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.

The article continues after these advertisements...

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.

You may also like...

  • Sardu

    Sure, comedy can be and often is offensive. But when it is that generally means it is coming from some kind of worldview or philosophy and when that worldview and/or philosophy opposes mine I reserve the right to ignore the person that purveys it, especially if they aren’t actually entertaining or edifying me. I can take jokes at my expense if they’re funny or thoughtful… I strongly disagree with where Carlin was coming from on many issues but the guy was smart and very funny. Same with, say, Chris Rock. Trevor Noah, not so much, as far as I can tell. I haven’t seen enough to really make a judgement.

    • Wizkamridr

      Some things will always be taboo and most people will never find them funny.

  • This is a pretty solid article you have written here.

    • Wizkamridr

      His articles are always well written. Doesn’t mean i agree with half the stuff he is talking about. It must be a generation gap.

      • I can understand that, when my generation was young, our music, movies and comedy freaked out and outraged the earlier generations and now with the younger Millennials, I was expected to be freaked out and outraged by their pop culture, instead they are more likely to be offended by some of my generation’s stuff then I am by theirs even if it is for different reasons.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Well said.

  • Justin D.

    I think most of the people spearheading this anti-Trevor Noah campaign are the same people that The Daily Show actively skewered on a nightly basis. Their motivation is to try and kill the show off while it’s in a vulnerable state. Dig up controversy on the show’s new host so the actual viewers turn on him and the program; that’s what this all looks like to me. Personally, while some of the fat jokes are the most mean spirited of his tweets, I don’t find anything he’s said to be so offensive that I won’t tune in to see him. Your use of Carlin is the perfect way to showcase this point.

    • Wizkamridr

      I thought turning on someone was the american way.

  • JD

    “Comedy is inherently offensive”
    “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.”
    thats an awesome statement, and true as well,someone/person/group/cause/event is always going to be the butt of a joke.
    DL hugeley once said no comedian should ever apologize for telling a joke.

    • Wizkamridr

      And no one should apologize for telling a comedian to go bleep themselves.

      • JD

        of course. cant have just one side of that

  • Wizkamridr

    Never heard of this dude. I must live under a rock. I thought his tweets were pretty weak.

  • tcorp

    “All this social hyper-awareness, while well-meaning and very much needed, sometimes catches the wrong people in the line of fire.”

    “What’s the motivation here? Why obsessively dig through someone’s Twitter backlog for dirty laundry unless you’re deliberately trying to discredit him?”

    Soooooo….are they well-intentioned or not? I’m being pedantic here, but it’s an integral part of your argument.

  • trlkly

    I do suspect you are right about people just not liking that Noah was picked. But I don’t think it was about Jessica Williams. It’s just about some new guy who had just barely started getting in before everyone else.

    That bugged me, even. In fact, I suspect he was hired specifically so that they could claim to be hiring an “inside guy.”

    I’m also very nervous about this, because of how horribly The Nightly Show has gone. They seemed to forget it was even supposed to be a comedy/satire show, actually becoming the type of show they are supposed to be satirizing with actual serious panelists. The comedy just died.

    What worries me far more about those tweets is that none of them is remotely funny. I don’t want to lose The Daily Show, too.

  • trlkly

    I also do not agree that all comedy is at someone’s expense. A lot of it is, and the type that Noah is being hired to do definitely is, but it’s not universal. An obvious example is that a lot of puns are not at anyone’s expense. There are also a lot of silly or “random” jokes that don’t really have a butt.

    Let us not also forget that a lot of jokes have the butt be the person telling the joke, making it really hard for anyone else to be offended, since none of them are the target.

  • johnhay

    I’ll take this seriously when I see you leap to the defense of someone in politics who dares say something politically incorrect, as quickly as you jump to the defense of this guy’s hate speech. The First Amendment protects political speech. That’s its intent and what it’s needed for, not some jerk making not jokes, but old anti-semitic and anti-black jokes. I’m 100% sure if some foreign white comic came here and mocked African-Americans for seeking the connection to their homelands that was STRIPPED away from them by the slave-trade, all for the laughs of white audiences, you’d see it differently, and rightly so.

    Mocking Jews and women and African-Americans is not comedy. It’s cheap, low-hanging fruit. As an American, I don’t go to other countries and mock the people there for what they’ve suffered, so why should anyone defend this guy’s right to come here and do it? I’d call an American a Jerk who went to South Africa and made light of Apartheid or their suffering, so ditto here. You are not some hero because you stand on the side of someone who is cruel to people because he’s simply not funny.

    Again, let someone you disagree with make these jokes and we’ll see your hypocrisy.

    • tcorp

      But, but . . . it’s different this time.

      *frantically shuffles through note cards for response*

    • Greenhornet

      “Hate speech”.
      There was a time when what someone said offended another, the offended person spoke up and it was settled between the two. But now, there is “hate speech” and the F**KING federal government gets involved! We use to say “don’t make a federal case out of it”, but the government-loving socialists want the feds involved in EVERYTHING. Nothing is “private” now. We have lost our right to privacy and self-determination.
      Thanks a lot, A**HOLES.

  • TheCrazyFish

    “Every joke has a proverbial “butt”, and all comedy is at the expense of someone”

    That’s a very bizarre and shallow definition of “humor” for someone who writes for a comedy website.