Two years ago, career reality show star Omarosa Manigault appeared on rival reality star Bethenny Frankel’s now-defunct daytime talk show and said, “It’s different for you and I. I’m an African American woman. You get to walk around and be mediocre, and you still get rewarded with things.” As she was booed by the mostly white crowd, she continued, “We have to be exceptional to get anything in this business.” The catty interview became a popular meme, even for those who didn’t know or care about the origin of the erstwhile “Celebrity Apprentice” co-stars’ feud (like me). To date, the “Omarosa and Bethenny Get Into It” clip has more than half a million YouTube views.
Manigault’s sentiment isn’t new. It was echoed last season on “Scandal” when Rowan Pope (Joe Morton) famously reminded his daughter, Olivia, of the admonition he’d been drilling into her since childhood. “How many times have I told you you have to be, what?” “Twice as good,” Liv grits. “Twice as good to get half of what they have.”
I couldn’t help thinking of both of these conversations this week when Comedy Central announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah would be Jon Stewart’s successor on “The Daily Show.” Noah was a relative unknown to American audiences until he appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 2012 and on “Late Night With David Letterman” in 2013. Just four months ago, in December 2014, he made his debut on “The Daily Show.” This is when his public profile in the United States spiked, but based on his three brief appearances on the show, no one would have guessed that he would win the Iron Throne of Comedy Central: Stewart’s coveted 11 p.m. slot.
Within 24 hours of the announcement, the public voiced its displeasure with Noah’s comedy after scouring his Twitter timeline and unearthing a series of offensive, unfunny tweets that insulted various marginalized communities. Calls for his firing and jokes about his potential replacements began to surface. Because skewering offensive, unfunny public comments is part of “The Daily Show’s” mission, and because the newly discovered tweets and a handful of U.S. TV appearances were all Noah’s American critics had at their immediate disposal, it seemed unclear how he was able to score the hosting position — or why he should be allowed to keep it. He seemed, well … mediocre.
In fact, Noah has been acting since was 18, when he landed a role in a popular South African soap opera, “Isidingo.” He has done show-hosting stints for radio, television and award shows in his home country since 2004, before performing in a series of South African comedy tours starting in 2007. He has also starred in several of his own comedy series and was the subject of a 2012 documentary, “You Laugh But It’s True,” which chronicles Noah’s preparation for his first one-man show, 2009’s “The Daywalker.”
In the documentary trailer, Noah admits, “As someone who’s only been doing comedy for just over two years, I think I’m very far from even calling myself a ‘good comedian.’ I’m just okay for now.” It’s just the sort of self-deprecation and self-awareness you hope to find in a young comic. You always expect bad — or mediocre — material, as newcomer finds his footing, and as his Twitter feed proves, Noah has that in spades.
But he also has a fascinating, fairly painful origin story, growing up as a biracial kid during apartheid. His “Tonight Show” performance details how his Swiss-German father couldn’t walk with him and his amaXhosa mother on the same side of the street in Soweto, and his mother couldn’t be seen holding his hand if authorities were in their immediate sights. It’s the kind of surreal, ironic, dissociating experience that would make anyone’s relationship with race complex, and Noah uses that to his advantage, deftly mimicking accents, observing cultural differences and poking fun at himself and others.
In this clip from his 2013 comedy special, “It’s My Culture,” he describes going in for surgery in South Africa and encountering a nurse who doesn’t find him funny at all. He nails her accent and her churlish attitude, but clearly remembers the encounter fondly, even though he was being roundly mocked. The affection and sense of ownership are clear in the bit. The same is true of Noah’s comedy about black Americans, which has come under fire in the past couple of days. On his “Tonight Show” performance, Noah pokes fun at African American Vernacular English as well as black Americans’ decision to call themselves African American. The black American experience isn’t his culture, which is the point. In this set he’s making the point that he thought his interactions with black Americans would provide him a place to belong, after years spent torn between cultures. Instead, he’s as befuddled by American blackness as he is by deep Australian accents or cross-cultural conformity in airports.
There’s nothing exceptional about Noah’s terrible Twitter feed — or even his “a lot of black people do this and I’m not one of them” humor (which has been a staple of American black comedians for decades). But there may be something exceptional about Trevor Noah, given time and opportunity. If anything, his Twitter timeline may suggest that he isn’t “twice as good” — and that’s great, because he shouldn’t have to be. He should be afforded equal opportunity to shed what still may be mediocre about his act. At worst, he’ll tank and his Twitter detractors will have “I told you so” bragging rights. But at best, he’ll grow into a seasoned, advocacy-minded thinker before our very eyes. As Jon Stewart did.