Opinion: First Week In Stewart’s Seat, Or Yes Or Noah?

October 8, 2015



Over the course of my ten years in the US, I’ve met numerous families who have adopted kids from overseas. While any adoption is ostensibly noble, I’ve always been somewhat troubled by the fact that there are so many children in the US waiting to be adopted. Without getting too much in to this, I’ve always wondered if there is a certain cultural advantage to foreign adoption. In other words, do the kids from overseas (for whatever reasons) simply have less baggage than their homegrown counterparts? Are they more “exotic”? Does it seem more “heroic”? Is there an idea somehow, that one is starting with a blank slate?

Many things have been said about Trevor Noah’s appointment to John Stewart’s hot seat on the Daily Show. He’s a very funny, very clever man, with a compelling backstory. But are their some deeper “adoption politics” at play? Is there something about Noah that makes him more palatable to an American audience than, say, a homegrown black comic?

The Daily Show was previously hosted by John Stewart, who took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999. That was three presidents and four elections ago. As Noah confidently quipped on his first night, “Stewart was more than a late-night host. He was … in many ways our political dad. … And now it feels like the family has a new stepdad and he’s black, which is not ideal.”

As a person of mixed racial heritage, Noah is essentially considered a black person by his American audience. This authorises.  It authorises him to make these sorts of jokes and it authorises his mostly white audience to laugh at them. Light racial humor has become more prominent in American comedy over the last decade, whether its black people making jokes about black people (like Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr.) or white people making jokes about white people’s ignorance of black people (like Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper.)  My point: many black comedians could have spun Noah’s “black stepdad/not ideal” line; the same cannot be said for some of the other jokes he made. That is the key to understanding the mix of mystique and curiosity Noah engenders for his adoptive audience.

A lot has been written about Noah bringing a “global perceptive” to the Daily Show. He does this for sure, but by being African he also authorises his audience to laugh along with him. Last week Noah mostly played it safe, but there was some chafing darkness in there too, be it asides to Idi Amin torturing people or congressmen having AIDS. Can American comics go there? Noah can, and in the process he has opened America up to a terra incognita of Afro-gags.

But there’s more to Noah than the fact he’s African. He’s also foreign, and this foreignness translates into a measure of forgivability. Take, for example, his jab about crack cocaine taking down Whitney Houston. Stewart wouldn’t and couldn’t have made that joke. I’m not sure Jamie Foxx would have either. It showed that Noah is blissfully ignorant of the many pressure points that exist along America’s cultural spine. (Long story…) But his foreignness allows him a measure of slack that not all comics are afforded. (This is why he was able to ride the storm over former tweets that joked about hitting Jewish pedestrians in his German car and being courted by “fat chicks” on the weekend.)

Noah’s forgivability and freshness are heightened by the fact that his comedy is always served with a side of big grin, rather than wry smile.  America owes John Stewart a huge debt for his services to political awareness, but over the last few years he had become curmudgeonly. Noah, 20 years younger, represents a millennial tonic for Stewart’s laconic disillusionment.  This was brought into focus during Noah’s one and only “deer in the headlights” moment on Thursday night.

Earlier that day there had been a mass shooting in Oregon. John Stewart eventually became a master of addressing these moments on the show with sincerity and conviction before segueing back into comedy. Noah didn’t really know what to do.

“And, you know, normally in one of these situations, I’d just speak from the heart. But honestly this is not a normal situation for me…And I guess I can do what I do best, and that’s try and make people laugh. Let’s do our show.”

It was polite, honest and brutally matter-of-fact—the sort of nonplussed reaction to mass shootings that I’ve seen in a lot of non-Americans who live stateside. It’s not so much a reptilian apathy as it is a cold logical acceptance: you have lots of guns in this country, you let people carry them pretty freely, you have mental health issues like every other society and you don’t do enough to address them. Mass shootings are one of the ways these things all interact. Personally, I’m always saddened but never surprised by news of a mass shooting in America, and I’m skeptical of the mass grief that ensues but never percolates into action. Stewart increasingly dealt with these events bitterly. Noah did what most Americans pretend not do after a mass shooting. Acknowledge, shrug and move on.  What followed was his finest comedy moment to date.

Donald Trump: America’s first African President

Noah’s take-down of Donald Trump was sublime. It was in many ways a classic Daily Show piece — find some old archival footage and contrast it with the present day in order to make a foolish politico look foolisher.  Nevertheless the segment was something only Noah could see, develop and execute. Trump, a wildly divisive billionaire who has managed to take the Republican Party hostage, leaves people speechless with his ability to say utterly ridiculous and frightening things. It’s hard for comics to make fun of him in ways that aren’t obvious. Noah found a way.

The result was a viral sensation, which matters because late night comedy is changing. The whole cable channel concept of having a funny/angry man talk at the audience for 30 minutes is over. Instead, each late night show has become a variety cabaret mixing host slots, interviews, comedy and music. A loyal fan base remains important, but the focus is now on turning that variety into nuggets that can be shared through social media. There is no ratings war – it’s now a “liking” war as the late night landscape melts into one long variety show that’s played out in chunks on Facebook the following day. This is where Noah will excel – for every forgivable thud, they’ll be an edible Trump – consumed and shared on countless pages and feeds.

Noah will continue to evolve as a comedian. He’ll get feistier when it comes to interviewing politicians. He’ll continue to innovate. And he’ll work out how to utilise his personal story for more than outdoor toilet jokes. He has a real chance to challenge America’s lazy, bad-tempered anti-immigrant kick through his very existence.  And more than anything else, he’ll continue John Stewart’s “War on Bulls&*t.”

That phrase got lost a little in the American reaction to Noah’s first week. But more than anything, it shows that he gets it. John Stewart got it.  It’s the calling of every prophet and preacher. (Remember that dude who told a bunch of hypocrites to take the plank out of their own eye before dealing with the speck in their neighbors? He was using comedy to call people on their bulls^%t. And he offended his audience enough that they abruptly cut his show.) By opening up a new continent for comedic exploration and promising to find new lenses through which to laugh at America’s disturbing political culture, Noah finds himself uniquely situated to continue Stuart’s war. My money’s on the adoption going through.