Trevor Noah: America’s New Storyteller

by Shane Thomas 

A new era in American culture begins next Monday, when Trevor Noah replaces Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. When the appointment was announced, the reaction was one of surprise, teemed with acknowledgement of it being a bold creative move.

trevor-noah-daily-show-debutThe reins aren’t just being handed to a black man, but a black South African, who despite having a substantive comedy career, had only been in the nascent stages of appearing in front of the show’s audience. So while this is an encouraging decision from Comedy Central, it would be premature to start “Humpty Dancing”[1]. The significance of the programme means there’s as many reasons for concern as celebration.

Capitalising on the increasing spectacle of America’s 24 hour news industry, Jon Stewart ended his tenure by occupying a space unique to comedians. He became one of the nation’s most trusted narrators. This didn’t make the programme a comprehensive account of America, but with a few exceptions, not many used comedy to place a mirror to their homeland as well as Stewart did.

The Daily Show, and its creative scions, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report, and The Nightly Show are all vehicles for people to tell us the story of America. But bar Larry Wilmore, the story has been only told by cis white men[2]. The same goes for America’s venerable chroniclers of the past: Tom Brokow; Edward R. Murrow; Walter Cronkite. It may not have been his aim, but Stewart ended up finding a parallel with these men. He wasn’t just beloved by many; he was trusted.

But before this turns into a Stewart hagiography, he was far from flawless. His takes on race were not always as well-developed as his Charleston monologue[3], and he appeared less adroit in addressing America’s Islamophobia, or the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

His work also had a patina of white liberalism and militarism to it. This was often reflected in the make-up of the show’s guests (and audience), causing writer, David Dennis Jr. to sagaciously suggest we exercise caution before assuming that Noah will be received as well as Stewart.

Essentially, if a white liberal isn’t there to say something is unjust, then will society think it unjust? Is the Kool-Aid suddenly less appealing to drink when it’s filtered though a different source?

Indeed, what happens if Noah becomes a target for the established press? It seems inevitable he will at some stage[4]. While he poked fun at assumptions about his “outsider’s perspective”, through no fault of his own he may not get the same latitude as his predecessor, especially if he takes a while to hit his straps.

We must also mention that only two days after being announced as The Daily Show’s next host, it was revealed that Noah had tweeted a series of egregious comments a few years ago, under the mistaken guise of humour[5]. You didn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to ponder how much work went into discrediting him before he’d even hosted his first episode.

Carrying the twin anvils of blackness and public scrutiny places Noah in a perilous position that Stewart never had to countenance. Noah has the skill-set to find a sweet spot with the audience, but his margin for error is tiny. If he addresses America’s imperialist foreign policy, he’ll likely be derided as a militant, but omit such topics altogether, and he may be perceived as an Uncle Tom.

Personally, I suspect Noah won’t have the same reach as Stewart did, but if he broadens the show’s subject matter, he’ll have a more profound impact on those he does reach. His unhurried demeanour may also allow him to obliquely tackle subjects in a way that Stewart’s earnestness didn’t lend to. If Stewart was the eager host of the party who holds court, Noah’s the convivial guy sitting on the sofa, making wry observations, in between puffing on a cigarette.

At his best, Stewart gave verbal form to injustice. Noah can do the same for those who seldom get a chance to have their voice heard. My hope is that he gets the licence to make the show his own. A chance to embody, as Chris Rock once opined, true equality – “the equality to suck like the white man.”

While Noah may face a number of obstacles in his new role, the potential reward is considerable. He has a chance to become America’s new storyteller. A voice that’s not only admired, but trusted. A rare space where his observations are given credence, and taken seriously. In a world where black voices that carry widespread authority are rare, Noah’s just been handed a megaphone.

And make no mistake, America – everywhere, in fact – needs good storytellers. They are crucial in forging the common direction of a society. As the always sapient Brittney Cooper said; “…we are sorely in need of the clarity and inconvenient truths that art allows us to tell, the conversations it sparks, the space for emotion that it makes, the questions it poses, the pressure points in an aching national body politic that it exposes.”

I’m sure some of you are well aware of the proverb; “…until lions have their historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

It’s about time we heard from a lion.

[1] – Well, how else does one commemorate good news?

[2] – And I’d be remiss not to mention that the optics of America’s “late night” scene could easily be mistaken for an MRA meeting.

[3] – Equally as impressive was the acknowledgement of his white privilege in relation to said monologue.

[4] – Remember the advocacy for Jessica Williams to be the new host? I wonder if she ruled herself out of the running partly because she had the savvy to comprehend that as a black woman, she would have a huge bullseye on her back. One only needs to look at the thinkpiece that came from “White Feminist Inc.” – saying she was suffering from “impostor syndrome” – to recognise Williams’s foresight.

[5] – This isn’t to excuse the tweets, which I found disgusting. Especially the one about “fat chicks”. Fat shaming remains an area where comedians can still get away with punching down.

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TWOWEEKSNOTICE “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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1 reply

  1. I think it is wonderful to have a Trevor Noah replace Jon Stewart as the new host of the daily show. Not just because of his color, but because now we have a chance to hear about American politics from someone who does not come from America. His view on politics will give America a new voice to listen too and I hope that he is able to put his own kind of twist on this show that liberal America adores and love. I think Trevor Noah being born in South Africa and going through the years of apartheid will give him a unique observation on a the political atmosphere of America. I hope that he excels in hosting this show and is able to handle the pressure of being in the limelight when dealing with controversial topics.

    Like

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