Why Comedy Central is sticking by Trevor Noah

Comedy Central's decision makes sense. It actually makes cents, too.

Trevor Noah
(Image credit: (Facebook.com/The Daily Show))

Trevor Noah, the South African comic who was tapped to succeed Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, has gone from "progressive icon" to MSNBC's villian of the hour in less than a sidereal day.

As Twitter storms go, this is hardly a Category 5. But as David Weigel notes, Noah will become the flag-bearer of an important part of the American liberal brain trust. That means that, when Daily Show "takedowns" of conservative malarkey go viral, the virus-carriers must believe that the host of the show fundamentally shares their sensibility.

Comedy Central is sticking by Noah. Noah is sticking by himself, asking everyone not to judge him on the basis of some jokes that didn't go over well in the past. But the media, in giving voice to the complaints (which are coming from a tiny number of progressives), has ensured that Noah will not be easily forgiven for his bad jokes.

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Comedy Central's decision makes sense. It actually makes cents, too. The Daily Show's revenues aren't known, but if you believe the reports that Jon Stewart earns about $30 million a year, one must assume that Comedy Central earns a lot more off the show and its luster than that. The show carries the network. The Daily Show's no-BS brand is important; caving in to pressure would tarnish the crown jewel. Further, Noah needs to hit the ground running. He needs to be strong when he debuts, with the network solidly behind him, or else the show will flounder. Since they've made their bet on him, they've got to back him up. Sunk costs perhaps.

Noah, incidentally, is now known to everyone. So his presence is larger. There will be more anticipation about his show. Controversy is good for ratings. Always.

But backing Noah is also a defense of comedy.

What is comedy? Turn on your TV and listen to a pundit describe it for you. Or, just laugh when you hear a joke. We know it when we experience it, really. Comedians from Jim Norton to Joan Rivers to Bill Maher to Nick DePaulo have come under attack for humor that, just a decade ago, wouldn't have garnered much attention. Racial, ethnic, and religious humor, especially when it comes from white people, now requires what the Supreme Court might call strict scrutiny from progressives before it can pass muster.

This is a bad consequence from a good social development; society's voiceless and marginalized can now express themselves much more easily. Where 10 years ago the most they could do if they found something offensive was to submit a comment to a website nobody read, today they can write something catchy and watch it go viral. Micromedia communities can quickly turn something that offends a few people into something that offends a lot of people. The diversity of critics helps us understand how words can wound, how assumptions that privileged comedians made about their audiences might not be true, and it can provide the fuel for activism. We should welcome the inclusion of new voices.

The downside, though, is that the old sensitivities (jokes about, say, Christianity or the military) have been replaced by new ones (ethnicity, race, gender). And it seems that the onus is on comedians to prove that their humor is intended to comment on the subject in question, rather than make a cheap laugh off of it. Sarah Silverman tells the story often of a man who came up to her at the end of a show and congratulated her for making black jokes. She intended to make jokes about black jokes. But the audience decides what it wants to hear.

And that's why comedy is so hard to define. When we laugh at something offensive, we're laughing for the wrong reason and the right reason at the same time. A joke about Jews driving German cars plays on stereotypes and history and the Holocaust. It works because it works together. (Note: I'm Jewish, and I've used the line before.)

So good for Comedy Central for defending comedy.

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