Last week, South African comedian Trevor Noah was named the heir to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Instantly people began googling the name trying to find out who he was and if he was funny. Jury’s still out on the second question, but as to the first; we all know who he is now. A comedian.
Of course that does mean that his twitter account had some off the cuff jokes he tried out, and when the Offensive Outrage Police Service (OOPS), as I call them, scoured his account, they found some things to be, to use one of their favored phrases, “problematic.”
You see, Noah had in the past made jokes based off stereotypes about different groups (can you believe it? A comedian using stereotypes? I know, I was blown away…), including Jews, women and the obese. The OOPS troops mobilized on social media for an old fashioned career burning. Vox, the self appointed arbiters of morally correct liberalism on the internet, deployed a helpful “explainer” (that’s what they specialize in, “explanatory journalism,” which roughly translates to “news for dummies”) on why some offensive comedy is okay, but not this kind, and how everybody wants to have a sense of humor, but we all have to know when that’s not okay. It even included this unintentionally hilarious subhead: “A Daily Show host should be held to a higher standard than other comedians.” Oh brother. Jon Stewart’s reign as flawlessly inoffensive liberal trend setter has now elevated the position to that of basic cable’s Pope.
Twitterers lined up dutifully with their pitchforks and torches, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the bonfire: other comedians started popping up voicing support for their beleaguered colleague. Jim Norton penned a thoughtful and thought provoking piece for Time which posited that we actually get an endorphin rush from being so gravely offended and that’s why we are in such a hurry to twitter-pillory anyone who dares make us uncomfortable with their humor. Patton Oswalt joined in the growing defense chorus with a 53-tweet barrage satirizing the situation perfectly. Noah did the smart thing and stayed quiet.
Now it looks like the whole “controversy” will blow over and the young comedian will take his seat at the throne when Stewart retires later this year. What did we learn?
For starters is the troubling nature of the groups Noah offended. While his comedy could be seen as anti-Semitic, Jews are not really a sacred cow anymore, particularly when other minorities are the “offending” parties, as in Noah’s case. And I think we all know too well that the obese are only a protected species in very specific scenarios, like high school prom or co-ed dorm horror stories. Women are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in the level of their protection by the soldiers of OOPS, but Noah’s comments were not quite grotesque enough in their phrasing to warrant a full measure response. So his subsequent survival of the scandal is not in itself a miracle.
The real test of this hopefully newfound thick skin would be if another comedian, perhaps a white heterosexual male, would actually offend a protected group. Will other comedians step into the fray and risk their own careers to stand up for him? I’m not holding my breath.
Jim Norton’s article made an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t believe he’s actually correct: it’s not that we get high on being offended, it’s that nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the social media mobs. Which is why I don’t think Noah’s survival is a sign of things to come. We’ve gotten so far ahead of ourselves, we’re reflexively staking claim to offenses-taken, lest some future judge of such things scour our online footprint and find us on the wrong side of some cultural issue. Nobody wants to be left looking for a chair when the music stops.
And while the rescue cavalry of beloved and big name comedians who rode to Noah’s defense was spiriting, it didn’t really portend any change in the waters. Like clockwork, another grave thought crime was committed this past weekend. On his HBO show, Bill Maher made a racially insensitive joke at the expense of newly departed One Direction member, Zayn Malik.
You can already hear the OOPS cadets are sharpening their twitter bayonets, and heads are going to roll.