Trevor Noah’s Vanilla Politics Were There From The Start

This article was originally published on Huffington Post SA

I must admit, the first time I saw Trevor Noah’s revisionism of South African history, in which he claimed that one of the main reasons that Apartheid ended was because of shame, I was dumbfounded. I felt incredibly confused that a man who spent most of his life in South Africa, was there to witness the democratic transition, and had an awareness of our country’s history and current context, could still honestly buy into the misguided idea that it was white shame that ended Apartheid. Based on this comment alone, it was consequently slightly less surprising when he later penned an article for the New YorkTimes in which he used South Africa’s transition to democracy in order to encourage Americans to resolve the wave of police brutality and racial profiling through “compromise and moderation”.

Firstly, it is bizarre that in 2016, Noah would use South Africa as a how-to guide for resolving racial conflict when the recent wave of activism across university campuses, calls for land redistribution, increasing criticism of former president Nelson Mandela, and exposure of racists such as Penny Sparrow among others on social media have shattered the Rainbow Nation fallacy. Noah’s Op-Ed would have been understandable 10 or 15 years ago when optimism about South Africa’s transition to democracy still ran high. Today, it reads more like it was written by a severely out-of-touch white liberal American who watched Miracle Rising once than by a biracial man who was born and raised in South Africa.

Then again, the more I thought about Noah’s Op-Ed piece, the more I began to question exactly how out of character it really is that he would hold such views. I have been a fan of Noah’s since he first began his career. My friends and I used to sit at our computer screens and laugh at Daywalker until we knew the jokes by heart. Every time he had a new stand-up show, we would eagerly wait for it to be made available on DVD and laugh until we cried while watching it. When the announcement was made that he would move to America, we were happy for him. When he became the new host for the Daily Show,we swelled with the pride that comes with seeing one of our own make it overseas.

However, the more one examines Noah’s comedy, the more one realises that while his jokes have been funny, he has never once offered the kind of sharp criticism and political insight one has seen from the Jon Stewart’s of the world. The warning signs were there from the beginning. Noah’s entire brand of comedy was built off of perpetuating racial stereotypes and being allowed to get away with it because he occupied the in-between space of being both black and white. While Noah did mock politicians relentlessly, his criticism was relegated to shallow jokes about Zuma’s inappropriate use of pauses and imitations of a drunken Mandela at his 90th birthday party rather than insightful or sharp political commentary.

The immediate response to this would be that Noah is a comedian, not a political analyst, and that at the end of the day his job is to make jokes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but it does become a problem when one considers the kind of space Noah is now operating in. The Daily Show has never just been a comedy show. It has operated as both comedy and sharp political commentary. The successful marriage of the two by its predecessor, which was so successful it turned him into a news source, is what made the show as popular and relevant as it became. While Noah is a comedian, Stewart was a political satirist, and the difference is evident on the show.

To be fair to Noah, he has made it clear that he is not like Stewart and that he does not wish to be compared to him. He has also flexed his political muscles on the show by criticising politicians such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, among others, as well as strongly speaking in support of gun control. However, Noah’s vanilla politics have translated into jokes that lack a punch. This was most evident during his interview with the controversial conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren. While he did offer criticisms, he failed to adequately address some of her most outrageous statements. The few jokes he did make, such as asking her what she did at stop lights in response to her saying that she “doesn’t see colour”, largely fell flat. The interview came across less as the biting critique of Lahren’s views that so many have been quick to brand it as, and more like a polite discussion in which he skipped around the worst of Lahren’s views as opposed to critically engaging with them.

As South Africans, I feel that we ignored the early warning signs. His suggestion in one of his earlier shows that we normalize the k-word and turn it into a term of endearment in order to address racial tensions should have been the first sign that his analysis of racial dynamics in South Africa, least of all the US, is relatively shallow. From the beginning strong and nuanced political insight has never been Noah’s strong suit and while there were signs of it in South Africa it has become blatantly clear on the Daily Show.

One can only hope that Noah will take the latest criticisms his interview and Op-Ed piece have received as well as the mediocre reviews the Daily Show continues to receive, will prompt him to revisit his political views and his comedic approach. Given the tanking ratings of the Daily Show, the future of his career may depend on it.


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