Jean Barker

Trevor Who The Hell?

2015-04-03 11:17

Jean Barker

The initial American reaction to Trevor Noah being hired to front The Daily Show was blanket confusion. Who was this guy? They’d never heard of him.

Even those of them who’d heard of South Africa didn’t understand how he’d slipped into the country, let alone onto their TV screens. He was too young, too black and too...foreign.

Some of the people I’d least expect to display any kind of xenophobia reacted very badly to the news. Here’s one: “I'm honestly disappointed by the decision. I think it's problematic to have the two most important liberal shows of reason (John Oliver, Daily Show) hosted by foreign born citizens. It undermines the shows’ potential impact.”

I understand the feeling. If there were a great South African show like The Daily Show, I would hope a South African would host it...but here’s the important point...if it dealt with South African issues.

But The Daily Show doesn’t. It deals with America, which seems intent on running the entire world. Therefore, The Daily Show should be hosted by someone who has travelled said “world”, or at least visited it briefly. A cruise, or a trip to Mexico, or even a tour in Afghanistan entertaining the troops, just doesn’t count.

Jokes about Jews

More understandable was the adverse reaction to Trevor’s jokes on twitter involving Jews and women, which are in poor taste in the American context, but hardly deserving of the reaction they engendered.

Am I letting him off lightly here? Yes, perhaps I am, because you know what, none of his jokes were actually hateful. What they were is ignorant of just how reactive Americans are to certain issues. If he’d been dissing Asians, that might have been fine. They’re fair game in the USA. Instead, he made a few lame jokes about fat women, white women, and Jewish people.

First, the fat women: In South Africa, being dangerously obese is viewed a bit like being an alcoholic, but with chocolate. And let’s face it, sexist jokes are the average standup’s bread and butter. A good thing? No, it’s sexist bullshit, and nobody should be mocked, but it’s not like Trevor made rape jokes, or attacked a particular person, and it’s not like he’s trying to deny anyone’s rights to anything. He was just being a dick on Twitter. I say worse things about men every day.

Now, the jokes about South Africa, race is openly joked about. It’s how we cope with a very, very complicated world where there are 11 official languages, not including the ones people actually speak. We joke about whites, blacks, coloureds, Indians, Muslims, and yes, Jews... only one of which is really a problem in America.

Because it’s fine, here, if you make fun of Muhammad in a cartoon, or if you’re Bill Maher dissing an entire religion (Islam) as more violent than another. That’s “freedom of speech”. But if a comedian stereotypes Jews as being financiers in the entertainment industry (which is silly, but is hateful, how?), or tasteless jokes that hitting a Jewish jaywalker with a German car would be awful (isn’t that anti-German?)... then...


Let’s be clear. Anti-semitic isn’t “making jokes involving Jews” or even comedy that stereotypes Jews. If it were, Woody Allen would never have made it into New York comedy clubs. Anti-Semitic means hating people because they are Jewish. It’s hating or denigrating Jews. To brand someone who is critical of Israeli foreign policy (only America isn’t) or who includes Jews in the jokes, or any non-Jew who makes Jewish jokes, as anti-Semitic is an insult to the struggle against very real anti-Semitism.

Sure, Noah should be questioned about it. But should he be condemned? Should he be called a “racist”? No. I don’t think so.

Should Trevor be careful?

He’s an idiot not to have foreseen this and cleaned up his Twitter account. What was his manager thinking? I shudder to think what’s lurking in mine...though I suspect it’s more likely to involve insensitive stuff about men I’ve dated, who would rather not complain than admit it was them who pooped on the toilet seat.

Trevor Noah (luckily) is much better than me when it comes to working around people’s sensitivities, whether they’re justified, or total hypocritical nonsense. He’s the guy who could work any crowd in South Africa. He’s also the guy who had to defend his right to call himself “coloured” every time he took the international stage, and somehow survived that.

Still, he’ll need to be better at handling bigotry, to handle The Daily Show. A liberal audience here is still a very touchy one by South African standards.

The good news is, he’ll have the support of an A-Class American comedy writing team, as Jon Stewart has right now. This is the comedy writing team that has allowed Stewart (who is Jewish, by the way) to be critical of Israeli military action when nobody else had the balls, and keep his viewers. America really needs that kind of voice in the wilderness.

This is the big time, and what it takes to make it is three things Trevor’s proved he is capable of: Hard work, political courage, and a sense of humor that’s based in really caring about serious issues. That’s what The Daily Show – the best news show on American TV - is all about.

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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