by Andrew Mukuru Bakaine
What does the comedian do when there is no room left for humor?
Part I: The Intuition of Ignorance
It had become somewhat of a ritual for my brother and I to watch him. The African, as one of his correspondents calls him—ironically so, for this correspondent is a black man himself. The Man who witnessed the birth of Simba, he jokes, underneath a fully aware, wry smile. The Man who was “born a crime,” a phrase which became the provocative title of his new book. The Diversity hire, inheriting with the right of that title the responsibility (burden) of bringing a “different perspective” that Americans never cease to crave.
Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during apartheid, or “apart-hate” as he phonetically phrases it, to a black mother and white father, 57 years after “The Immorality Act of 1927.” This act prohibited “illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.” His mother belonged to the Xhosa, a tribe stereotypically known to have rebellious and nonconforming people. Under apartheid, black women were relegated to either working in the factory or as a maid, but his mother wouldn’t let her options be limited. “She was a horrible cook and never would have stood for some white lady telling her what to do all day,” Trevor Noah writes in his memoir, Born A Crime. “So, true to her nature, she found an option that was not among the ones presented to her: she took a secretarial course.” At the time, black women working in offices as secretaries was an anomaly. Those were jobs reserved for whites. But his mother was too much of a rebel to adhere to any kind of rule. By all means necessary she found a job as a secretary, and it was during this time that she met a half-Swiss, half-German man named Robert. It didn’t matter to her that there existed a law prohibiting any kind of relationship between a black woman and a white man. It didn’t matter to her that any child born out of such a relationship would be a crime. It didn’t matter. Together, fearlessly, recklessly, they created a living, breathing crime.
I remember when my brother and I first watched him: December 5th, 2014. He came on the show as one of Jon Stewart’s correspondents, tasked with bringing a different perspective. The title of this skit was called “Spot the Africa.” Trevor Noah sat across from Jon Stewart with his hands clasped together, in an almost ironic posture, humor twitching at the sides of his mouth. The game was to “spot the Africa” between two pictures, and this went on for three rounds. One picture would show images of a decrepit, squalid place, while the other one would depict an affluent, green neighborhood. The intuition of ignorance would suggest that the decrepit, squalid place was somewhere in Africa, while the affluent, green neighborhood was obviously in America. In fact, for two out of the three rounds, it was the other way around. Jon Stewart played the ignorant American who couldn’t tell the difference, while Trevor Noah eased him out of his ignorance lightly and graciously with humor. At the time, the media exaggerated an outbreak of Ebola in the country. “I’m still a bit nervous to be honest,” he said to Jon Stewart, talking about the struggle he went through at airport security and was still going through in the land of the free, “between your cops and frankly your ebola…”
“Aha, no,” said Jon Stewart, “your ebola, my friend. You are from Africa, it’s your ebola.”
“No, no,” Trevor Noah corrected him, “South Africa, Jon. We haven’t had a single case [of ebola] in over 18 years. My friends were like ‘Trevor, don’t go to the US, you’ll catch ebola,’ and I was like ‘Just because they had a few cases of ebola, guys, doesn’t mean we should stop travel there. That would be ignorant, right?’”
The crowd cheered. Trevor Noah left Jon Stewart dumbfounded in his seat. He had officially announced his name, and his perspective, to the Western world. A perspective which would prove to be prophetic in the times to come; times when only humor might not be enough to ease out ignorance.
Part II: Africa
From then on, my brother and I continued to watch him, The African, The Man who witnessed the birth of Simba. We watched him with as much pride as black people had in 2008 when watching the inauguration of Barack Obama. We were consumed with that absurd feeling of being proud of someone else’s achievements, someone that you don’t even know and will never meet, just because they look like you. They talk like you. They think like you. They operate under a system of reality which is your own: a reality which they cannot escape even if they are removed from it; a reality in which you know all the presumptions leading to the conclusion; a reality in which you taste the same maize sold by the same hawkers, squint through the same blinding dust and hustle past the same havoc of public transport on the same potholed roads; a reality in which you were groomed by the same mothers and governed by the same presidents. The reality, in this case, is Africa.
Trevor Noah, operating under this system of reality, likened Donald Trump to African presidents past and present, in a skit titled “Donald Trump--America’s African President.” “For me, as an African,” he said, “there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home.” He quoted the likes of Jacob Zuma (president of South Africa), Idi Amin Dada, (former tyrant of Uganda, my country), Yahya Jammeh (president of Gambia) among others:
DONALD TRUMP (America?): I’ve made billions of dollars. I’m really rich. The people love me. I’m really smart. God helped me by giving me a certain brain.
IDI AMIN DADA (Uganda): The people love me very much. I am very popular. I am the one who has got the money. I have got a very good brain.
DONALD TRUMP (America?): Autism has become an epidemic. A beautiful child went to have the vaccine and a week later got a tremendous fever and now is autistic.
YAHYA JAMMEH (Gambia): I can cure AIDS using herbs and bananas. Mine is not an argument, it is a proof, a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will.
DONALD TRUMP (Africa): We will have so much winning that if I get elected, you will be bored with winning.
ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): We will be winning. We will win all the time.
“What I’m trying to say is that President Trump is presidential, he is just running on the wrong continent.” My brother and I watched him and we laughed loudly. Only a man who witnessed the birth of Simba could have come up with this, we agreed.
Part III: The Comedian
“When I first started at the Daily Show” Trevor Noah said, speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “I said ‘I think Trump can win.’ This was when he first came down that escalator, when he gave his first speech. People laughed at me, saying ‘Oh, you silly ignorant person who has just come into this world.’ But I was like, ‘No, I can see what he is doing. I can relate to him as a performer [comedian]. He is good at riffing, he is good at taking the crowd on a journey.’ I had a feeling he would win.”
If he were a comedian, Donald Trump would have been one of the finest. A morbidly offensive, highly controversial comedian to be sure, in the tradition of Richard Pryor, Frankie Boyle, Jim Jeffries, Jimmy Carr and others. A comedian whose goal is to push boundaries, say what the majority might be thinking but aren’t brave enough to say, tap into the most perverse regions of our minds. The comedian of this sort is only able to say this because we believe that he is a comedian. His vulgarity is laminated with humor: a humor that provides room, space, and protection for a crude expression of himself. In most cases, we can trust that the comedian is only making a joke. We can trust the moral ambiguity of said comedian’s jokes and we must for it is we who have given him the platform, and we must laugh. We do laugh. In the case of Donald Trump, I wished that we could laugh him off the stage. I wished, together with most others, that he didn’t know what he was talking about; that this was just press for his tv show; that even when things were looking good for him, it was only for a moment and would fade away, like a trend. When things were looking terribly good for him, some wished that even he was surprised by his own success, and would back out of the presidential race because in his mind he was never truly in it. We hoped. We laughed. But now he has taken center stage, on the platform we provided for him, it seems that there is no room left for humor. We cannot laugh him off.
“But people would say ‘Oh, [Trevor] is just a buffoon.’ And I would say, ‘No, I have seen this before. I have seen clowns who go on to take over their countries… who rule the world. That is why I compared Trump to an African president. I’ve seen this before.”
During the presidential election, before Trump’s victory, my brother and I watched Trevor Noah, and we laughed. For the most part, he was as funny as his stand up comedy. “It’s a different platform,” we agreed, “and he can’t do the same thing like his stand up. He has to learn American politics now and talk about that.” A distinction needs to be made: we did not watch The Daily Show, we watched Trevor Noah. Somewhat ignorantly, for we didn’t care as much for the politics. We were not liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. We didn’t care whether he was any better than Jon Stewart or not. We were there to laugh and much of the politics must have gone over our heads. Which is why I grew tired of the show. I stopped watching him. I didn’t want to hear any more jokes about Donald Trump and his small hands, or Donald Trump and his orange hair, or Donald Trump and his daughter, etc. I went back to Trevor Noah’s stand-up, to his jokes about immigration, race, ebola, AIDS, president Jacob Zuma, escalators, Africa, white people, black people and the like. But as the election came to a close, and I started to pay more attention to the politics, I found it hard to laugh. All those who hadn’t taken Donald Trump seriously had no choice but to now. He was beating Hillary in the polls, his numbers rising with the beating of our hearts. When Trump won the race for the president-elect, nobody saw it coming. Except one person. I remembered him. The African. The Man who witnessed the birth of Simba.
“You get into this business with the idea that you have a point of view or something to express,” Jon Stewart said on his last time on The Daily Show. Of course, The Daily Show is a satirical show and this “point of view” must be laminated with humor, but what if we were in a time, as we are now, where there is no room left for this humor? No room for irony and excused ignorances. No room for sugar coating racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia. No room for brushing off objectifying remarks that perpetuate rape culture as “locker room talk,” like a morbidly offensive, highly controversial comedian would do. In this case, under this criteria, Trevor Noah does have a point of view. As a South African “born a crime” under apartheid, he knows what it is like to face racism, to navigate in a world defined by color; as an African, he knows what it is like to be under cowardly presidents, he has seen what most in America have not.
“I’ve just come to realize,” he says prophetically to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “I am going to share my point of view. I will work everyday to be as honest as I can. I believe we are all trying to get to the same place, but various people have tricked us into believing that we are not. And I see America going into that space. And I know that in South Africa we were in that space… where the government convinced the majority of a population that every single person was blocking each other from achieving greatness in the country. Only to realize that we were all being oppressed at the same time.”
I sat down with my brother and we watched him, The African, The Man who witnessed the birth of Simba.
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