Priscilla Takondwa Semphere '18
Earlier this year, beloved and well-respected news satirist Jon Stewart announced his plans to leave “The Daily Show.” The general public’s reaction was remarkable, as many cannot imagine the popular show without its dynamic host. Comedy Central’s official announcement that Trevor Noah – a young, largely unknown South African comedian who has made three appearances as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” – will be Stewart’s replacement has incited an equally impressive reaction.
Ever since the debut of his full-time stand-up show, “The Daywalker,” which was met with overwhelming success, Noah has risen fast to become one of the most notable comedians to emerge from South Africa in the 21st century. Noah grew up under the apartheid regime, a period of racial segregation in South Africa. As the child of a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother, his very existence was a violation of the anti-miscegenation laws enforced under the oppressive regime. Due to his own experience of growing up in such an environment, Noah often jokes that, as a child, he felt like “a bag of weed,” dropped onto the street by his mother at the slightest sighting of a police officer in fear of arrest.
Noah’s childhood experiences living under an oppressive regime have shaped who he is today and have, in many ways, informed his comedy and the manner in which he discusses race and politics. In fact, his public role does not stop at comedy; Noah is highly applauded not just in South Africa, but in many other parts of Africa, as a firm political commentator. In this regard, Noah’s posting as the new host of “The Daily Show” is sure to bring a refreshing perspective to the goings-on of American and world politics.
Over the past week, controversy has arisen over tweets Noah made earlier in his career, which some people have criticized as anti-Semitic, fat-shaming and, in some respects, even racist. Other observers, however, have remarked that the misconceptions surrounding Noah’s comments have surfaced as a result of different cultural contexts and have stressed the manner in which comedic approaches, content and taboos vary across cultures depending on their historical position in regard to any given topic. While cultural relativism may explain why Noah made these jokes, it does not justify them.
However, as acknowledged by Noah himself, the archives of past jokes do not reflect the capabilities of the comedian he has evolved into today. This matter remains an ongoing and important conversation on the role of humor in politics, especially considering the nature of the television show in question.
Comedy is a mode through which various commentators address and deal with dark events of the past by making light of these events. This has certainly been the case for both Noah and Stewart. While there is no defending the remarks that Noah made, those who are familiar with his comedic style will attest to the fact that there are very few topics and groups that Noah, like many comedians, does not have a go at. Sandra Swart, in thinking about the history of humor and politics in South Africa, said, "What can humor accomplish when faced with unbending state power in a continent ravaged by the most horrendous fatalities? If comics cannot remove sit-tight despots, of what use are they?"
In Noah’s case, the excavated brash jokes he made online in the past, for example, are one of those "you-don't-go-there" spaces. Working with Sandra Swart’s quote, if we stretch the definition of despots to encompass attitudes, opinions and sentiments, then these jokes can be seen as devices employed to remove those "sit-tight despots.” Although even Noah has acknowledged that his jokes do not reflect his evolution as a comic, can we view them as one such duty of comics? Is the place of such comedic jabs to remove those despots?
Stretching these thoughts further, some will argue that, as a member of a systematically oppressed group, he has more room to speak about issues that affect various oppressive groups. These are all very important questions to engage in when considering Noah’s appointment.
On a different note, however, many are optimistic about Noah’s unexpected promotion. A huge factor that deems this an excellent feat for “the Daily Show” is that Noah’s following outside of America – particularly in Africa – is sure to latch onto the fanbase of “the Daily Show.” We are likely to see a globalization in the perspectives brought to the matters discussed on the show, and we can only hope this will give us a new lens through which to assess the goings-on in the United States.
It is also important to acknowledge that such a dynamic presence and greatly respected voice as Jon Stewart’s can hardly be replaced. Stewart, well-known for his often scathing humor, which seems to spare no one, has become something of a legend in mainstream American news media. Noah, on the other hand, with an arguably equal wit but a clearly different manner – a calmer air with comparatively softer-spoken sensibilities and a track record of impressionism – carries a different brand.
It is thus problematic to assess Noah’s comedic style and presence against that of Stewart. “The Daily Show” will inevitably change since it is a show that hinges on the personality of the presenter. Also, Stewart’s rather unwelcome debut in the show almost 16 years ago gives room for optimism about Noah. Considering the level of influence “the Daily Show” has and the voices it represents, we can only hope that his, too, will become a name people affectionately associate with the show years later.