Trevor Noah Meets the Outrage Internet

The Daily Show protégé's controversial tweets illustrate how some kinds of bad humor can't survive.

Bongiwe Mchunu-The Star/AP

Yesterday Comedy Central announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah will replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show beginning in December. Curious fans of the show scrambled to learn more about Noah, whose fan base is large but not concentrated in the United States. Those people found a Twitter account (with two million followers) that included multiple instances of jokes that many deemed tone-deaf and tasteless. For example:

There is outcry, across social media and on most news sites today. This morning Noah tweeted and then deleted “Twitter does not have enough characters to respond to all the characters on Twitter” but has otherwise not commented on the blowback. The Atlantic staff writer Spencer Kornhaber and senior editor James Hamblin discuss.

Hamblin: Are these jokes real or some kind of performance-art parody?

Kornhaber: That would be nice, if it turned out to be a parody of some sort. I guess. But it’d have to have been started back in 2009, which would make for a pretty long-running conspiracy. The first thing that strikes me about these tweets is just how inept they are as attempts at humor. They didn’t make me chuckle guiltily. They just made me embarrassed for him. Right?

Hamblin: Most of these are old, from four to five years ago, so maybe it was just his racism/sexism/anti-Semitic phase? Like Picasso had his Blue Period? A lot of comedians change dramatically as they get older. Louis CK wrote and directed Pootie Tang.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it's interesting to look at the timestamps. His more recent controversial tweets are, at least, attempts at jokes, not just repeating old stereotypes. The Bruce Jenner one from last month—not exactly enlightened but, meh, fine. #BeatsByDreidel in May of 2014 indulges some not-s0-helpful thoughts about Jews controlling the world, but actually is almost a punchline, at least. The older stuff is just such a fascinating glimpse at what makes bad humor bad—the idea that you’re doing something exciting by saying something offensive, when really you’re just outing yourself as a deeply unoriginal thinker who has a tragically commonplace obsession with Jews. Or you're outing yourself as the stereotype of a frat-bro when it comes to attitudes toward women. You have a little bit of a standup background, Jim. What do you make of this stuff?

Hamblin: Even trying to take them in good faith, I hate these jokes, but it’s probably good that there’s blowback now, so Noah and everyone at The Daily Show can be better in the future. So without implying that historical precedent is a defense of bigotry, look at Bob Hope. He was beloved in the 1950s, but most of his comedy doesn't hold up today at all. From 1970:

You know, a new movement–a new movement has appeared on the American scene. First women's liberation demanded the rights of women. Then the hardhats demanded the rights of men. And now gay liberation is demanding the rights of–whatever they are.

Pause for laughter. Richard Zoglin argues in his biography that Hope was just a relic of vaudeville, where he got his start, which involved a lot of blackface and one-liners about the incompetence of women—the kinds of jokes that are not jokes at all really, just gags that rely on a high hat to tell people when to laugh.

Hope was adored in his prime, but then his misogyny fell out of style, and his fans and the industry largely disowned him. Things are still getting better, but the root of a lot of comedy today comes from broad generalizations about people. It’s cool to be able to spot behavioral trends and call them out, but doing it along racial and gender lines is, to use your favorite word, almost always in some way problematic.

Can’t we all just make jokes about the marketing of Pop Tarts and the people who deny that humans are producing carbon that is changing the climate in terrible ways? Or, sorry, about that logic, not those people. Even though they are all ugly people. Taking the high ground in terms of subjects that deserve to be made fun of—e.g. not obese women or the Jewish people as a whole—is coming in style so hard, which is cool. Not just Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, but even Seth Meyers is taking on stuff like Indiana’s “religious freedom” law in a five-minute rant on civil-rights laws. So many white dudes in suits at desks making important commentary-jokes. Johnny Carson would not have done that.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s good to keep the broader comedy context in mind. (Also, step off, I challenge you to find me ever using the word “problematic” in earnest.) As Roxane Gay pointed out on Twitter, lots and lots of beloved comics have said dicey things, made identity jokes, etc. Jon Stewart himself often walked the line on The Daily Show. So singling out Noah—a comedian who, blessedly, is of a different background than those who usually take up late-night host spots—doesn’t help anyone. Like I said, his Jew/women tweets come from a common phenomenon: the mistaken belief that saying something wrongheaded is the same as saying something transgressive. The best comics, from Dave Chappelle to Stephen Colbert to Tina Fey, talk about identity in original ways, making the joke be on the larger culture and not on the individual group.

Hamblin: So what’s to be done here? Nothing? Is comedy going to just get forcibly higher brow until every late-night show is tackling net neutrality and hiring investigative journalists as writers?

Kornhaber: He should explain the thinking behind some of those jokes and whether he still holds to that thinking. He should probably offer an apology. More important, though, would be a vow from him to try harder—to be more creative, more insightful, funnier. Because insight, something that a program like The Daily Show prides itself on offering, doesn’t jibe with perpetuating racism or sexism, which are, at core, stupid belief systems. I don’t want more sanitized humor; I just want humor that gets how funny the world actually is.

Hamblin: Like, real scientists in England are reporting today that they killed this terrible antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA with a mixture of onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile that they got from a ninth-century Latin text.

Kornhaber: Which is cool and interesting.

Hamblin: Except that the experiment was just in a test tube, but now the news is all over Facebook like crazy, and some people might think they should use herbal concoctions instead of the actual antibiotics that they might need to live. But also yes, hilarious.