After Trevor Noah was appointed Jon Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show, there was some backlash during which everyone got mad about old (bad) jokes on Twitter. People knew nothing about Noah so they went looking to understand the guy who was just handed the keys to the kingdom, and what they found was hacky stuff that came across as offensive in the context-less vacuum of social media. At the time, I wrote that what was on display on Noah’s Twitter feed wasn’t prejudice but just bad jokes, the product of a still-evolving comedic voice. This is part of the process, and every comic no matter how good or bad goes through it—a sentiment I echoed when Amy Schumer was also thrown onto the outrage bonfire. These tweets, I said, were not representative of the comedy Noah currently performs, and he deserves the chance to prove that to the wider world.
Well he is. Noah is also the subject of a profile in GQ’s comedy issue, and in it he comes across as thoughtful, mature, and aware. He stepped in it and he knows it, acknowledging he hadn’t gained the understanding of the culture he was trying to speak to in his first forays into talking about African-American culture: “I hadn’t fully understood the African-American experience. I hadn’t read the books; I hadn’t met the people; I hadn’t traveled the country.” Experience and just time spent touring the country has broadened his perspective, which allows him to sharpen his voice. Zach Baron, the writer of the profile, notes there’s been a pronoun shift in Noah’s act, that he no longer talks about black Americans as separate from himself.
That kind of perspective only comes with time and understanding. Comedy is how pain is processed (tragedy + time = comedy), and it can take time for a comic to embrace personal pain and make it explicit. Noah doesn’t have a problem discussing personal tragedy—this profile is a fascinating read—but connecting your own story to a larger cultural story can take time, and Noah has learned that, saying, “I’ve now learned how to be emotionally aware of how people may use your joke in a negative way. …If you’re not careful, someone can use your words to hurt somebody else.”
Noah is no less sharp a comedian than he was when I first saw him in a 2013 set at London’s Apollo Theater. He’s probably sharper now, because good comics only get better over time, and indeed, there is a joke reprinted in the GQ piece that made me laugh out loud—I can’t imagine how effective it is complete with facial expressions and tone. Noah is still evolving, but he’s going in the right direction, getting smarter, sharper, more aware. I’m going to miss Jon Stewart because I’ve been watching him half my life, but I’m excited to see what Noah does with The Daily Show. It’ll be different, but there’s no reason to believe it won’t be good.
Click here to read the article on Trevor Noah in GQ.