Trevor Noah’s Biggest Problem Is Becoming Clear

In the progressive bastion “The Daily Show” has become, comedy might not be the point.

Trevor Noah attends the Comedy Central Roast of Steve Hofmeyer at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City on September 11, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photo by Dominic Barnardt/Gallo Images/Getty Images for MTV

Here is a joke:

Men only know about the penis. We’ve been working on that for years. Women's genitals are this island of mystery shrouded in shrubbery. What the fuck's in there? Nobody knows! It's all these parts ... lip, hood, zipper, bud ... honey, I can't even hook up the VCR! What do you want from me?

Here is another:

They'll advertise beer on television every five minutes, but they won’t advertise condoms on network TV because they're afraid it will lead young people to have sex. Like beer isn't the leading cause of sex among young people. How many people here have gotten laid because they had too many condoms at a party one night? "Hey, Joey, what happened to me last night?" "Well, after your seventh condom, you ended up fucking that fat guy at the end of the bar. You really had your latex goggles on that night, my friend."

One more:

The Pope is a hat choice away from being the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Do you find these jokes funny? Do you find them offensive? Does the person who came up with these jokes sound like someone whose worldview you share?

These jokes are from here:


That is Jon Stewart’s 1996 HBO Comedy Hour “Unleavened,” three years before he would take over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn, back when Stewart had long black hair, smoked incessantly and looked suspiciously like Jerry Seinfeld. All told, it’s a very funny hour, with all the elements Stewart would use to turn The Daily Show into the global force it is today already in place: Self-deprecating Jewish humor, surprisingly deep understanding of current events, sincere calls for action and a profound befuddlement with the idiocy of the people in power. Stewart is undeniably liberal and plaintive and desperate to make a difference. He just happens to have a couple sorta-lame jokes about beer goggles and Scary Lady Parts and the Pope’s hat in there. An hour is a long time. Not all the jokes land. So what? Stewart’s command of the stage and the material is so total that you glide past any clunkers; you know him well enough to understand where he’s coming from and cut him the requisite slack.

Of course, Stewart wasn’t Jon Stewart back then, not yet. He was not a bastion of the left and a liberal icon. He was just a comic. A damned good one, too.

Also at that time, Trevor Noah was 11 years old and unable to hang out with both of his parents because his mom was South African and his dad was Swiss and there was apartheid. He probably wasn’t too worried about the Pope’s hat.

It has been a month and a half since Trevor Noah was announced as the next host of The Daily Show, and three weeks since this dream job turned into a nightmare as Daily Show fans and activists discovered “questionable” tweets from Noah from a few years back. Now that everyone has retreated—or retweeted—to their corners, it’s a bit remarkable how little ground Noah has made up in the meantime. Yesterday Stewart announced that August 6 would be his final show, which means Noah will start just about a month or so after that (likely just a little after Stephen Colbert launches his CBS show September 8), which means this is really happening. So where is Noah standing right now?

Noah has been on tour—and rarely tweeting—for the past three weeks, doing shows that have been closed to the press, which is to say he has been as silent as anyone could have possibly been in such a high-profile position in that time. The only real public statement from him or Comedy Central was Stewart himself giving Noah (to these eyes, anyway) an oddly mealy-mouthed “endorsement,” a half-hearted, limp pseudo-defense that seemed to whisper “he wasn’t my choice either” to Stewart’s most devoted fans. That doesn't sound to me like a guy graciously passing the torch.

The void of Stewart’s empty defense and Noah’s radio silence has been filled, I’d argue, with an increasingly poisonous atmosphere revolving around the show, and Noah. There is a sense that Noah has to prove himself not just as a comedian—in fact, less so as a comedian—and more as an activist. Many of the show’s diehard feminist-leaning fans are still furious with him, not so much for the jokes itself but the attitude it revealed. (Even Stewart, in the Unleavened special, spoke of marching at pro-choice rallies.) Noah is just not seen as a member of the team: His South African upbringing and outsider viewpoints, used as arguments in his favor when he was hired, have been used against him, seen as examples of why he just doesn’t get it. Meanwhile, political folks who have watched Stewart become the left’s answer to Bill O’Reilly but still put him in the Comedy end of the pool, lacking much actual American comedic material of Noah’s to work from, have dismissed him: Our own Mark Halperin claimed on “With All Due Respect” flat-out that Noah just “wasn’t funny.”

The problem with this is that, over the last few years, The Daily Show has become a show that’s less about appealing to people who are into comedy and more into people who are into left-wing politics. This dovetailed with Stewart’s increasing self-seriousness as the years went along; Brian Williams wanting to swap positions with Stewart at the NBC Nightly News was a joke, but Stewart hosting an MSNBC show absolutely would not have been. The Daily Show could be funny, but on a network with increasingly anarchic and dangerous-in-ways-The Daily Show-hasn’t-been-in-years shows like Broad City, Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer, it felt oddly off-brand for Comedy Central. It felt like a mainstream news show that occasionally had jokes. In many ways, it would have made a lot more sense on MSNBC.

That’s the biggest problem for Noah moving forward. He has to prove his comedic bonafides, sure, but that’ll be easy; as I wrote after watching his documentary You Laugh But It’s True, Noah is a comedic prodigy, absolutely overflowing with raw, untamed talent. The hard part is proving that he’s a political force with the views that The Daily Show audience has come to expect, nay, demand from its show. This is particularly worrisome because Noah’s four appearances on The Daily Show aren’t indicative of what makes him funny. They are pitched at the wry, you-dumb-Americans level Daily Show fans love, rather than the fast-paced, multilingual, relatively state-less comedy Noah has exemplified in his career so far. Noah has made jokes about politics, but mostly safe ones used to more personal effect; his crazy Swiss/German father, the ways Americans see Africans, the strange expectations we have of ethnic groups different than our own. He’s no activist; to force him to do a show even remotely like Stewart did is asking an elephant to tap dance. It’s not his game.

It was always Stewart’s game, even back in the “Unleavened” days. That’s why he could crack a few jokes about Lady Parts and the Pope and no one cared: People believed he was on their side—the rest of his act was on his side—so you let that go. Six weeks later, there’s still nothing to grasp onto with Noah, and every day that’s another extended goodbye to Stewart is another step farther for Noah to travel. Over on CBS, David Letterman is doing some of the best shows of his career every single night—less than a month to go!—but the feeling is one of celebration rather than despair: After all, we know the guy who is taking over, and we trust him. (And Letterman trusts him too.)

Stewart’s last few months, the way it’s looking right now, will be tinged with more sadness than that. Because The Daily Show fans don’t care if Trevor Noah is funny or not, not really. That’s not what The Daily Show is anymore. It needs to be socially conscious and Important and have The Right Take. Is Trevor Noah going to be able to be all that the way Stewart was? Could anyone? Trevor Noah could end up being the perfect host for a new, different Daily Show. But the way the first six weeks since his announcement have gone, you have to wonder whether he’ll ever even be given the chance.