Cutting Trevor Noah some slack: forgiveness in the age of Twitter

By Johnny McCabe

Over the past few weeks, much has been made of the soon-to-be Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s Twitter timeline. The young South African comedian attracted initial mainstream attention last Monday, after Comedy Central revealed that he had been tapped to replace Jon Stewart, whose 16-year run on the show will end later this year. The initial publicity from the announcement led to a flurry of popularity for Noah; however, the source of much of his time in the all-seeing public eye has been his crass, distasteful and frequently unfunny tweets, the likes of which have run the spectrum from anti-Semitic to misogynistic to both.

Many have recommended that Comedy Central go so far as to revoke Noah’s host position over the tweet –  however, such an attitude is not only excessive, but completely ignores the comic’s own lifelong struggle refining his comedy in a nation still fresh with the scars of apartheid.

The specific tweets in question were singled out by social media ”news” site Buzzfeed, and represent a selection of Noah’s most low-brow and offensive offerings from 2010 to 2012. What followed was a flurry of social media outrage, naming Noah a “Jew-hater” and a “racist,” as well as much vehement swearing-off of The Daily Show and Comedy Central.

Ironically, Noah is himself acquainted with institutionalized racism, as he outlined in January in an interview with NPR‘s All Things Considered.

“I was born in South Africa during apartheid, a system of laws that made it illegal for people to mix in South Africa,” he said” … My mother’s a black woman, South African Xhosa woman… and my father’s Swiss, from Switzerland. So I grew up in a world where my existence in itself was a crime.” Indeed, Noah’s development as a comic is inexorably tied to the legacy of oppression and racialized violence that terrorized South Africa until the 1990’s.

“We’ve only had comedy since, really, democracy started in 1994 – so you’re looking at a young comedy scene,” he said in the same interview. “But at the same time I feel that South Africans are less PC. We’re a fresher nation, we laugh at more.”

Noah’s tweets are not the evidence of a bigot, or a culturally insensitive wannabe – they are the immature and ill-conceived detritus of a comic trying to establish his personal brand. These offensive and simply bland not-jokes are the embarrassing ephemera any young comedian has to deal with, made permanent and open to scrutiny by the preservative magic of social media. Even Jon Stewart himself would admit that not every joke is a home run, not every bit a gut-buster and he has been a vocal critic of Israel without engendering the same backlash Noah did. Thankfully, more entrenched comedians and Twitter personalities like Patton Oswalt, took to Twitter last Wednesday, offering a lengthy rip on “comedy in 2015.”

More simply than any culture war or political correctness, however, I think Trevor Noah deserves our forgiveness. With every passing second, social media is documenting the human experience on a level of detail that would have been incomprehensible even 20 years ago. No one – not Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah – can be perfectly presentable and inoffensive 100 percent of the time, and when people do inevitably screw up, they shouldn’t be ridiculed and condemned and accused of hatred or intolerance or any number of -isms.

They should receive the same treatment that comedians create – a frank, open and unadulterated conversation about their role as a participant in an equally flawed, yet growing and learning society.

In Noah’s own words about growing up under apartheid: “That was really the one currency we had was laughter…Your laughter takes you through everything.”

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]