Is Trevor Noah the new Charlie Hebdo?
Most of the civilized world seemed to rise in heartwarming solidarity after that French satirical magazine was attacked by Islamic terrorists in January. But some of that support suddenly softened as many discovered just how offensive many of the edgy publication’s cartoons actually were.
Sure, the weekly was and continues to be an equal-opportunity offender. But today’s hypersensitive age constantly raises new questions about what humor is acceptable or not, especially when it tries to cross cultural boundaries.
That thought comes to mind as another “Wait ... what?” moment follows the news that Noah, 31, a mixed-race South African comedian, will replace Jon Stewart as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
I, for one, was surprised and delighted by that choice. His breakthrough appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in 2012 showed him to be a bright, engaging new talent. He mined thought-provoking comedy gold out of his experience as a biracial man “born a crime” in apartheid-era South Africa where interracial marriage was still illegal.
I was surprised and delighted that Comedy Central was willing to challenge its audience, not only by casting a black South African host but also by doing it on a show that is followed by another show with a black host, “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”
I was disappointed that they hadn’t chosen one of several talented women who I would have considered, but at least Noah wasn’t blocked by a quota on black men.
Otherwise the choice brought near-universal praise, until folks looked more closely at some of Noah’s Twitter tweets. They had to look hard, it must be said. Since Noah joined Twitter in June 2009 he has tweeted almost 9,000 tweets to his currently 2.17 million followers.
But if Noah didn’t know it before, he knows by now that unseen legions of joke police have nothing better to do with their time than to dive eagerly into the Internet’s digital Dumpster to peruse every past moment of attempted wit on social networks.
This particular witch hunt found pay dirt in a few of Noah’s tweets that unfortunately stand out as stunningly unfunny and even cruel. A sampling:
“Manchester United is like a white girl. Heavy upfront but lacking in the back.”
“Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy! - fat chicks everywhere.”
“Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich (sic) Jewish man.”
Reaction to these clinkers, which sound as sophisticated as beer-soaked ramblings from party animals on spring break, has been predictably negative. Yet so has the backlash against those who, like me, want fairness for young Trevor.
It’s worth noting that Noah responded by asking us, his audience, to judge him by current work, not by a few tweeted “jokes that didn’t land.” That’s reasonable. Most of Noah’s objectionable tweets come from at least five years ago. I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by every bad joke I have attempted in the past, especially those that live on in the archives of my past columns.
It also is worth noting that one of Noah’s grandparents is Jewish, by his own accounts. That doesn’t give him a license to tell anti-Semitic jokes but it may help explain why he, an otherwise intelligent guy, allowed himself to foolishly try out this particular line of attempted humor in a forum as public as Twitter.
Fortunately for his future prospects, Comedy Central and Jon Stewart are standing behind Noah. The Anti-Defamation League in a statement issued by its national director, Abraham Foxman, also diplomatically wished him “every success” while also urging him to make sure the show “remains funny and irreverent without trafficking in bigoted jokes at the expense of Jews.”
That’s good news. Noah deserves at least to be given a chance to perform his new job before he is threatened with losing it.
But Noah’s experience also serves as a lesson in the unwritten rules of comedy etiquette. It is funnier to punch up, as the old saying goes, than to punch down. Deflating the pompous and powerful can be hilarious. Ridiculing the weak is just sad.
E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.