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The following essay will be discussed in Chicago at an exclusive screening and discussion at the cinema club Filmfront this Thursday, October 27th. For more details and to RSVP, visit the event page

I never considered Trevor Noah until I found myself on the set of The Daily Show last August. My friend entered the ticket lottery, optimistic that before the leaves turned we would be members of his audience. And on August 8th—the day Noah invited John Lewis onto his show—we stood on the sidewalk, bearing the oppressive heat unique to New York City summers, waiting to be ushered into what Tomi Lahren would later call “the lion’s den.”

Noah seemed to glow as he sauntered onto the set and flashed a toothy grin at us. I was immediately taken by his charm. His conversation with John Lewis was solemn and powerful. As Lewis spoke, Noah wore a look that communicated a deep respect for the civil rights leader. There were no jokes here, and no gags. When the interview ended Lewis and Noah shook hands and the crowd erupted into an applause that went on long after the crew members told us to stop. After that night, I began to consider Trevor Noah, not just as a successor to Jon Stewart, but as an individual who would make The Daily Show his own. Who, I thought to myself that evening, was this black man who had decided to tackle the onerous task of talking about race to liberal America in our current political climate?

An answer first materialized when Noah sat down with Tomi Lahren, a former conservative political commentator for TheBlaze. The event attracted significant media attention. Print and online news outlets claimed that Noah had “eviscerated” Lahern, that he “expertly skewered” her. It was a must-watch according to my Twitter timeline, necessary viewing for those fighting the good fight. For most of the interview Noah wants Lahren to answer one question: “What is the right way for a black person to get attention in America?” But Lahren does not answer the question. Instead, on more than one occasion she refers to systemic racism as a perception. “Why would you take out your perceived oppression of black people on our national anthem and our flag?” she asks in response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. “I’m not sure what oppression he is discussing.”

As though this were a polite conversation with a misunderstood but well-intentioned guest, Noah poses a series of rhetorical questions before asking Lahren what she wishes people could know about her. The question gestures toward a liberal politics of understanding, the claim of an empathy gap that can bridge ideological and racial divides. Lahren pounces on the opportunity:

I wish we could disagree with each other without thinking we are bad people or ill-intentioned folks so because I criticize a black person or I criticize the Black Lives Matter movement, that does not mean I am anti-black, it does not mean I don’t like other black people or that I am racist, it means I am criticizing a movement.

Her answer frames the issue around her own unimpeachable good intentions and personal innocence. In the final moments of the interview, Noah breaks in to interrupt Lahren’s rehearsal of a crude joke about Hillary Clinton’s sex life. “I appreciate you being on the show,” he says. “Thank you so much for being here. It is a conversation we should continue having.”

Noah is South African, and he has argued that his experience and upbringing outside the United States can usefully inform a politics of the middle ground, committed to “racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.” But this interview between Lahren and Noah suggested that Noah’s prismatic identity, seemingly offering something for everyone in the American audience he must strive to capture for the sake of his ratings, loses something in the cross-cultural translation.

Whether he likes it or not, by stepping into the primetime limelight Trevor Noah has assumed the often-unrewarding responsibilities held by black comedians past and present: from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. It’s a position that has been evolving with American popular culture since the days of slavery and Reconstruction.

Actor comedians like Bert Williams and Lincoln Perry (better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit) built their careers off of exploiting but also subverting the stereotypes attributed to black Americans. Williams, who in 1918 was called “one of the greatest comedians of the world,” used black face to provoke a troubling and often inscrutable, melancholic ambiguity. Perry was billed as the “Laziest Man in the World” and spoke in a slow, long drawl that was meant to convey his stupidity. Few knew that Perry regularly wrote for the Chicago Defender and had two phones in his home, one for the studios for whom he would put on his character and the other for everyone else.

Later figures like Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor shed the confines of stereotype while continuing to redefine what one could do in comedy and how it might be used to encourage audiences to think about race in America. As one of the most successful black comedians of her time, Mabley adopted a persona—that of a grandma figure with a lust for younger men—that cleverly sustained her wry and poignant commentary on the treatment of black men and women. Pryor arguably reinvented, and for many marked the beginning of, modern comedy.

What connects these two to each other (as well as to Noah) are their respective attempts to negotiate, in front of white audiences, their complex relationship to blackness. In a 1999 New Yorker profile, Hilton Als wrote of Pryor, “Given how much he did to make black pride part of American popular culture, it is arresting to see how at times his blackness seemed to feel like an ill-fitting suit.” Mabley’s negotiation came in the form of a split identity: to be billed the “Funniest Woman in the World,” she, as Perry did before her, tempered her intelligence and became a palatable stereotype.

Trevor Noah chose to be black. Or, this is at least what he tells us in his memoir Born a Crime. He grew up in apartheid South Africa and was born to a black South African mother and a white Swiss German father. The story of his birth—which he frequently labels a “crime” because of South Africa’s apartheid laws—is referenced in many of his skits and hilariously chronicled in his memoir. Noah’s pre- and post-apartheid South African childhood is undergirded by two distinct figures: his mother and his race. His relationships to both serve as prescient symbols for his future as a cross-cultural comedian.

In Born a Crime, Noah continuously points out the absurdities of apartheid. When trying to explain why Chinese South Africans are considered black and Japanese white, he uses a funny example of a cop approaching a man sitting on a bench. He writes:

I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job is to make sure that people of the wrong color aren’t doing the wrong thing. He sees an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench:
“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”
“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist, have a lovely afternoon.”

This could easily be a skit in Noah’s repertoire, and it gives a sense of his comedic method. Noah likes to use an unconsidered complication to expose the fragile foundations of oppressive systems. But the tone of such jokes is scolding—a bit schoolmasterish. It foregoes harsh or blunt confrontation, in favor of pointing to an abstracted collective stupidity.

It’s a tone not dissimilar to one often used by President Obama when he talks about race. In his essay for the Atlantic “My President was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls a conversation where Obama confesses that he always felt that being black was cool. “[Being black] was not something to run away from but something to embrace. Why that is, I think, is complicated,” he told Coates. In Coates’s view, Obama’s optional embrace of his own blackness spared him certain traumas: “beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building” remained “mostly abstract” for the future President. It also allowed Obama to have a misplaced faith in his own ability to understand white Americans and the advantages conferred by whiteness.

It’s a relative sheltering and cosmopolitan empathy echoed in Noah’s account of his own complicated upbringing. Noah was privileged from being half-white even in his own home, around the people who guided his decision to choose to be black. He often went unpunished by others for his pranks because, as his grandmother told his mother one day, “I don’t know how to hit a white child.” Noah is not blind to this. He confesses in his book that “there were so many perks to being ‘white’ in a black family.”

But Noah’s breeziness on this topic suggests he may not have considered the full scope of that choice. “Being at H. A. Jack,” Noah writes of his childhood schooling, “made me realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself.” He instead looked around to those who were black, and concluded that while he was half white he “didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe.” According to Noah, the black kids accepted him with open arms and with them he just “was.” It’s a beautiful moment, a crucial articulation of pride. But it invites the question: Was it still a choice if the white kids did not accept you anyway?

This uneasy breeziness haunts Noah’s jokes about black Americans. In a particularly cringe-worthy routine on Jay Leno in 2012, Noah tries to handle stereotypes of black Americans while reiterating their worth as humans. “From the time I was a child, I’ve always wanted one thing, and that is, I’ve always wanted to be black,” he says. He talks about an encounter with a white American in South Africa who informs him that over here he will be considered black anyway—an evocation of the one drop rule. But when Noah tries to play on stereotypes of the hotep (that is, Afrocentric) black American, things start to go downhill. He makes a painfully awkward attempt to brand African American vernacular as more efficient and clever via an exploration of the phrase “nah mean.”

He finds it interesting that American blacks are called African American: “It’s funny because they are not African, but we will play along.” This could be funny—given the very real and sometimes absurd divisions between black Africans and black Americans in the United States. However, it does not land because the we is unclear: is the subject of “we” the Africans of the continent in general? Is it the Africans who have immigrated to the U.S.? Or is it an African immigrant whose perspective is shared sub rosa here with a white audience who has also learned to “play along?”

An attempt to poke fun at the names of African American children á la Key and Peele’s substitute teacher also falls flat and reads instead as an unfunny jab at black literacy: “It’s almost like they lose their minds with the Scrabble pieces … What are we going to name it? Oh snap—Taniqua.”

In his HBO comedy special Killin’ Them Softly Dave Chappelle narrates a story of being on a plane “coming from overseas,” when a man with a machine gun tells everyone to “get on the fucking ground.” Chappelle adopts an Arabic accent before saying: “I started freaking out because he was Chinese—I was like, why is he talking like that?” It’s a brief moment that plays on Hollywood’s cartoonish treatment of the terrorist figure, slyly reminding his audience of a shared reservoir of stereotypical images consumed en masse.

Chappelle moves on to disclosing that there was another black man on the plane, a Nigerian who wordlessly communicates their kinship with a thumbs-up. “He didn’t need to talk,” Chappelle says. “I know just what he was talking about.” It’s classic Chappelle. He lets a beat hang so that his viewers can work out the implication even before he’s uttered the unsayable: “Terrorists don’t take black hostages!” Laced with profanity, blunt and strategically politically incorrect at almost all times—it is a comic register unimaginable in the mouth of Trevor Noah.

In another skit Chappelle takes on the stereotype of black people’s love of fried chicken. Here, Chappelle plays the role of both the white spectator and the black spectacle, both misunderstanding the others’ intention. The black man looks wary, self-conscious even, as he is being watched eating a meal. He imagines white observers being fascinated by his eating habits, but, crucially, Chappelle then shifts perspective and takes that white fascination as his subject. When Chappelle assumes the role of a white man, he superficially changes the pitch of his voice not to eviscerate but to expose a lack of real interactions with black people. “Just like in the encyclopedia,” Chappelle comments in a “white” voice.

Chappelle doesn’t just play on the stereotypes of white and black people; he exaggerates and prods those stereotypes. The exaggerations are absurd, but they are grounded in truth. Recognizing that truth, the crowd—mixed with black and white audience members—erupts into laughter. Chappelle’s jokes, unlike Noah’s, allow people to share a discomforting ground without judgment, to dwell (if only for a moment) in misunderstanding. His genius is to see that good intentions can sometimes be even funnier than bad ones.

While Noah’s most recent endeavors, such as Afraid of the Dark, reaffirm the comedian’s unparalleled skill at accents and voices, many of his jokes—particularly those meant to highlight the anti-immigrant sentiment emerging around the world—require little work from the audience. Unlike Chappelle, his comedy is characteristically risk-averse. This may well be the quality that has allowed him to rise to the heights of the liberal comedy world. But that very comfort can too easily become a kind of smugness, one that allows viewers to surf over superficial encounters with racial antagonism and injustice, rather than burrowing down to make its ugliness visceral, relevant and complicated.

Critics of Obama focused on his similarly risk-averse nature, the way his painstakingly guarded language seemed crafted to appease all sides. But the role of a politician and a comedian are quite different, and maybe antithetical, even (or perhaps especially) when a comedian tiptoes into the realm of politics. Indeed, one of the things comedy is for is to serve as a corrective to political prudence. Mabley, Pryor and Chappelle have played a vital role in the nation’s history of antagonistic racial politics, not by becoming voices of reconciliation but by making their comedy into a vessel for the kind of truths that transcend categories—jokes that marry the good, the bad and the ugly.

In an op-ed in the New York Times after Trump was elected, Trevor Noah wrote about what he believed the role of comedy to be during hard times. “If anything,” he wrote, “my stand-up shows back home are a place where we can push away the history of apartheid’s color classifications—where black, white, colored and Indian people use laughter to deal with shared trauma and pain.” Donning his spokesperson hat, he sounds more like America’s first black president than America’s first rank comedian.

As social barometers, black comedians are like pioneers, measuring and exposing the gap between racial groups. Their job is not necessarily to do the work of bridging the distance, but merely to sketch a path, no matter how rough. In his attempt to offer a clean and diplomatic humor, Noah too often accepts a narrative crafted by the majority. At the end of his op-ed Noah writes: “The majority of people are in the middle, the margin of victory is almost always in the middle, and very often the truth is there as well, waiting for us.” It’s a hopeful thought to end on.

Art credit: Derrick Adams

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This essay appears in our issue 14 symposium, “What is comedy for?” To read the rest of the issue, subscribe now.

If you’re in Chicago, make sure to join us THIS THURSDAY, October 27th for a screening and discussion on black comedy at Filmfront. More details here.

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