On Monday, March 30th, Trevor Noah was announced as The Daily Show’s new host! Yay! By Tuesday, he was giving apologies for a couple of offensive Twitter jokes he made in 2009. Feel free to look it up for yourself. It’s everywhere. But for the sake of context, the jokes center around Jewishness and well, critiquing Israel’s international politics. In all of the media circus and frenzy, I decided to make a joke of my own:
Except it’s not entirely a joke. I actually requested a database archive of all my tweets from Twitter last night so I could go through them. You never know when you’ll get your calling to be the next Oprah or Chimamanda Adichie, *cough, cough.* I would love to say that we should all be the kind of people who stand by what we say, regardless of the response to it. And I think, in general, we should be. But taking it for granted that the context and words in which you say things, is always how they are perceived, is naive at best, and utterly foolish, at worst.
Comedy is serious business. It is also a difficult process. It is a tool that yes, is used to make us smile and laugh and see the lighter side of things. But comedy is also a tool of expression of the political, the social, and the cultural. It has long been a tool of resistance, and it continues to be. All the best comedians know this. It’s also why if you want to understand systems of privilege and disadvantage in any given society, one can arguably consider the jokes and comedy of the time and space.
But I am not interested in writing your latest thinkpiece about comedy’s socio-political-cultural theoretical constructions and blah blah blah. I am interested in explaining Trevor Noah, having been following his comedy for years. As well as giving some deduced insights to his upbringing, and indeed his comedy.
In the first place, understand that Trevor Noah was born into Apartheid South Africa of a Black (Xhosa), half-Jewish mother, and Swiss-German father. Re-read that. Because the relationship between his parents was a crime at the time. Understand that this is a man who experienced a particular identity, “Coloured” – which is the general term for mixed race persons in South Africa (and much of Southern Africa), and shares a distinct experience that is not necessarily applicable to any major identity in the United States. That his comedy is so good that it manages to reach the general American public in a way that is relatable, but also brings about curiosity from the audience, is not a testament to the intelligence and/or understanding of the American public; it is a testament to his intelligence as a comedian.
Now the thing about comedy is that one has to pay attention to the speaker as much as to the words spoken. That’s true in other sorts of performance but especially so where humor is concerned. For example, Chris Rock making a commentary about the difference between Black people and “Niggers” is funny, for the most part. I might have a personal critique with the respectability politics at work in that instance, but it’s funny nonetheless. I assure you however, that skit could not be performed by a White comedian with similar reception. Michael Richards found that out with what was termed a racist tirade a few years ago. Now Richards’ joke leaves much to be desired, coming from anyone. But the bottomline is this: The speaker matters.
The speaker in this case is a man who is aware of his Jewish heritage, judging by the joke that he made. This does not mean that people cannot make self-hating commentary about identities that they embody. Far from it. But we can and should pay attention to in-group, out-group commentary of one’s self and one’s community, with caution. That aside, the crux of my defense of Trevor Noah has little to do with his relationship with his Jewish identity, which I cannot know entirely anyway. But rather, an understanding of his African background and upbringing, and how that affects African comedy as a whole; and the intercultural communication complication that ensues when he performs some of his comedy in non-African spaces.
The reality is Trevor Noah is admittedly not yet thoroughly knowledgeable on the communicative devices of American political, social, and cultural talk. And because of that, he may not be up to speed on the particular identities and power dynamics at work in the realm of social conversation in the United States. Even in “progressive” circles. As someone who is African – Nigerian; but partially grew up in Southern Africa – Botswana, and who understands the perspective of Trevor Noah and can appreciate his cultural identities in the performance of his work, I can say that what the United States is being introduced to, is the non-PC nature of African social conversation and humor, that also at times works as a resistance to Western political constructions.
Understanding further that in this particular case and the context it might have been made, the social understanding of Israel and Jewishness in African countries and by African people, differs from that of the average American citizen. Particularly, it is worth considering that the great South African leader Nelson Mandela, often spoke of Israel in a way that is analogous to that of Apartheid South Africa. For someone who grew up with that cultural understanding, even despite his own heritage, those jokes are complicated in an intercultural communication context. But they are not necessarily academically problematic in the way they have been construed by an American public that is only thinking in an American context, and in a particular American context at that.
As someone who does not have a political label (regardless of what some people assume about my work), and who is heavily invested in understanding American domestic contexts of political and social conversation, I am able to navigate this backlash. But that is also because of my investment in my African identity and understanding and an appreciation of the nature of African comedy firstly, and of the subject, Trevor Noah, whose identity and work is not foreign to my encounters and experiences. Interestingly, and despite our desire to ensure that comedy “punches up” (meaning it makes fun of those in historical positions of privilege rather than the alternative), recognize that context, both of an individual, and the space he or she performs in, always matters.
Interestingly, I think it is the complication of Trevor Noah’s identity and performance that makes him a spectacular choice to be the next The Daily Show host. Not only because from 2009 (when those tweets were initially made), his understanding of American politics has evolved in a way that is nuance from the average person who lives here. But also because he can bring a wealth of perspectives and understanding of culture and communication to a comedic space that I don’t think we’ve seen before. One that by virtue of the space is American in nature, but also by virtue of the performer, will constitute a global and multicultural viewpoint, from experience, as well as mere existence of the performer.
Heck, look at how much trouble he’s caused already. But I would say it is good trouble. We’re talking about how to talk about important things – social, cultural, political – and making jokes and making commentary about jokes while doing it. That is at least some of the work of the political satirist after all, isn’t it?