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The Trevor Noah Situation, as we should probably be calling this little phase of his barely started career as the newly announced host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, has moved from Twitter-centric crossfire, to overreaction, to calm-seeking and, lastly, to a message of support from the channel that was calculated to be brief and straightforward so that it wouldn’t feed the news cycle — and so this whole thing would blow over in the resulting quiet period, during which people would be off writing their Big Picture sentiments.
That will probably work. I doubt this will drag on much longer. But in no way does that imply people are going to forget. Or that there isn’t a lot of weirdness and still unknown fallout to come.
It’s an interesting situation that goes way beyond what anyone thought of his tweets. Were they anti-Semitic? Some in the Jewish community thought yes; others, no. Were they sexist? Yes, fat jokes about women risk being labeled as such. Were they funny? Well, comedy is subjective, so answers will vary, but I certainly thought they were lame, easy and half-baked. Still, you can find these kinds of jokes on pretty much every comic’s Twitter feed.
What stood out as interesting to me were the following issues:
· Did Jon Stewart and Viacom’s Doug Herzog, who were instrumental in hiring Noah, really vet him? And that means all of his past material, not just what’s on Twitter?
· If they did see his Twitter timeline were they, as Jews, offended?
· Was Stewart, as a comedian, offended by how unfunny the tweets were?
· Do jokes that fall flat from years ago suggest that today’s and tomorrow’s jokes aren’t going to be very funny, either?
· Are fans who are worried about the sanctity of The Daily Show aware that almost everyone involved, from Stewart, to the correspondents, has uttered an unfunny joke or four on air during the run?
· Are people who are trying to figure out if Noah’s low-brow humor from the past will fit with the sophisticated intelligence of The Daily Show aware that the show has a writing staff?
· Did Comedy Central try Noah out in the anchor chair to see if he could actually do it?
· Are fans who said they will boycott really going to remain worked up for however long it is until Noah actually takes over?
The list could go on. But, the truth is, what struck me as the most interesting element to this whole controversy was not Noah, whom I have no opinion on yet, nor his tweets, which were banal more than anything else. No, I went on a rant of sorts Monday night on Twitter because, as someone who used to cover comedy and comedians in San Francisco, I found it so patently clear that most people (including those on Twitter) don’t see live comedy in a club. That is where the art form lives and breathes and survives. And it’s an entirely different world in there. Comedy on Twitter is a much different animal, partly because reading jokes is an experience very removed from hearing them (and being able to pick up on where the points of emphasis are, the pauses, the timing, etc.) and seeing a comic’s face while he or she is verbalizing the joke (facial expressions can be integral, as can the lack of said expressions).
But above all, jokes on Twitter are different because the Twitter crowd is an entirely different animal from a comedy club crowd — more prone to offense and outrage. People who see live comedy often get pushed way out of their comfort zones; it’s not a place where being safe is encouraged, nor is it meant to be an arena where your ideas on race, sexuality, gender, politics and the like are politely repeated back to you for affirmation.
If you don’t like certain lines being crossed, or if you’re easily offended or even pretty tolerant up to a point, every foray into a comedy club brings with it the chance that you will bear witness to people who are trying to mock your convictions, skewer your morals and stem-wind you up until you laugh at the darker side of yourself or walk out of the room in disgust.
Live comedy in a club, especially with comics you might not be familiar with, is the polar opposite of the preach-to-the-choir, choose-whom-you-follow nature of Twitter. Once comedians bring their club work to the more easily affronted world of Twitter, the backlash can be savage. It’s why I don’t think Twitter is an ideal forum at all for comics, even though almost all of them use it and can’t resist the allure of building up their fan base and trying material on the service.
However, as Noah found out — and others will, no doubt — it’s a hell of a lot more public than a comedy club, with the aforementioned different set of rules very much in play.
And as I mentioned in Monday night’s run of tweets, television doesn’t really want any part of a comic’s most blistering material. Unless you’re doing a stand-up special on HBO or Showtime or wherever, television in the form of hosting gigs or late-show appearances wants your safe humor, not your fearless humor. It wants your smile and wit — your packaging — along with your good bits that don’t offend. Stand-up comics have known about this divide forever and they alter their material, reshaping what passes as an honest art form in the clubs into something that will get them a very nice paycheck on television.
Twitter, unfortunately, is an imperfect bridge between these worlds. Ply your work there at your own peril. Because the nature of the user experience goes beyond people merely unfollowing you. It allows for them to call you out and highlight jokes as emblematic of your beliefs and as indications of your personality in a way that no one in a comedy club could. For comedians on Twitter, the opportunity to have your jokes “land wrong” is ever present. And the viral nature of the social media platform can distort things very quickly.
Clearly Noah believes that’s what happened to him. His response on Twitter was this: “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.”
Comedy Central said in its statement defending Noah: “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, including himself. 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.”
And that might do it for now. Or not. Perhaps Stewart will address the situation on The Daily Show; a word from the king always goes far. Noah’s first impression for many people wasn’t a good one. Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a column for Time that called Noah’s jokes stereotypical and inexcusable but opted against condemnation. “Let’s not prejudge him based on a few, random, isolated tweets in the past. Let’s judge him based on his performance going forward into the future,” Foxman wrote.
Sound advice. And here’s some more: If you’re going to get a job in television, like Noah, then your bosses better know about and approve of your Twitter feed, or you need to prune it judiciously before the big hire. But the truth is that most comedians are not meant to be middle-of-the-road pacifiers (something most hosts must become). They get into their line of work to be funny. And to be truly original in your humor, you must be fearless. And to be fearless, you can’t be safe.
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