Trevor Noah, Twitter And The Uses Of Social-Media Outrage

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 29:  Host Trevor Noah speaks onstage during 'The Daily Show with Trevor Noah' panel discussion at th
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 29: Host Trevor Noah speaks onstage during 'The Daily Show with Trevor Noah' panel discussion at the Viacom Networks portion of the 2015 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 29, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

As the heir apparent at “The Daily Show,” every day must be a whirlwind for Trevor Noah. Having to deal with the media at the Television Critics Association press tour, where he took the stage at a press conference Wednesday, is just one more chore to check off the list, but he largely conducted himself with aplomb during the relatively light press grilling.

I wasn’t surprised at his smooth performance, having seen an extended stand-up set the previous night. He made sure his set was littered with extremely relatable elements; it was aimed directly and resolutely at the heart of the mainstream. While his stand-up took on gut-wrenching incidents of police brutality, it also contained references to "Star Wars" and tequila and dopey white girls. The set didn’t ignore the unfortunate racial realities of modern America, but it would have gone over just fine at a Giggle Shack anywhere in Ohio.

And as he gets ready to take over at “The Daily Show,” he said all the right things at his press conference. Well, mostly the right things, but we’ll get to the disappointing parts in a moment.

“The biggest pressure” he faces is “living up to the expectations” that Stewart has for him, but he added that trying to live up to that legacy won’t stop him from changing the show to fit his personality and worldview. While depending on many of the same “Daily Show” producers that Stewart worked with, Noah said he plans to move away somewhat from the foundational talisman of the Stewart era, namely, the 24-hour news cycle of cable, and in particular, Fox News. The news and information ecosystem works differently now, and the new “Daily Show” will reflect that.

Stewart looms large on the media landscape, but Noah is clearly a different guy, from a different country and age group, and on Wednesday, he offered a intelligent rationales for why his version of the show has to evolve. Stewart is a Jewish man in his 50s from New Jersey, and therefore, as Noah noted, his viewpoint when talking about Mike Huckabee’s comments about Nazi ovens is different from that of the new host.

“The way you approach a story depends on your point of view,” and the same goes for comedy, he noted. Noah is a “31-year-old, half-black, half-white South African who has lived in America for a few years on and off. … The way [Jon and I] look at a story would be completely different. We have different access to certain jokes.”

Absolutely true, and that’s a smart way to regard how Noah’s humor and program are likely to be situated going forward. The old formulation -- that comedy should punch up, not down -- is often not really that useful these days, as we realize that, depending on context, culture and history, one joke can have all kinds of potential vectors within it. Ignoring all those directions, implications and inflections because it’s convenient, or urging others to ignore them because it’d be easier for the joke-teller or writer, is just kind of lame and limiting.

Noah said, “I always believe you find your truth in your comedy,” and it was smart of him to acknowledge that different kinds of people have different truths. Through his own comedy and through some of his comments Wednesday, he indicated that for him, that awareness is not necessarily a limitation and can actually make for more incisive wit.

That’s all well and good, but this brings me to the disappointing parts of his press conference. On Wednesday, he had a couple of opportunities to take on the controversy that arose after people found tweets in his history that were in poor taste and, yes, offensive. Whoever is giving him counsel on how to spin the story of his offensive tweets is simply giving him bad advice. If the current strategy is coming from Noah himself, he’d do well to rethink his approach.

His very first attempt to address this matter during the press conference was a miniature masterpiece of deflection, minimization and dismissal. “If you [say] that a person has 9,000 tweets, and you think five of them were not to your taste, what I heard is you say that this person has 8,995 tweets that weren’t offensive.”

OK then. Problem solved.

Presented with an opportunity to offer regret at expressing those sentiments, he chose to say, more or less, “But look at all those times I didn’t write something gross and mean and full of unfortunate stereotypes!” For a show that’s all about dissecting and critiquing spin, that was an unfortunate demonstration of tin-eared condescension. I really wish Noah didn’t kick off his moment in the spotlight by telling people that if they found something he said reflective of hurtful biases and prejudices, they should just look at something else. He came very close to telling people with legitimate critiques that then problem lay with them.

The thing is, I listened to Noah do an hourlong stand-up set Tuesday night that largely revolved around how pernicious and destructive prejudices are. Noah can’t have it both ways: He can’t talk about how biases and stereotypes are wrong and harmful, but then ask people to move along -- nothing to see here -- when he himself has used that kind of language. Saying he’s grown out of telling that kind of joke -- a defense he offered back in March and again on Wednesday -- is another way of telling people to just get over it. He seems determined not to offer an apology, which is his right, but it would be nice to be convinced, at some point, of the sincerity of his regret.

But trying to move the issue out of his path on his schedule isn’t just dismissive, it implies that he doesn’t really understand the high-profile spot he’s in. When someone takes over as host of “The Daily Show,” that person doesn’t necessarily get to control the conversation, and that person is going to be held to a higher level of scrutiny than the headliner at the Giggle Shack. That’s just how it works in the big leagues.

Truth be told, it was even more frustrating when he trotted out another argument regarding the Twitter controversy. Asked about it at another point on Wednesday, he said that these days, “Twitter has become a largely negative place.” Uh, what? Here's the full quote: “If you look at the way Twitter has evolved, if you look at the way social media has evolved, it goes through phases. At one time it was just a posting board, and then at one point it became the room for jokes. That’s what Twitter used to be. Now Twitter has become a largely negative place where people go to give just horrible reviews about TV shows and things that they don’t like, and they spend all day doing that.”

All day? Yikes, who is he following?

This kind of sentiment isn’t all that uncommon from comedians, who seem to have collectively decided that people paying attention to their words is a pernicious evil.

Seriously, the pushback from many comedians against the "negativity" of social media and the wholesale putdowns of feedback of any kind just feels petulant. Every couple months, someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Amy Schumer or Patton Oswalt takes umbrage at reactions to their work or the work of their peers, as if members of the public having any thoughts about any jokes ever was a violation of some unspoken social contract. I know it takes risks to push the edge of the envelope in the comedy world blah blah blah, but it also takes courage for the average Joe or Jane to say, “Hey, this isn’t great and you could have thought about it more.”

The public is really not trying to destroy free speech by critiquing a bit that really killed at the Giggle Shack, honest. Nobody's saying comics and other public figures have to agree with Joe or Jane, but you'd think entertainers would try a little harder to consider the message before putting the messenger on blast.

Here’s what I hear when comedians or other public figures say that Twitter is mean or awful or negative: I hear them saying that a bunch of people whose credentials and identities they don’t necessarily value are questioning ideas, attitudes and statements they were able to spread with impunity in the past. Whatever the identities, histories or perspectives of the people raising concerns, well, they just should get over it or pipe down and be quiet if they’re too dumb or uptight to understand the nugget of brilliance that has been offered.

Civilians and critics who evaluate jokes and movies and TV shows on social media and in real life get accused of “negativity,” but what if some of their their reasons have a lot to do with the ideals embedded in the core of Noah’s comedy? What if ever-larger numbers of people have become more aware of the pernicious nature of biases, demeaning speech and prejudice, and are trying to do something about it? I’d like to think these incidents are not examples of “political correctness” (a phrase that translates as: “I’m stomping my feet because I can’t say whatever I want to whomever I want”), but evidence of the world becoming a more egalitarian and compassionate place.

Of course, some people are jerks, online and off, but I don’t have to tell Noah, a well-traveled comedian, there are morons in every crowd. But the presence of a few idiots here and there doesn’t mean the person dispensing the jokes or the fake news or whatever should summarily dismiss the feedback of every single person in a given room and wave away every concerned person on social media. It might be worth pointing out that some concerned people made noise about how white and male the staff of “The Daily Show” was for years, and the problem of late-night’s blinding whiteness is by no means solved, but it’s better -- partly because people who cared about histories, identities and contexts didn’t stop bringing up the diversity issue, even when they were taken to task for being “negative.”

Noah may feel like he’s done enough talking about those tweets. I can understand that feeling: I’ve been through my own share of online wrangles, and they can leave you feeling worn out. (My email has also been available to the public for close to 20 years, but that’s another troll-intensive story). But it’s 2015, and as Trevor himself noted, the world has changed a lot since Stewart took over the “Daily Show” desk at the end of the last century.

Stewart helped destroy the idea of an unreachable news anchor dispensing sober wisdom from an ivory tower. And regardless of the response to Noah’s tweets and Noah’s reaction to those responses, the social-media circle of life ain’t going away any time soon. More people have the opportunity to talk to writers, critics, actors and comedians about the things they say, do, tweet and write.

If Noah wants to be a new kind of host and start some fresh conversations from behind the "Daily Show" desk, it'd be nice to think he's listening.

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