Trevor Noah's Fox News problem: The real challenge facing the new "Daily Show" host

His tweets aren't the issue. To have the same political influence, here's what Jon Stewart's successor must do

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published April 1, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (Comedy Central)
(Comedy Central)

Within hours of announcing that the next host of "The Daily Show" would be South African satirist Trevor Noah, the excitement was lost.  While many of us were relieved to see that the next host would continue the “fake news” tradition of the show, and while the idea of the show taking a global perspective was refreshing, it wasn’t long before Noah’s Twitter skeletons popped out of the closet. In a tweet on Tuesday evening, Noah called them jokes that "fell flat"; some critics on both the right and the left called them sexist and even anti-Semitic.

The almost immediate fall from grace Noah experienced tells us a lot about the role that social media can play in threatening a career.  While almost all of the tweets in question are “dated,” much of the Twitterverse didn’t care. Calls for Comedy Central to rescind the offer to Noah gained steam. And celebrities like Roseanne Barr jumped into the fray, calling for Noah to be fired before he had even started.

There are many questions to ask. Is the response to the tweets overblown? Or should they be analyzed as a fair indication of Noah’s potential to successfully host the show?  How many of us would want our own Twitter history analyzed in such detail? Is it possible that Noah’s new role as host of "The Daily Show" could temper the childish humor in these tweets? Do we really want a world where Twitter police have so much power?  Or are we grateful that the tweets reveal Noah’s nasty side?

Just who is Noah? The sexist jerk some saw in the tweets, or the sharp satirist we saw school Jon Stewart on Africa on his debut appearance on the show?

Of course, if Noah looks bad now, Comedy Central looks worse.  How could it miss these tweets?  Did it really think through the Noah hire? All signs point to the real possibility that it did not.

As a number of top candidates for the host position pulled out and went on to other projects, one has to wonder if Comedy Central really considered the Noah hire with care.  While the Twitter drama doesn’t make the network look good, there is another complication to Noah’s hire that few have considered: Noah is not from this country.  And his outsider perspective radically shifts the context for his jokes -- and the way they are likely to be received, especially by conservatives.

The power of satire is driven by the need for the audience to feel like they are “in” on the joke.  Stephen Colbert referred to his viewers as “it-getters.”  In order for Noah to be able to productively satirize us, we need to feel like we are on his side and not the object of his derision.  But it isn’t clear that he can create a sense of community that can make his cracks about the United States work the same way that Jon Stewart’s did.

Noah has been tapped to take over a show that has spent over 16 years serving as a watchdog for American politics and the media that covers it. As host of the show, Stewart played a central role in calling out the lies, hypocrisy and faulty logic that have come to dominate public political discourse.  He doggedly attacked the opinionated, megalomaniacal drivel of pundits like Bill O’Reilly and politicians like Ted Cruz.  Again and again he showed us the sheer stupidity and aggressive cruelty of much American political discourse.

But he did all of this as an insider.  From supporting vets to encouraging voter turnout, Stewart’s satire always had a motive to raise awareness and inspire his audience to productive political action.

Maybe Comedy Central figured that Noah could follow in John Oliver’s footsteps—bringing an insider/outsider view to his political satire, but Oliver has been working in the U.S. since 2006—he logged almost eight years on "The Daily Show" before he got his own.  In contrast, Noah has almost no U.S. experience and on his three "Daily Show" experiences, his role was to critique American exceptionalism.  In the first segment that aired, he even made Stewart seem like a stupid American who couldn’t find his way around a map.  In his bit on Boko Haram, he shamed Stewart for not paying attention to Africa. The jokes worked, though, because Stewart was there to mediate them.  Once Stewart isn’t there to be Noah’s foil, though, such jokes might feel like nothing more than America bashing.  Rather than serve as a needed global corrective, that sort of comedy runs the risk of causing greater patriotic fervor.

In this way, Noah’s trust issues go deeper than his tweets.  It was one thing for Stewart to critique the follies of U.S. political culture. His satire worked as a corrective to extreme right-wing views that favor hysteria over reason. Noah, though, can’t take the same position.  If he mocks Fox News, as we all may hope he will, it could seem like he is just mocking the whole nation—leaving all of us the butt of the joke.  It may end up making his satire seem more like the biting edginess of Charlie Hebdo than the charismatic jabs of John Oliver.

This means that --dickhead tweets aside -- Noah has an even bigger challenge ahead of him.  In order for him to be able to successfully satirize the U.S. news and productively skewer American politicians, he has to create a larger community that cares about these issues.  If not, he will just seem like he is mocking us.  And as much as we all need the global perspectives his comedy could bring to the show, we don’t need jokes that backfire into defensive nationalism.  Of course there is no reason to think that Noah can or will be another Stewart—we all know that is unlikely.  But we can hope that he is able to find a satirical voice that can continue the tradition that made Stewart’s version of "The Daily Show" such a key part of American politics.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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