Hoo-boy, did this ever go south quickly? The first clue that the Trevor-Noah-for-Jon-Stewart switcheroo was going to devolve into a social-media-driven bun fight came barely moments after the South African comedian was offered the vicarage of liberal America's holiest television hour.
"Noah as successor to Stewart makes sense in a world where Daily Show audience is international," tweeted Samarth Bhaskar, a newsroom analytics number cruncher at the New York Times. "Noah is a prototypical postnational comic."
But what is a "prototypical postnational comic?" Leaving aside for now the question of whether there is a prototypically postnational anything, we'll ask instead if there exists a sort of world-music category for comedy, in which a stand-up of indeterminate pigmentation – black but not too black; white but not too white – makes jokes that appeal equally to a member of the Taliban and to a bespoke-vermouth bottler from Victoria.
If there is such a comedian, is he/she Trevor Noah? Like all of us, Noah comes from a very specific place during a very specific time, and his shtick is premised upon the fact that he feels at home nowhere. This doesn't make him postnational. It makes him South African. More precisely, it makes him a South African of both white and black parentage born during the apartheid years, who experienced the unlovely death grunts of a regime that burned brightest in its final hours.
Noah was born in 1984, the democratic era began in 1994, and the stuff in between is not often thought of as comedy gold. Nonetheless, knowing what we know about his biography – and, of course, we know only what he wants us to know – his past has provided him with the grist for some of his better bits. The segment he is perhaps best known for, one that he has performed in dozens of variations in hundreds of venues over the years, is an exegesis of his family's life during the bad old days. His mother was black (Xhosa), while his father was white (Swiss-German), and their union was illegal under the regime's Immorality Act. Hilarity ensued! But there is an edge of real bitterness to these reminiscences, an extended moan of genuine pain that pushes them into the realm of performance art.
That isn't the case with all of Trevor Noah's work. For South Africans of a certain age, it can feel like he's been around forever – a radio, TV and award-show stalwart who, when he popped up on The Daily Show on three occasions, seemed a bit off his game, if we could remember him being on his game. The briefest of précis: His first soapie appearance, as a marginally less fresh-faced 18-year-old, dates back to 2002; he hosted numerous South African Music Awards; he presided over his own show called Tonight With Trevor Noah. The dude even shilled for a cellphone company. No one mistook him for a great political satirist. He was comedy-room tone.
Still, the South Africans likely to watch Noah on The Daily Show have grown up with him. For better or worse, he's commented on literally everything that's transpired in the local maelstrom, which makes him not postnational, but uber-South African. Without context, without South Africa, Noah quickly loses meaning. His home country's national obsession is, after all and unsurprisingly, race. Twenty-one years after the democratic dawn, the prevailing conversation remains the great divide between the country's black and white communities, and how democracy has failed to disassemble the structural racism that apartheid instituted and perfected. Noah cracked his first jokes in one of the more unequal societies on Earth, where almost all of the wealth remains in the hands of the white minority, a status quo that has enriched a narrow black elite mostly connected to the governing African National Congress.
As Noah has noted time and again, none of this is as binary as it first seems. The country's divisions are almost endless, and his black/white heritage allows him a somewhat unique perspective from which to pronounce on them all. (His best-known South African comedy special, That's Racist, was retrofitted for the international stage as Trevor Noah: The Racist.) If anyone ever has the right to be an equal-opportunity offender, ladies and gentlemen, it's Trevor Noah.
But does anyone have the right to be an equal-opportunity offender? Perhaps, if the jokes are funny enough. And Noah's jokes are not funny enough. Often, he coasts on his good looks and boundless charm. Sometimes he coasts on stupidity. The legion of Gawker interns predictably sicced upon his Twitter account unearthed micro-missives disparaging plus-sized women and those of the Hebraic faith. Damning a comic for Jewish jokes and fat-girl humour is much like calling an auto mechanic a pervert for keeping vats of lubricant in his workshop, or so it was back in the 1980s.
Times have changed; the tweets are indefensible. And so are many of his bits, in which his portrayal of black-American men is frankly – and all together now! – racist. (Which, no doubt, is the point.) But this is Comedy Central we're talking about, not the Vatican Channel, and those who only watch it for The Daily Show might be surprised to learn that the rest of its content does not carry much of a "moral voice."
So perhaps Trevor Noah will be a nastier Jon Stewart for a nastier age. When the news of his hiring was formally announced, Noah was in Dubai for three days of sold-out shows. He plays everywhere, all the time. This isn't because he presents as a citizen of the Global Nowhere, but rather because the South African experience is not as exceptional as South Africans like to make it out to be. In Thomas Piketty's re-upped version of the gilded age, we're all South Africans, divided by race, class, outlook, experience, hatred and the species of unnamable nastiness and self-loathing that runs through Noah's comedy like a bad cold.
That Noah reads like an avatar of Barack Obama – half-white, half-black, super-articulate – is surely not incidental. The year that Obama steps down, Noah will step up, all Hope, Change and fat jokes. What he'll bring to The Daily Show – to America, to Bahrain, to Britain, and everywhere else that watches – is nothing less than a slice of the South African condition, with all its social messiness and complexity. The Daily Show's international audience will find no better a corollary for the world outside their smartphones. Whether they'll like what they see is a question for another time.
Richard Poplak lives in Johannesburg.