Comedy is offensive: A defense of Trevor Noah

Mine is a generation very much concerned with being progressive, sometimes to the point of obsession. For the most part, this is a good thing—in a relatively short amount of time, we’ve made large strides towards social equality—but it has a downside. All this social hyper-awareness, while well-meaning and very much needed, sometimes catches the wrong people in the line of fire.

We saw this about a year ago, when Stephen Colbert became the target of a Twitter campaign organized under the hashtag #CancelColbert. The reason? A seemingly racist joke from The Colbert Report was reposted to the show’s Twitter account. Unfortunately, his critics didn’t realize that if you actually watched the episode, said joke was an obvious satire of real racism. Divorced from context, comedy is just slander.

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The latest victim to fall prey to this overzealousness is South African comedian Trevor Noah. Recently announced as Jon Stewart’s future replacement host on The Daily Show, Noah found himself under fire when someone dug up a bunch of old tweets of his that contained jokes of a mildly offensive nature on topics such as race and gender, and posted them all over the internet.

It’s been said that comedy is hard, and I think the tweets above are pretty graphic proof of that. But maybe we don’t always appreciate just how hard. It’s not just the difficulty of constructing an original and funny joke. It’s also about the risks of being a comedian in the first place.

Here’s something no one ever likes to talk about: Comedy is inherently offensive. I know that sounds like reaching, but it’s true when you think about it. There are degrees, certainly. A joke referencing the Holocaust is much more likely to offend than a pie-in-the-face gag. But even a pie in the face can offend someone, especially if you’re the person in whose face the pie has been thrown. Every joke has a proverbial “butt”, and all comedy is at the expense of someone, so there’s no such thing as 100% safe comedy.

This is especially true for comics who have any aspirations of pushing the boundaries or saying anything personal or meaningful through comedy. This is not to say controversial comedians are intrinsically superior or more worthwhile than safe, family-friendly comics. Red Skelton was every bit the comedy genius George Carlin was. Just as a by-the-numbers, crowd-pleasing blockbuster movie can be every bit as good as an avant-garde indie art film if done well enough, comedians who only want to give everyone a good laugh are just as legitimate and worthwhile as comedians who want to get people riled up and poke fun at taboo subjects. The big difference is one type of comedian is much more likely to get people mad at them.

I want you to watch something. It’s an episode of a web series called Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? Don’t worry, it’s only about a minute long:

Sure, at first this video may seem like it’s not even a joke, just a random listing of offensive subjects. But that’s kind of the point. Comedy relies on two things: Timing, and the unexpected. Ash starts off with a familiar setup, immediately shocks you, then continues to say the most offensive, shocking things she can think of, but the moment you’re used to it, she turns the tables and goes right back to what you were expecting her to say in the first place… then goes right back to shocking you.

Comedy has to shock; it’s the only way it can keep surprising us. But in order to shock, it has to be able to go to places we aren’t expecting, which are often places we don’t want to go. Comedy needs to be allowed to tackle offensive topics, not only to stay fresh, but also because it gives us a healthy way to confront and process these topics. By making something taboo, we give it a power over us. Comedy is often the only thing that frees us from that.

All of this has been true for a long time. So why does this kind of uproar keep happening now? My generation is far from the first to be socially conscious. Why are we suddenly so thin-skinned?

A lot of it is that we’re living in the internet age. It’s just so much easier nowadays for small groups to make a noticeable fuss. If the internet had been around (or as big, rather) when Jon Stewart first took over The Daily Show (people forget he wasn’t the first host), it’s very possible something old and irrelevant he’d said might have been dredged up and used against him. It’s highly unlikely that Stewart has never made a single joke that didn’t land or that he wasn’t proud of.

For another example, just imagine what might have happened if the internet had been around when George Carlin was in his prime. He made his career out of offending absolutely everyone. It was what made him great. He basically made it his business to go after anyone who took themselves “a little too seriously”, as he himself said. I can tell you that, as a proud feminist, I’m very much on the other side of this famous bit:

And I also laugh my ass off at it. Both because it’s genuinely funny, but also because I take it in the context of Carlin’s shtick. I don’t judge Carlin’s entire ethos based on one joke. I know for a fact that blowjob jokes or not, Carlin was decidedly a feminist ally, regardless of what he called himself. Why? Because he also did jokes like this:

See? Carlin got it. He understood comedy better than most people who have ever lived. He understood that nothing should be considered off-limits to comedy, and that we’re better people when we allow ourselves to laugh at ourselves.

Then again, part of me suspects that many of the people currently speaking out against Trevor Noah aren’t so well intentioned. First off, while some of the jokes under scrutiny do feel a little mean spirited, they don’t really strike me as so offensive as to permanently color my opinion of Trevor Noah, and they certainly don’t seem like the kind of thing anyone should be fired for. Jon Stewart likes this guy, so it’s going to take a lot more than a fat joke to make me write him off. Not that his fat jokes weren’t offensive at all, but fat jokes have been a cornerstone of comedy for decades. A comedian making a fat joke is hardly a scandal.

Secondly, it seems highly suspect that most of the tweets currently being used to discredit him are from three or four years ago. What’s the motivation here? Why obsessively dig through someone’s Twitter backlog for dirty laundry unless you’re deliberately trying to discredit him?

Honestly, I suspect the real root cause of the controversy is that some people just aren’t happy they didn’t get their way. Not long after Jon Stewart announced his retirement, a lot of users on Twitter started advocating for fan favorite contributor Jessica Williams to be the next host. Once the movement gained some traction, Jessica personally responded, saying she was flattered, but not really interested, and even admitted she wasn’t ready for the job. When that happened, many of the people who claimed to be her fans suddenly turned on her. Her so-called “supporters” started directing hate at her for daring to pursue her own career the way she wanted to.

Maybe that’s what going on here. It’s not even than people are really offended that Trevor Noah made jokes about Jews. They’re offended that Trevor Noah isn’t Jessica Williams. They wanted a reason to hate him because they’re still angry Jessica wouldn’t be a good little girl and take the job like they wanted (even though there’s no indication she was ever in the running in the first place). They’re treating The Daily Show like it’s their own personal play set, and suddenly their toys aren’t doing what they want them to do.

Whether or not that’s the case, it’s time for people to stop rushing to judgment about Trevor Noah. Maybe he’ll be a good host, maybe he won’t. All I know is Jon Stewart approves of him, and that’s enough for me. I trust Jon, and I trust The Daily Show.

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