You have to give the internet's outrage cycle credit in one respect: it's remarkably efficient. Just a day after 31-year-old South African comedian Trevor Noah was named the new host of The Daily Show, internet sleuths — also known as "people who have time to comb through nearly 9,000 tweets made over the past six years" — uncovered a half-dozen tweets that have been labeled "controversial" or "offensive" by a wide variety of websites. For the record:
These are bad jokes. They're not merely offensive; they're also unfunny, falling back on dumb, sneering stereotypes and lame gags. I don't dispute the premise on which this snowballing controversy is built — but I do roll my eyes at the extremity of the reaction. Calling for Noah's head on the basis of a half-dozen context-free tweets — many of which were originally posted in 2012 — relies on a misunderstanding of Twitter, of comedy, and of our ability to learn and evolve.
Many of these tweets were originally surfaced by BuzzFeed's Tom Gara. As they started to spread, other outlets piled on, resulting in a near-identical string of articles collecting the "controversial tweets" without acknowledging that the "controversy" was being created by those same articles in real time. Salon, setting new records for journalistic whiplash, preemptively predicted a racist backlash to Noah on Monday, before taking the actual anti-Noah backlash to its ludicrous, hyperbolic brink on Tuesday, with an article asking if his tweets had "[killed] The Daily Show."
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When the cultural conversation reaches a boil like this, it's hard to cool it down again. But the rush to condemn is overshadowing what's clearly the right answer in this case. Can't we just accept these cherry-picked tweets as thoughtless and unfunny and even offensive, and forgive Noah for making them, and give him a chance to prove he's better than that as, you know, the host of The Daily Show?
If this story sounds familiar, it's because we've been through it with other comedians before — including Stephen Colbert — and will undoubtedly go through it again. On one level, Twitter is an ideal medium for comedians. The brevity of a tweet requires precision, forcing comedians to hone their jokes to their sharpest and tightest forms before sending them out. And Twitter's openness and accessibility enables talented but relatively obscure people to attract a mass audience by their sheer ability to be funny.
But on another level, Twitter is a terrible medium for comedians. The brevity of a tweet eliminates any opportunity for nuance or subtlety. With a feed that's constantly churning, the relatively ephemeral nature of a single tweet can lead to thoughtlessness and carelessness — a half-formed joke fired off before it's fully developed. Divorced from chronological context, a tweet can be confusing or misleading or offensive. And the nature of a Twitter feed — which users tend to fill with like-minded people — can lead to a kind of bubble, in which a public medium starts to feel like a private club for you and your buddies.
Take a tweet like this one:
A generous interpretation would suggest Noah is trying on a douchey frat-guy persona, the kind successfully pioneered by Dane Cook and continued today by comedians like Daniel Tosh. It's a poor effort, but it's also the sign of a comedian trying (and failing) to flex a different kind of muscle, which is the only way you ever get any better at comedy — a form of entertainment that, it should be noted, relishes in giving offense.
Is it so hard to understand that a person might affect a voice that is not his own for the sake of a gag? Or that someone can make the occasional bad joke while remaining sharp and incisive on everything from politics to race to soccer, as The Daily Show requires?
Of course, "host of The Daily Show" is another comic persona that will require some honing, and Noah is still adapting to his new, infinitely more public role in real time. Today, he briefly tweeted a jokey response to the criticism, then deleted it. (Comedy Central has yet to issue a statement.)
It's easy to rush to judgment, but we can all stand to be a little more generous about Noah's intentions. If you're going to zero in on one of Noah's tweets, why not go with his hand-selected "pinned tweet" — which sits at the top of his Twitter feed, above any other tweet he makes? It's a plea for understanding as he takes risks with his art:
It's a fair request from anyone embarking on a new stage of their career. Trevor Noah is the new host of The Daily Show — a high-profile, high-stakes position in which he'll need to prove himself every single night. Let's give him the chance to do it before we get the pitchforks out.
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