Halloran: The importance of holding comedians to a higher standard

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Sara Halloran, Columnist

Like many other people, I was surprised when I heard Jon Stewart’s replacement on “The Daily Show” would be Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who was recently named the show’s newest correspondent. I knew that Noah would possibly take longer to adjust to the host role than another, more experienced candidate, but I was perfectly willing to grant him the time. I anticipated a future “Daily Show” full of incisive bits expertly dealing with issues like race. However, when fans brought to light some of his fairly offensive tweets, my concern shifted from his seeming lack of experience to his seeming lack of taste. How could anyone who will soon preach to a huge liberal audience so tactlessly insult Jews and women?

Even worse than this reveal was the comedy world’s reaction. Noah himself tweeted a cop-out “apology” that boiled down to “Sorry if you were offended by a few bad jokes.” Comedy Central, understandably defensive of its popular show’s incoming head, chalked the tweets up to Noah’s admirable tendencies to “(push) boundaries” and be “provocative,” as if a few jokes where the punchlines were “Gross! Fat/Jewish women/people” were really the cutting edge of comedy. Then came the brigade of Free Speech Defenders, led by comedians Jim Norton and Patton Oswalt. Norton penned a piece for Time citing society’s passion for taking offense as the real problem, and Oswalt published a 53-tweet odyssey that mocked the sort of intense language policing he said kills jokes. Both comedians, as white Christian men, failed to acknowledge they are the exact audience for these types of jokes, choosing from their place of privilege not to defend the more vulnerable, but rather to patronize the buzzkills who have time and again heard these ugly, offensive stereotypes hurled at them by entertainers.

Though Comedy Central, Norton and Oswalt imply the line between offensive and funny is thin, it is not difficult to discern what’s funny and what’s strictly offensive. Comedians like Jon Stewart have stayed controversy-free for years by cleverly mocking those in power rather than lazily punching down oppressed groups that have already taken the brunt of jokes for centuries. When groups like Jews and women hear jokes of that nature, they no longer feel as if the person entertaining them is on their side. If they wanted to hear these jokes, they could just stand on any street in America and listen in on people’s conversations, which is why I cite my right to not only be offended, but to be disappointed as well.

It all comes down to this: We should expect better from our entertainers, and the collective brushing-off of this incident from the comedy world is disheartening. Norton and Oswalt, two men who I previously admired, need to realize that if the group that serves as the butt of the joke says the joke is not OK, then the joke is probably not OK. This is especially relevant considering minority groups have to shrug off a myriad of insults for fear of being labeled humorless or overly sensitive. I, for one, am willing to give Noah another chance, since I am sure all of us have at one time or another laughed at problematic things. I would appreciate if he would release a genuine apology, but as long as he shows growth as host of “The Daily Show,” I will be able to trust him again. Anyway, it is unlikely his writers or producers will allow him to showcase any offensive material. However, I completely understand if others are not so quick to forgive, and Noah’s defenders should, too. For “Daily Show” viewers who looked to Stewart to dissect the ills of American politics and the world at large, it is hard to fathom that the “everyman” host role is filled by someone who does not seem to value every person equally.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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