In a culture where we whip ourselves into instant media frenzies and then move on forgetting only days later what it was that so upset us, maybe Trevor Noah’s tweets won’t be such a big deal by the weekend.
But the offensive tweets that surfaced within a day of the 31-year-old South African comedian being named Monday as Jon Stewart’s replacement on "The Daily Show" make me think Comedy Central might have made a very bad choice in filling one of the most important chairs in popular culture.
And if that turns out to be true, the channel’s earnings are going to plummet. Before Stewart and the recently departed Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central felt like a tin-can cable channel to me. Those two are the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig who built that franchise into a TV powerhouse, and to replace one of them with a guy who makes these kind of jokes could be deadly.
I love stand-up comedy. I love the fearlessness of comedians like Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor and, yes, let me put Amy Schumer on that list. I was too young to write about Sahl, but I defended Pryor when he went to war with NBC in his attempt to talk about an American social reality on network TV that advertisers didn’t want discussed. The silencing of Pryor was one of the greatest of the many great sins of American TV.
But Noah’s controversial tweets have nothing to do with fearlessness, daring social commentary or pushing the boundaries of language and political expression. They are the jokes of a rude and stereotyping bully, particularly when he uses them to denigrate women, Jews and large-size persons.
If you haven’t already seen them in a million other places online in the last few hours, here are a few:
“South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.”
"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!"
“Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel”
"'Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!' — fat chicks everywhere."
"A hot white woman with (a rear end) is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you'll probably never get to ride it."
“I'm watching Olympic women's hockey. It's like lesbian porn. Without the porn. #InLove”
And writing about soccer star Lionel Messi, he tweeted, “Messi gets the ball and the real players try foul him, but Messi doesn't go down easy, just like jewish chicks. #ElClasico."
I am no expert on American comedy, but I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation and a book of the depiction of Jewish identity on television from 1949 to 1999, and I can tell you jokes like the last one about “jewish chicks” is rooted in a deep and disturbing history of misogyny and anti-Semitism.
That doesn’t mean Noah is necessarily both of those things, but he’s trafficking in a history of hateful depictions of a whole group of woman by others who are – people who seek to demean the object of their ridicule based on gender and ethnicity.
Comedy Central offered this defense of Noah Tuesday: "Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central."
The channel is going to have to deal more honestly with these tweets than that if Noah's going to have that future.
This isn’t a matter of few poorly chosen words. This is a disturbing peek into a mindset.
And no thanks, Comedy Central. Unless there is a very good explanation, I’ll look for my political commentary and social satire elsewhere – from a mind that doesn’t think such ugliness is funny.
As for millennials, if they are stupid enough to let the man who wrote these tweets shape their political opinions, good luck.