Trevor Noah, The Daily Show and Hypocritical, Talentless Scolds

A couple of months ago, Jon Stewart announced that he was stepping down from The Daily Show, a program he rescued from the doldrums of unfulfilled possibility.  Over the course of the following decade-plus, The Daily Show became an institution, a go-to source for news about and analysis of our ailing society.  After much debate, both inside and outside of Comedy Central, 31-year-old Trevor Noah was named Stewart’s successor.

This should be the most thrilling and most professionally daunting time of Mr. Noah’s life.  After years in the comedy world, he has somehow reached the arguable pinnacle of American humor.

Nope.  Instead, Mr. Noah is dealing with backlash from hypocritical, talentless scolds who don’t like jokes that he made in the past.  These people are outraged that Mr. Noah has directed jokes at virtually all ethnic groups and genders.  These people are labeling Mr. Noah, a comedian, an “anti-Semite” and worse because of jokes that he made on Twitter.

Why is this manufactured outrage an outrage in itself?  The first and perhaps least important reason is an emotional one.  These scolds, most of whom have never accomplished anything of meaning in their lives, are being, well, offensive jerks.  Think about the accomplishment of which you are proudest.  Now imagine that thousands of people are trying to ruin that good feeling, all because of the ease with which they can pump out 140 characters before not returning to creative activity.  It’s not as though Mr. Noah killed anyone.  On a personal level, why not ease off of the guy?

This faux-outrage is also silly because Mr. Noah is a comedian.  It’s his job and his sacred duty to make jokes.  Jokes are inherently offensive to someone, particularly when heard by people who are hell-bent on being offended.  Comedians are the truth-tellers in our society.  They’re the ones who help us think about our culture and our world in new and challenging ways.  Comedians simply can’t exist if keyboard commandos shut them down because they’re offended.

I can hear some of you saying, “Hey, Ken!  There are many comedians who aren’t offensive!   Punch up, not down and all of those other rules I’m trying to use to remove human nature from the creative realm!”  Here’s an adorable and hilarious ten-year-old comedian named Carly.

Here’s the normal response we should have to the very tight routine:

What a precocious young lady!  She’s so funny!  Good for her!  I see big things from her in the future!

Okay, now let’s put on the They Live insanity glasses:

Carly talked about Spam without even offering a trigger warning.  I get hives on my palms when I think about the animal Holocaust that happens every day in this world.  She even started out by dehumanizing valley girls and appropriating their culture-specific dialect.  She just said “everyone in Hawaii is family!”  What is that supposed to mean?  She must be stopped.

This faux outrage is silly because it’s sucking up far too much oxygen in our culture.  I know that it’s easy to click “Like” when your Facebook friend points out a racist statement made by a Republican.  News flash: we are all going to die.  We have a finite amount of time on this planet.  Shall we spend it engaged in the pursuit of happiness and performing acts that feed our metaphorical souls or simply spitting and repeating pointless venom.

Trevor Noah’s comedy has never caused a single person to go to the hospital.  No joke he has made ever caused tangible harm.  We need to focus on real problems instead of trying to ruin a man or to censor his creativity.

Look at this graph from The Century Foundation:

incomeinequality

Why don’t we spend our time fighting this very real problem that actually does cause tangible harm?  I know, I know, it’s easier to retweet bile or to click on a change.org petition to hand the reins of The Daily Show over to a comedian who has never told a joke that has offended anyone.

I suppose one of the things that bothers me the most about such stories is that creative people already face near-constant rejection.  Publishers will only buy so many books.  Comedy clubs can only fit so many comics onstage in one night.  Many of us, even if we’re good, will be left behind for reasons primarily out of our control.  Trevor Noah’s job is to make people laugh.  He has done so consistently for a long enough period of time that Comedy Central entrusted him with the big chair of a very profitable television program.  A person who is truly part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of creativity is likely to have much more empathy for Mr. Noah.

Unfortunately, being offended has become a cottage industry in our culture.  The people who are tweeting viciousness at Mr. Noah are under the impression that the simple fact that they were offended actually means something.  Taking offense, particularly at a joke from a comedian, is not a badge of honor.  It’s an indication that the person is under the impression that their feelings are more important than the unfettered creative expression that is the trademark of Enlightenment ideals.

Why not engage in a simple experiment.  Find a random Tweeter who is angry with Mr. Noah for telling jokes.  Look through their Twitter feed.  Guess what?  Those complainers have said offensive things, too. Whenever I am offended, which is often, I remember the wise words of comedian Stephen Fry:

fry

I began this piece by pointing out that Jon Stewart announced a couple months ago that he would depart The Daily Show.  Something else happened a couple months ago.  Gunmen burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine dedicated to using satire to bring Western society closer to Enlightenment ideals.  Twelve human beings lost their lives because several failures decided that THEY had the right to dictate which jokes were acceptable and which were not.  Creative people are in the ground and rotting away because brainwashed dogmatists wanted to protect the feelings of people who cannot handle ideas that conflict with their own.  For a brief, shining moment, most of us were united under a single banner: Je Suis Charlie.

And now we’re back to exerting pressure (in this case social) to police the speech of comedians and ultimately all creativity in the public sphere.  Those who criticize Noah would be ashamed if they had any shame to begin with.

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6 Comments

  • I should probably wait and formulate my thoughts before replying to this – but why not live dangerously. At least, if I say something stupid, I know you’re not going to go on a shaming binge.

    First, humor has changed. Irony rules. Stuff that’s beyond dark is routine. I’ll admit, it’s confusing – remember the woman on the flight to Africa who tweeted she wouldn’t get AIDS because she’s white, and was fired before the plane touched down? I saw that tweet because it was re-tweeted by Baratunde Thurston, a comedian (and, by the way, an African American); I assumed she was someone he knew and it was a kind of sardonic humor, pointing out how “some people” saw AIDS and/or Africa. I thought it was irony. I thought he was passing it along because he saw the irony and thought she was making an important point in a darkly humorous way. It turned out to be a whole other thing. Yes, it was stupid (especially for someone in PR) but I ended up feeling sorry for her – talk about being destroyed for a mistake.

    However… then there were the frat boys singing racist chants. Are they entitled to their 15 minutes of stupidity, as their lawyer claims? I have little sympathy for them. I’m trying to locate the difference. I think the line about lynching has a lot to do with that. Because, while they didn’t put anyone in the hospital either, I believe they committed verbal violence, and did great harm.

    Yes, everyone does stupid things. I watched enough competitive reality to know how important the edit is, and we’ve all read enough to understand the importance of context. But it’s important to distinguish between outrage over someone who pushes the edges a little too far once in a while, and outrage over someone in a position of power, even the absurd power of a frat house, saying things that generate a dehumanizing attitude towards a whole group of people. That, deserves – demands – response. No one with standing – be it an elected official, an influential entertainment figure, or a budding student leader – should be allowed to get away with that.

    Your “he didn’t put anyone in the hospital” line bothers me for that reason. I’m not sure that should be the standard. Advocating the dehumanization of a group of people based on some shared characteristic – racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, anti-Semitism – is intolerable, and must be called out. There are things that call for outrage, and those are some of them. The problem comes in determining the difference between true stupidity, or lack of context, or poor taste – and insidious evil.

    I don’t know if Noah is insidious evil or not – I know nothing about him, I only remember one appearance on Stewart – but I’d be very surprised if he would’ve been given the gig if he was. And I do believe someone would’ve known; showbiz is supposed to be a small village. So I’m sitting this one out. Is that a double standard? Maybe. I too see humor, maybe pushed a little too far, but a lot of humor seems pushed a little too far for me these days. I just watched a university lecture that included a reference to kissing “without tongue” as a light-hearted metaphor for a mapping parameter. I’m certainlhy not offended, but it seemed inappropriate; but this is a guy whose parents are younger than I am, so I think I’m out of touch with the boundaries of contemporary humor.

    But all this is kind of moot, because what I suspect is really going on with Noah is gleeful racism in disguise. His tweets are twisted into license to go after another black guy (yes, I know, but he’s perceived as black). I suspect this has nothing to do with humor. It’s a metaphorical lynching, plain and simple, justified by whatever flimsy excuse happens to be handy. Because white people have a right to make mistakes, but black people die – often literally, rather than careerwise – for theirs. Not that I think his career is in any jeopardy. Quite the contrary. And that bothers me too. Levels upon levels…

    Hmmm. Yeah, I really shouldn’t post this.

    • I certainly respect your thoughts and I love that you felt free to express them. The primary problem that I see is that we’re telling comedians and other creative people that they DON’T have the freedom to express themselves and they should instead adhere to a rigid and changing social dogma.

      I am also interested in your racist reading of the criticism against Mr. Noah. That thought is a window into the deeper problem: many of those who think they’re crusading against racism are going so far that they’re going around the bend back to totalitarianism. No one is forcing anyone to follow Mr. Noah on Twitter; they’re welcome to block him if they like. People are also welcome to avoid The Daily Show in the future. I maintain that the risk of being “offended” is so meaningless in comparison to the risk of stifling free expression.

      As for my “he didn’t put anyone in the hospital” comment…he didn’t. Not one person has ever been harmed because of a joke.

      People have been harmed by anti-gay legislation.
      People have been harmed by legislation that forbids the teaching of evolution.
      People have been harmed by police officers who use deadly force against unarmed citizens.
      People have been harmed by the government lying us into an unfunded war that distracted us from dealing with the people who truly did do harm to us.
      People have been harmed by legislation that strips our privacy.
      People have been harmed by legislation that has decimated the middle class.

      I just don’t see the point in wasting time and energy in “confronting” thoughts that offend some people when we have tangible problems.

      I also don’t see that Mr. Noah was “dehumanizing” anyone. He’s a comedian. Comedians tell jokes. You mention that Mr. Noah’s humor may go “too far” for you. That’s perfectly fine. You are under no obligation to watch his show. I am offended by a LOT of media. For the most part, I simply avoid the media I don’t like. I speak out against the culture that makes Kardashians more interesting than astrophysicists, but I don’t suggest the Kardashians or racist or sexist or any other dog-whistle label that, in some ways, does dehumanize a person.

      I’m about to make a new post about this because free expression is important to me.

      • Who is it that’s upset about Noah? I really don’t know; I just hear there’s all this outrage. I stringently curate my twitter feed, and I have to say, no one I follow seems to be upset. Most feel like you. I’m not even seeing outrage retweets of complaints. So: who is it that’s complaining? Names? Organizations? That’s a genuine question.

        • To be perfectly honest, it’s an incredibly small and incredibly vocal minority of commenters who are criticizing Mr. Noah. The perpetual outrage mill needs grist, so the mainstream media latches on to stupid you-know-what because reporting actual news is hard and requires actual journalists.

          Publications such as Time Magazine report the “debate” as a debate, even though it’s the dumbest debate on the planet. TMZ reports it (I’m guessing in this case) as a juicy and controversial celeb story. Huffpost and Salon and Slate and the other publications that are now primarily (but not all clickbait) tack 150 words of criticism onto a few tweets and make money off of people commenting on this incredible outrage.

          I want people to concentrate on REAL problems that cause LOTS AND LOTS OF TANGIBLE HARM, not stupid outrages du jour. (I’m considering writing a revealing personal essay as to why I think that I don’t care about inconsequential crap.)

          • Again, a genuine question (though it’s going to sound like snark, it isn’t, I promise): Doesn’t responding to the outrage fuel it further? What if someone started a twitterwar, and nobody came? (maybe you had to be there, in the 60s)

            I agree, there are more important issues. But I also think it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves some questions: are we giving Noah a break because we see him as a “good guy”? How would we feel if someone we don’t like sent those tweets? I think this is probably related to something called “confirmation bias” – we tend to notice what is in line with our preexisting notions, and ignore what isn’t (usually used to decide coincidences, like meeting three people with the same birthday in the course of one week, is some kind of supernatural sign).

            I don’t typically get hysterical over things on twitter. What I do get hysterical about are the weekly reports of unarmed people of color killed by police in the line of duty that continue to mount up; the increasing limitation of rights of women to control their own bodies and health care; the increasing efforts in multiple states to suppress votes of those who are very young, very old, very poor, and/or very not-white; the increasing intrusion of money into political leadership, something the Constitution was deliberately written to prevent; and the increasing flow of profits into the hands of Wall Street and the 1% while most of the population is required to work harder for less, and told it’s for their own good, that the only way to prosperity is to give the 1% still more.

            So yeah, there are lots of more important issues (and those are just for starters). And yeah, I’d love to see your energy directed at what you see as more important, rather than at this stuff that “everybody” seems to be doing.

          • I am engaging in part because this is what our society cares about now. It’s much easier for “news” sources to spend three minutes talking about this than to put together a meaningful exploration of a meaningful issue. Most of today’s “news” is 150 words summarized from someone else’s 150-word article about something that isn’t important. I’m frustrated that my writing and other sincere work written by people who actually want an audience gets drowned out by the outrage du jour.

            I can’t speak for others, but I give everyone a break within reason. This is the point. We ALL say things that others can perceive as offensive. I was incredibly offended by the Twitter timelines of the people who are attacking Noah. I spoke with a guy on Twitter yesterday who is a singer for a heavy metal rock group, but thinks Noah is an anti-Semitic monster because of his joke mentioning Israel. This blows me away. Heavy metal is all about subverting the traditional mores of culture, which is offensive by definition. He’s a creative person going against the status quo…and he also wants to stop others from doing exactly what he does. I extend the same policy to all creative people. I’ve been offended by a lot of things. Some even in Best American. Do I call for these writers to be excommunicated? No.

            You won’t get an argument from me: I’m outraged that people know more Kardashians than they do Supreme Court justices. But that stuff isn’t “trendy” and isn’t valued by much of society. Sometimes I wonder if we’re producing more cultural criticism than we are culture. (“How Don Draper’s Suitcase Demonstrates the Need to Fight Kyriarchy.” “Why HBO’s Girls Does Great Work in Letting Us Relax About Chylamidia.”)

            I’m trying to do more of the work I love, but sometimes I don’t feel anyone cares. I’d get far more attention and money and acclaim if I just found an ad-plastered site that would let me copy and paste Justin Bieber roast jokes for ad revenue.

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