God help America

2015-04-12 15:00

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America needn’t fear Trevor Noah. He’s a product of US comedy, writes Charl Blignaut. But will the American media machine defang the comedian anyway?

“A lot of things are going wrong in the US nowadays. Washington does not work and Wall Street can’t change. The seas are rising and the roads are crumbling,” wrote columnist Gary Silverman in the Financial Times last week. “So it was easy to think the worst when word arrived that an obscure South African comic called Trevor Noah (31) would succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.”

Silverman’s tongue-in-cheek take reminds me of a 2012 song by envelope-pushing Ghanaian hip-hop duo Fokn Bois. “Daddy, they are struggling, they struggling here. I want to come back home to Ghana…” skits a voice over the phone from America. “Sudan, help America. Somalia, help America. Mexico, help America. Give them something to eat.”

Which, of course, in turn reminds me of Noah’s most recent appearance on The Daily Show late last year.

“We’re worried about America,” he tells Stewart. “You know what African mothers tell their children every day? Be grateful for what you have because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.”

No, I am not going to analyse whether Noah has borrowed material from Fokn Bois, because by now we know that the comedian’s strength is to aggregate the zeitgeist and retell it. And the zeitgeist is telling us that America’s power is on the wane, evidenced by the fact that a young black African can steal the TV comedy throne.

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But in truth, the joke isn’t on America. It’s on us. Comedians like Noah are not really invading the American star system; they’re the product of it.

In a month where a South African (Noah) and a Brit (James Corden on The Late Late Show) took control of a chunk of America’s esteemed late night news satire, Silverman writes: “Americans need not fear Mr Noah or his fellow foreign comics. Their rise is no sign of national decline. It is evidence of the triumph of American soft power.”

“Soft power”, for Silverman, is America’s persuasive global cultural influence.

Citing everyone from Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Stewart himself, Silverman says: “The US has provided fertile ground for the funnier English-speaking peoples” from foreign lands. “Thanks to social media, television networks and the enduring power of the traditional Hollywood dream machines,” he writes, “the American style in comedy has grown so pervasive that our television producers can find people suitable for our entertainment formats all over the planet.”

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Perhaps a more fitting term than “soft power”, from a South African’s perspective, is “cultural imperialism”. Growing up here, we were force-fed American culture. Once the cultural boycott began to be lifted, the American pop machine was so dominant that it is our primary reference.

Our kwaito stars were raised on American hip-hop. Our comedians were raised on lashings of American TV comedy. So much so that the sitcoms our broadcasters produce today are replicas of the American family model. You don’t see formats like The Office, but replicated versions of Modern Family or The Cosby Show instead.

It’s inside this framework that our artists like Noah have learnt the American rules and pitched their work back at the US. That opens a whole new discussion, though, because kwaito took American hip-hop and subverted it. Noah is in a position to take American TV comedy and also subvert it. But will America tolerate a charming young man who cunningly bites the hand that feeds him?

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Because, as much as Silverman defends Noah, he also neatly defangs him. He writes: “At any given time in our history, much of our population has existed in a state of disorientation, trying to make sense of their new lives as pioneers, immigrants, slaves, migrant workers or wanderers. They have become strangers in a strange land – and humour is the natural ally of folks who find themselves in a minority of some sort, on the outside looking in.”

One can’t shake the feeling that Silverman expects immigrants to be happy, clapping, smiling people whose experiences are reduced to an image palatable to their American masters.

But South African stand-up comedy is a reflection of the lived experience. It’s fierce and political, and not always so funny. While Noah has mastered the art of assimilation, he has a fight on his hands to prove to conservatives and Silvermans alike that he can take the US norm and the fame game, and spike it with cultural difference and political bite.

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