and fumbling race issues, but it’s one of the biggest tent poles on this side of the political spectrum. Not feeling comfortable with the host, worrying that they’ll take pot shots at you in your weak spot, is not what we’ve come to know The Daily Show for.
So forgive us if we’re a little defensive.
If nothing else comes of these findings, if Noah doesn’t clarify further, then I’ll simply be waiting for his future appearances on the show to see what targets he picks out for laughs. My hype will be measured by how committed he is to creating an air of respect around him. I expect The Daily Show to change with a new host, but hopefully not for the worse.