How do you lampoon an election that already routinely veers into absurd territory? That’s a challenge that Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, faces nightly, as he discusses an election cycle of scandals, leaks, bigotry, and fear-mongering—a cycle where even the most unprecedented happenings have become mundane. A South African television and radio host and comedian, Noah has been the host of The Daily Show since 2015. Being the child of a Xhosa mother and Swiss-German father, his childhood in Johannesburg under apartheid’s Immorality Act had a large impact on his life and future in comedy. This is explained in his autobiographical comedy book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which become a #1 New York Times Bestseller and named one of the best books of the year after being published in 2016. Noah's mixed-race ancestry, his experiences growing up in Soweto, and his observations about race and ethnicity are leading themes in his comedy. His typical humor genres include political/news satire, deadpan, and black, insult, and observational comedy. This he carried over to The Daily Show after the retirement of his predecessor and one of his comedic influences Jon Stewart, integrating political and ethnic humor.
Wherever there has been organized government, there has been political satire. Not all cultures and societies had the freedom of speech, so many opted for a more covert form of comedy in order to escape persecution. As such, watching or reading this satire is understood as one of the best ways to understand a culture. One of the oldest examples includes the work of Aristophanes, a comic playwright in ancient Athens. Known as the Father of Comedy and the Prince of Ancient Comedy, he commonly targeted top politicians of his day, as well as religion. The plays have a significance that goes beyond their artistic function, as historical documents that open the window on life and politics in ancient Athens. His and many other works influenced much of the public opinion, and thus Athenian democracy itself. Political satire has changed and adapted with new technology throughout the years, from being written on the first paper, used in cartoon drawings, and now used as skits and videos uploaded nearly anywhere on the internet. For example, Saturday Night Live is one of the most popular American live television sketch comedy shows. The cast usually parodies contemporary culture and politics in a variety of comedic sketches. Weekend Update is a fake news segment on the show that satirizes politics and current events, and has been a part of SNL since the first episode in 1975.
Political humor has recently risen in popularity considerably in recent years, and even months. When certain politicians, ethnicities, or news events are satirized, it forces us to think about the subject as inferior. As John Morreall argues in his article “No Laughing Matter,” the superiority theory of humor is “amusement as an ‘attentive demolition’ of a person or something connected with a person. ‘If people dislike being laughed at,’… ‘it is surely because laughter devalues its object in the subject’s eyes’” (Morreall, p. 44). Which is why certain politicians are so against it, such as Donald Trump. It serves to scrutinize political and racial powers, lest they become intolerable or unacceptable. But in an increasingly divisive society, humor can be used as a sort of social corrective. As Ewa Wasilewska explains in the article “Towards Ethnicity… My Culture or Yours?”, “this ‘watchdog’ function carries with it the need to socially correct abuses of powers and, consequently, to move agencies in directions more acceptable to those affected by the exercise of political powers” (Wasilewska, p. 141). For example, the name of a local comedy show in Atlanta for the Southern Poverty Law Center was Laughs Trump Hate: A Comedy Show. The saying “Love Trumps Hate” has also been used in opposition. As the names imply, humor has been used to replace the hypocrisy and bigotry of politicians with logical arguments, and diminishes the validity of that hatred. Trump might be a bonus for news, but that doesn’t necessarily mean political humor about him is easy, particularly for Trevor Noah. In an interview with Vann Newkirk, Noah states that because he naturally says and does the absurd, many jokes that could be made have already been done by him in real life:
Now what's happened with Trump is he does the joke escalations that we think of doing. A couple days ago with the scandals, I said as a joke, “Billy Bush made Trump do it.” And then we laughed. And then two days later, the Trump camp comes out and says, “Trump was not the person, Billy Bush put him up to it.” And I'm like, are you serious? (Quoted in “Trevor Noah's Eventful First Year.”)
There is a distinction in most humor, including political, between the oppressed and their oppressors, the inferior and the superior. Both political and ethnic humor deal with stereotypes, truthiness, and truth. It is the truth we should strive for not only in our humor, but our politics as well if we are to have a fair democracy. As a South African, Noah has a unique, outside perspective on American politics. During the presidential campaign, he occasionally remarked that Donald Trump reminded him of an African dictator, mused over the mystifying complexities of the Electoral College system and pointed out the weirdness of states voting on recreational marijuana. Furthermore, “much of ethnic/national humor has a political character, which is more profound during time of uncertainty and directed against real or perceived oppressors and/or competitors for real or imaginary power” (Wasilewska, p. 141). As people come together to laugh at a common oppressor, it builds unity and plays a vital role in the mediation between cultural and societal values (p. 143).
This rise in political humor has also led many to question the impact humorous news outlets have on the public. For Noah and Wasilewska, “the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on the Comedy Central channel in the U.S speaks for itself because many Americans are learning to ignore “serious” news on other channels in favor of Internet sources and comedy in general” (Wasilewska, p. 142). Amongst younger generations, there is a tremendous appeal for this type of satirical program rather than FOX, CNN, or MSNBC. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is the only daily late-night talk show this year to enjoy year-to-year improvement among both total viewers and adults 18-49. We are uniquely susceptible to outside influence when we are younger, and since younger generations are just beginning their political participation, “political humor is consistently gaining its ground in shaping political views of generations raised on cable TV and the Internet” (p. 143). The ability of comedians, like Noah, to entertain while prompting critical reflection is the key to raising awareness about political and social issues. The rise of fundamentalist religious groups, the increasing power of corporations in the media, and a deep divide between political parties are harming the democratic process in the country, and we are becoming aware of this through satirical news programs. It provides a platform unhindered by typical party limitations for younger audiences to learn about many actions, legislation, and political figures they may not have heard of otherwise. Noah “is literally teaching his audience, which is bigger than FNC’s, how to see through the partisan propaganda… [and] educating an entire generation of viewers how to watch cable news, or more specifically how not to watch Fox News” (p. 142).
In his comedy, Noah establishes the raw, deeply personal reminiscences of struggle not just in America or South Africa, but around the world. With a global perspective, he has personally described himself as a progressive person. But language, for him, was a way to camouflage his difference. He speaks several languages in fact, including English, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Afrikaans, and some German and Spanish. He used this knowledge to cross boundaries, handle situations, and navigate the world. His mother having taught him English first, he explains in an interview with Michiko Kakutani that “English is the language of money…[its] comprehension is equated with intelligence” (Quoted in “‘Born a Crime,’ Trevor Noah’s Raw Account of Life Under Apartheid”). It’s what he needed to expand his opportunities and reach more of the world, and the main language he uses in his comedy. Comedy, especially when using controversial and sensitive topics, can be a highly political act. Like protesting, it makes your voice heard by the population and those in charge alike. And satire, like fake news, can create a sense of community through rejection. The eighteenth century Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once said that satire was a mirror in which viewers discovered everybody’s face but their own; its pleasure is the pleasure of othering. We have the right to free speech, but should use it wisely in unifying rather than accentuating differences.
However, in contrast to mainstream media, political satire chooses reports based on comedic value, which—instead of deviating from essential information—often accentuates the news and underscores important issues in politics. While they do make us laugh, there is a sense of warning, particularly from Noah’s The Daily Show. It’s not unlike Noah to deal with a certain “end of the world” type of humor. As he discusses in “Trevor Noah's Eventful First Year”, comedians will always be around to make jokes until the very end. Most people would rather go out laughing than as a sad, miserable mess. It may even convince people to speak up before it is too late. In one of Noah’s videos published before the election in November, the United States has collapsed into chaos after four years of President Trump. The only news consists of TNN, or the Trump News Network, dissenters are persecuted, Obamacare was replaced with an energy drink, and much more. Of course, this is all fictional, but comedy skits such as this provides a glimpse of the repercussions of poorly planned policies and the importance of voting. Some have argued that political satire encourages cynicism, trivializes politics, and promotes a narrow point of view. However, this does not nullify the importance of awareness. Satire such as The Daily Show, in fact, try to impart a broader world view on their audience and reduce partisan-reliant political influence. As Wasilewska states, “there is no doubt that ethnic [and political] humor is [sometimes] aggressive,” but in a certain context and with the right objective, maybe that is what we need (Wasilewska, p. 143).
Out of a difficult childhood fraught with struggles, Trevor Noah has continued a tradition of political humor. As the new host of The Daily Show, he has integrated ethnic, deadpan, insult, and observational comedy into a unique world perspective younger generations are anxious to receive. With the increasing fear and hatred of politics, many are turning away from mainstream media in favor of satirical news programs. Many comedians, like Noah, understand that we are not getting the full picture with FOX, CNN, or MSNBC, and that it’s important to be politically engaged. Using comedy as a mechanism for political commentary is not a new concept by any means, but it does provide a platform for many to understand and learn about events they may not have otherwise cared about. With new technology constantly bombarding us with news, the average citizen may need help in its organization and analysis. As Wasilewska demonstrates, followers of satire news are more knowledgeable and consume more news than the general population, all thanks to comedians like Trevor Noah.