When my boyfriend and I first started watching Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy in late 2014, it was like discovering a hidden gem. Our inside jokes would center around something silly from his routines like saying “Good luck, dolphin!” in Japanese or admiring his talent for imitating South African accents such as the ones of the Zulus, Xhosas, or Afrikaans. Though he’s enjoyed sold-out shows in places like Australia and the UK, he doesn’t have quite the same name-brand recognition in the US.
When he became a contributor to The Daily Show in December, his segments, such as “Chess News Roundup,” were on-point, clever, and capable of humorizing race issues in America in a culturally relevant and delicate way, especially having been a child of interracial marriage of a Swiss and a Xhosa during apartheid, when such marriages were illegal.
So imagine our mutual excitement at hearing he was offered The Daily Show as Jon Stewart’s replacement. I was ecstatic. The media was initially just as ecstatic. Trevor Noah was branded as someone capable of bringing a much-needed global perspective to a very popular US show on politics that speaks the language of many young people and progressives.
But it only made our disappointment all the greater when we saw his tweets demonstrating intolerance and prejudgment of atheists:
I was initially heartbroken after raving about him to friends and publicly supporting him as a fan on social media. And yes, there are many substantially more pressing issues in the world, so perhaps I was overreacting—some people aren’t adept at communication in 140 characters (don’t use Twitter if you can’t handle it—careers have been and will continue to be destroyed by “inconsequential” tweets!). Perhaps Trevor just needed the practice and has refined his repertoire over time.
I also realize that the climate of comedy and spectrum of what is acceptable to laugh at is different in different parts of the world. He may simply be inexperienced with a North American audience, as suggested in The Globe and Mail’s analysis: “For better or worse, he’s commented on literally everything that’s transpired in the local maelstrom, which makes him not postnational, but uber-South African. Without context, without South Africa, Noah quickly loses meaning. His home country’s national obsession is, after all and unsurprisingly, race.”
In fact, if I had seen the tweets demonstrating insensitivity towards women and Jews first, it would certainly shed light on his character and change my perception of him, but I might even have shrugged it off as stupid attempts at humor that didn’t pan out, which is what he himself tweeted after the controversy: “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”
If Noah intended to be humorous, I, and other atheists, can take a joke. But his tweets on atheism, which appear to be in all seriousness, demonstrates lack of understanding of a group of people who are marginalized and often misrepresented on many news programs, people who turn to The Daily Show for a daily dose of wisdom and safe harbor from intolerance towards nonbelievers.
I was not the only one disappointed—a Facebook posting from the Global Secular Humanist Movement stated: “The next Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is in a bit of trouble for his tweets. Well, the guy is a comedian and contrarian, and I wish him luck, but it looks like his tweets that bash atheists weren’t intended to be funny. What’s in store for us heathens?” It elicited a range of responses from some shrugging it off to others who plan to stop watching The Daily Show altogether:
A search for the hashtag #WeAllNeedaGod on Twitter displayed similar responses:
Regardless, Comedy Central has come out publicly supporting their decision: “Like many comedians, 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.”
I do plan to watch the first couple of episodes of the new Daily Show in the hopes that Noah’s performance will continue to live up to the quality during Jon Stewart’s tenure. But I hope he has a genuine change of mind regarding his position on atheism so that The Daily Show can continue to be an enlightening domain of ideas.