It was always unfair to expect Trevor Noah to replicate John Stewart’s success on The Daily Show immediately. For one, Stewart had years to hone his craft. For another, there is only one John Stewart. And we always knew our hopes for Noah to bring a black, African perspective to American television were ambitious.
We knew Noah’s comedic range was limited, especially when it comes to race. But still we hoped. After all, a whole year before Donald Trump was successfully elected to the White House, that kind of hope appeared less vulnerable to impending doom.
But it has been a discombobulating experience watching Noah. He appears to flit between his personal history as a black South African and ad-libbing the American experience. If anything, it has been excruciating to watch.
Still, he has shown moments of promise in recent months, and he shows indications of asserting his own style and bringing his own voice to the show. But his recent commentary on race has been discomfiting. Noah continues to use South Africa as an exemplar for racial harmony when our own experience has shown that the ways in which we have papered over the cracks has severely impeded justice.
What Noah, and indeed others who promulgate this sort of approach to racism, fails to interrogate is how a culture of forgiveness and understanding can be maintained in the face of continuing persecution.
It’s not just about racism in the guise of Trump, or policies of insulation, à la Brexit, it is also about how we understand the very real effects of racism, especially when it has existed as a towering pillar of history, and how it affects the everyday reality of people.
This week Noah wrote a column for the New York Times, in which he calls on Americans to embrace more Madiba-like values. He was also applauded for the way in which he handled an interview with racist TV personality Tomi Lahren. For many that interview was a signal that Noah had finally arrived – he had found his voice to interrogate difficult subjects while still maintaining his stance. But then his team sent her cupcakes as some kind of peace offering. It was a puzzling gesture because it could be construed as some kind of apology for asking Lahren difficult questions. The whole point of the interview was to put hard questions to the US’s racist side. And, yet at the end of it, it feels as if all Noah is asking is why we can’t all just get along. As if racism is a question of civility, and not the abomination that it is.
Noah’s performances on The Daily Show have been disappointing – not because they pale against the masterful wit of Stewart but because they have exposed his own shallow grasp of politics, society and, yes, South Africa.