UPDATED: NBC’s “Late Night with Jay Leno” is hardly considered a cultural arbiter anymore (except for its baby boomer viewers and for the mostly white supporters of the Republican Party) but in South Africa the appearance of comedian Trevor Noah on the show last week is big news. Noah is a big name back home for his send-ups (more like impressions) of popular politicians and racial stereotypes, some more successful than others, and for shilling for a mobile phone company. Nonetheless, having heard so much from people in South Africa about how funny Noah is–and he is certainly talented–and happy to root for fellows from the continent, I was excited for his first appearance on American TV. Significantly, Noah was apparently also the first African comedian to appear in the stand-up slot for young comedians on the show (a few big name African-American comedians are regular featured guests already). That’s an achievement of sorts. Sadly, Noah’s performance turned out to be unfunny. After doing some decent jokes about the economy (comparing America’s economy to the “credit of a black man”) and riffing on his background — his mother is black, his father white –Noah, oddly, proceeded to tell jokes about what he called “the whole African-American thing.” What followed–in what was supposed to be a mock “African-American accent”–were some tired generalizations and stereotypes of African Americans about language, black people’s names and of African Americans “trying really hard to reconnect with Africa.” Halfway through I could not bear it anymore with the exaggerated mannerisms, including “walking” like African Americans and their supposed relation to gun play, etcetera. I assume there was to be some irony or edginess in there. That it would lead to someplace interesting. But I could not find it. (Some of the better African-American comedians riff on these same topics, including the “unsayable,” but at least with pathos and sympathy) I suppose I can’t see funny or get a good joke. I couldn’t help recall Steve Coogan’s advice for comedians: “Comedy can’t always be safe, and sometimes entertainers need to challenge social orthodoxies. But ‘saying the unsayable’ is different from simply recycling offensive cliches.”
As a friend wrote to me after I sent him the video: “I laughed through about the first quarter and then cringed throughout the rest, more at the [mostly white] audience’s laughter than anything … I wonder what his routine would be like in front of a room full of ‘African Americans’.” Luckily, few people saw it. Back in South Africa the newspapers went on about how Noah is “taking America by storm” and about being Proudly South African. Noah will probably be a cross over star–his quick rise in South Africa suggest he is capable–but I am not sure that part of his routine is funny or will win him many fans over here, apart from Jay Leno’s approval.