Once, I found that it was possible to look at the cultural preoccupations of the west, say “the world has gone mad!” and have a number of people concur. This was a great comfort that kept me out of care but now, it has dwindled to a point where those of us who think the world is mad must allow that it us now in need of urgent restraint. Section us immediately to the ward where they hold diagnosed opponents of bowdlerisation so we can throw our own shit at the wall while screaming “BUT TREVOR NOAH IS QUITE FUNNY, NURSE”.
Nurse, Trevor Noah really is quite funny. Two years ago at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival at a gig chiefly attended by non-honkies, I saw the kind of performer a reviewer longs to: new, a little underdone but so monumentally charming, you just know that a year or two down the track they’ll score a big gig and you get to boast “Yeah. I saw him when he was starting out”.
Things didn’t turn out quite as Trevor and I had hoped and on the recent occasion of his elevation as host of The Daily Show, I couldn’t brag and Trevor couldn’t celebrate. Within internet minutes of the announcement that Jon Stewart had chosen his successor, the young, brown and African comedian was informally vetted.
With a little help from their enemies at Fox News, the radically tolerant combed Noah’s Twitter timeline for offence and found it. Among some 8000 dispatches, the guy had screwed up a handful of times. As my application to be International Arbiter of Unacceptable Speech was rejected, I am unable to credibly assess which of Noah’s bad jokes are grounds for Tolerance Hospitalisation. But here, in any case, is what I deem from my padded cell to be the very worst of them:
“Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!” – fat chicks everywhere.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) October 14, 2011
To be clear. This is not, even by a generous assessment, funny nor could it be redeemed as a potential attempt to satirise sexism. It is absolutely true that the next host of The Daily Show once built a poor joke on a shaky foundation and sought to compound the unpleasant ideas that (a) sexually confident women are ridiculous and (b) the register of a woman’s merit inheres chiefly in her physical adherence to a limited aesthetic ideal. It’s pants. This joke is pure pants. Not only does it depend on a sexist premise, it’s just not fucking funny. (I would like to say that jokes about drunk women deluded about their charm are ipso facto unfunny, but, unfortunately, comedian Iliza Shlesinger offers us contrary proof. )
The remaining tweets, which have now been reported worldwide, are, in my unsound view, not that bad and one of those that caused the most offence is one I find comically acceptable.
South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) June 2, 2010
This is not, as has been claimed, a joke founded in anti-Semitism. To chide Israel, a nation whose foreign policy has been critiqued in recent years even by conservative scholars, is not to chide Jews. And nor is this joke about German cars and Jewish boys, in my view, anti-Semitic.
Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) September 18, 2009
The target of this joke, just as the target of Sarah Silverman’s Jewish People Driving German Cars, is Nazism, a subject universally agreed as (over)ripe for parody. He was making fun of Nazis. Nazis. The most unanimously and legitimately loathed institution in history. How can that be a problem? For anyone, other than Nazis or exacting comedy critics who think that the whole Nazi thing has been “done”? As Silverman—a performer who, in my view, has herself begun to rely a little too lazily and frequently on mention of racial difference to retain her crown as comedy’s rebel queen—might ask, “What the cock is that shit?”
That shit is, in part, the ancient tendency of cocks to personify the chaos of evil and burn it. Magical thinking isn’t new and people have long made sacrifice because, say, their crops failed. What is a bit newer, though, is the technological means idiots now have available to them to express their faith that unrelated things have a causal connection. The idea that you’re Fighting Sexism by giving shit to a guy who wrote a mean thing on the internet when he was 27 is barely more advanced than that which holds that The Vengeful Lord of Corn can only be appeased by the death of a baby goat.
As we have established from the outset, I am a lunatic and therefore, in the strict terms of an ideological tolerance that will only allow comic mention of a minority by a member of that minority, I am going to say that many of the people who “called out” Trevor Noah are also lunatics.
This is not to say I disagree that some of the Noah jokes were premised on horrid ideas. But I do believe this week long exercise of vetting—and one wonders if Jon Stewart who once shared a room with disgraced dick-pic Congressman Anthony Weiner would stand up to this level of ultra-tolerant scrutiny—is insane.
Many genuinely believe not only that the public apology demanded of Noah, which I respect him for thus far withholding, is a significant form of redemption but that bad jokes on Twitter aren’t just a proof of bad things but are bad things themselves.
To believe that it is cultural artefacts that screw us up and must be stopped and shriven is to believe a Corn God fiction. What screws us up royally are institutional things like, say the Apartheid system that Noah was born into or the one that the state of Israel —I’m sorry, the peaceful state of Israel—maintains. The thinking that overlooks those institutions that create harm and chooses to focus much of its time on the misguided views of individuals is magical. And the meaning of Trevor Noah’s tweets have been much, much more broadly explored this week than any number of atrocities. And, yes, I’m doing it too and I have delivered analyses of hastily written, only moderately funny internet burps over several hundred words. But (a) this is an arts publication (b) I am a lunatic and (c) someone needs to tell you other lunatics that the longing for the appearance of tolerance is an ideological virus just as infectious and as incurable as sexism.
But, people love their Corn Gods, don’t they. The explanation “Trevor Noah’s hurtful tweets form part of the same continuum that oppresses women etc” is no adequate way to explain the relationship of powerful and oppressive institutions to the lesser jokes of barely known comedians. And it makes no allowance for the fact that the guy was having an idiot day. One sandwiched, by the way, by many sterling days which he has used to pillory the power of America. America. Personally, I’m prepared to give a guy who can compellingly compare Apartheid era South Africa to Ferguson a free pass. This is because he is a funny wiseacre and because I am very glad that Jon Stewart has elected not to replicate his unipolar liberalism and give us instead a brown man who is prepared to say “I don’t like America”.
But, even if Noah wasn’t so refreshingly at ease to crap on the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, I would still be throwing my own waste at a padded wall in frustration at the freedom others feel to confuse apparently “intolerant” speech for the real. To live in this hall of mirrors where “media” are seen as powerful as the real and a guy hosting a fake news show is vetted like a politician and an off-colour tweet is seen as no less than an act of oppression is to read The Matrix as a self-help manual.
I hope when the technological singularity comes, you all take the wrong coloured pill and end up in an eternity of Kevin “Bloody” Wilson routines. Let the funny brown African guy who hates America do the funny show without demanding his abasement. And if he is not funny, by all means, you may then report him to your Corn God.