It’s been an incredibly interesting few days in the comedy world, and the good news is that it has nothing to do with the transparent redemption propaganda that was the Justin Bieber roast. Instead, the controversy of the moment revolves around Trevor Noah, the newly announced Daily Show host, and a series of old tweets that the Internet outrage machine discovered and publicized with the ultimate goal, I guess, of getting Noah fired. (I equivocate there because it can be difficult to tell what the social justice warrior end game might be—are they addicted to the collective power they can muster, or is the expression of offense enough?) The tweets—not very funny, by and large—were deemed anti-Semitic and sexist in some corners, and the vultures circled.
It feels like we’ve seen a lot of capitulation when the Twitter activists reach full force, but this time, Comedy Central stood by Noah, and Noah stood up for himself. No craven apologies, no corporate silence, and no hollow academic “we must do better” jargon. Their arguments were the same—comedians push boundaries, and judging someone’s life or career by a handful of tweets isn’t fair.
It may seem harsh to simply dismiss the activists out of hand, because of course anti-Semitism and sexism and racism are real problems in the world that don’t bear ignoring. The trouble is, the people who take such dramatic offense on social media have proved themselves tone-deaf and humorless with such routine frequency that they’ve made themselves ridiculous. How can you take a person like Suey Park from the #CancelColbert debacle seriously? How do you “engage” with people who make no allowance for context or satire, or the complicated nature of comedy? How can you have a discourse in good faith when the other side barely tries to hide the fact that they operate from an agenda of censorship? How do you argue against the position that merely being offended is grounds for punishing another person?
For whatever reason—a mix of anger and exhaustion, probably—the Trevor Noah incident was the shot heard ‘round the world for comedians. The backlash began quickly, and it was more vehement than I’ve ever seen. Even the relatively cautious pieces, like Drew Magary’s essay at GQ, arrived at the conclusion that the “analysis of comedy” was ruining comedy. Patton Oswalt, a longtime advocate of freedom in comedy, pulled no punches with a 53-tweet rant making the absurdity of leftist politics in comedy explicit. Oswalt’s tweets weren’t just funny—they were shocking in how accurately the aped the tone of easily offended academics. Taken as a whole, the tweets painted a picture of hypersensitivity run amok, but individually, they sounded very much like the speech of an outraged Internet activist, right down to vocabulary tics like “problematic” and “privilege,” which he repeated for emphasis. At Time, comedian Jim Norton was more direct in a piece called ‘Trevor Noah Isn’t the Problem. You Are. “We’re addicted to the rush of being offended,” he wrote, concluding that the outraged hordes were “using his tweets to get their dopamine rush.” Other reactions, including a Last Comic Standing panel that included Keenan Ivory-Wayans and Anthony Jeselnik, are hitting similar points.
This reaction has been surprisingly vociferous, and hopefully that’s a sign that our fear of the repercussions of Twitter outrage has diminished. Because that fear is real—we don’t have to look far to see the consequences of running afoul of the mob. You could argue that certain victims of the virtual witch-hunters deserved what they got, but short of outright hate speech, is it ever fair to punish a person for a social media post? Especially if they’re trying to make a joke, albeit an ill-advised one? If anything, they should be punished for the stupidity of not knowing better, but if it’s okay to say that Trevor Noah shouldn’t be judged for a misstep or two, why doesn’t that same standard apply to everyone? Why shouldn’t it?
In any case, the reactions from the comedy world have been heartening, because it’s sapped the power of the offended hordes, and it will hopefully create a less constricted atmosphere for comedians. Caution and political correctness do not good comedy make, and the sooner we can dispense with preachy standards set by people with extremely limited senses of humor, the better.
In time, we may even reach a sensible position: Let the unfunny, sexist, racist, bigoted assholes be identified in the free market. Let them fall on their faces by themselves. Don’t give them fuel for their fire—don’t let them claim reverse discrimination. Don’t make a gift of your attention. Let them bleat themselves hoarse, as the Twitter PC police are doing now, until they fade away with a whimper. Nobody carries sticks and stones onto a stage, and in a sane world, the words of a comedian can never hurt us.