from Africa in Transition

South African Comedian in the United States

April 9, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

On March 30, Comedy Central’s the Daily Show announced that 31-year old Trevor Noah will replace John Stewart as the host. As the Daily Show’s twitter handle put it: Noah is just “another guy in late night from Soweto.” The announcement of his new position has drawn a great deal of attention, both positive and negative.

The intial response was overwhelmingly positive in South Africa and the United States. To an American audience it was refreshing to see an international voice on a news platform, not to mention the first mixed-race host of a major late night show. To South Africans, his success in the United States has been inspirational, a fellow South African comedian, Marc Lottering, has said: “This is not only fantastic for Trevor, but also for young Africans who have big dreams.”

However, this initial wave of excitement subsided as some of Noah’s older Twitter posts generated a negative backlash. The comments, which made fun of many different groups, were quickly picked up by the media and led to a flurry of commentary calling him offensive, misogynistic, homophobic, and racist. In particular, he has been categorized as anti-Semitic due to tweets such as: “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” and “South Africans know how to recycle like Israelis know how to be peaceful.”

The anti-Semitic allegations have been overwhelmingly American. Some have said that they will no longer watch the show due to his comments, and called for his removal. The American Jewish Congress, an association of Jewish Americans organized to support Jewish interests, petitioned its supporters to call on the Daily Show to rescind Noah’s contract. Meanwhile, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) released a statement supporting Noah: “Negative stereotypes of all people are potentially offensive. However, the SAJBD believes that tweets made by Noah do not constitute anti-Jewish prejudice on his part. Trevor Noah’s style of humor is playful, and is intended to provoke a response. The SAJBD wishes him all the success and wisdom that he will require in his new position, and is confident that he will do our country proud.”

So, why does an American audience find it so offensive that Noah makes misogynistic, homophobic, and racist jokes when American comedians make similar jokes? Typically, it seems that comedians in the U.S. focus seemingly offensive jokes towards audiences they identify with, such as Chris Rock commenting on African Americans and Sarah Silverman making Jewish jokes. Noah, growing up in a mixed race family (his father is Swiss-German and his mother is of Xhosa and Jewish heritage) in Apartheid South Africa and maturing in the ‘rainbow nation,’ may not culturally identify in the same way that Americans and American comedians do. In today’s increasingly international media, this may be something to get used to for an American audience.

For their part, Comedy Central and John Stewart defend their choice of Noah.

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