A lot of internet denizens have weighed in on new Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s years-old and disappointing/offensive tweets, and understandably so. People have thoughts, they have Twitter, and the two generally go together. Most interesting, though, is when comedians weigh in, because they actually have experience with what Noah’s dealing with, and not just theoretical “well, I wouldn’t have made those jokes” thoughts. Take, for instance, comedian Guy Branum, who penned an interesting op-ed about the matter for yesterday’s New York Times. In “Trevor Noah Learns Twitter Just Can’t Take A Joke,” Branum details his own experiences with walking the line between sense and humor, including a time he, as a gay man, realized he couldn’t tell an AIDS joke onstage. As Branum writes,
In 2002, at a coffee shop in one of San Francisco’s less-charming neighborhoods, I stood in front of 10 or 12 people and told a joke about AIDS. It got a laugh. After I delivered it, as I segued into a searing analysis of Destiny’s Child, I noticed a guy at a table with a Kaposi’s sarcoma on his forehead. When I was writing that AIDS joke, I figured since I was gay, it was fine for me to talk about AIDS, but in context, looking at the joke through the eyes of my audience, I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do again.
Overall, Branum defends Noah’s right to falter, explaining the concept of working out jokes online. However, he notes that “For stand-up to get good, it requires a fair amount of public failure. Traditionally, that failure was ephemeral, but in a world of camera phones, blogs and Twitter, comedians’ growing pains can now be well documented.”
Perhaps most interesting are Branum’s thoughts about Noah’s “hack premises about women, Jews, and fat people.” While he says “good stand-up comedy cannot be safe,” “good comedy can’t just echo tropes from the past that have a semblance of danger.” As he puts it,
Bad impressions of gays and Asians, complaints about unattractive women, brutal insults to trans people and mockery of African-American names have become the tired rubric of too many stand-ups’ acts. These jokes aren’t just bad and hurtful; they reinforce a mostly white, straight, male power dynamic within the comedy world.
Social media critics challenged these tired premises, and comics unused to having their perspectives questioned have replied that social awareness will destroy comedy. But it won’t. American audiences used to laugh at blackface, Mickey Rooney as Mr. I. Y. Yunioshi and any number of other caricatures. We grew out of those jokes.
Overall, Branum’s argument is an incredibly measured exercise in line walking, and one that’s rather refreshing in this age of outrage. Yes, he says, Noah’s jokes were dumb, offensive, and stupid. But Noah’s absolutely allowed to be dumb, offensive, and stupid, provided he’s learned from that since. As Branum says, “in the process of a comedian’s learning how to say the right thing, he needs the chance to say the wrong thing.”