October 16, 2021

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Opinion | Trevor Noah on Cancel Culture and Trump

18 min read

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jane coaston

I’m Jane Coaston, and this is a special bonus episode of The Argument.

Last month, I sat down with Trevor Noah to talk about a topic we both hate, cancel culture. Contrary to the theme of the show, this wasn’t an argument, more of a conversation. Trevor has been hosting The Daily Show for six years, and as a comedian, he has a lot of thoughts on how satire works, what makes political satire satisfying, and facing up to your old sometimes not so good and maybe very bad jokes.

We showed a clip of this interview at a Times Opinion event that was just for subscribers, which you should become if you’re not one yet. That was a sample, the first quarter, and this is the whole game. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Also, I made him laugh once, so listen for that moment, because I’ve already told my friends about it.

Trevor Noah, thank you so much for joining us.

trevor noah

Thank you so much for having me. Pleasure to be here, Jane.

jane coaston

So I want to start with your own story. Because you had a hugely successful career in South Africa and elsewhere before The Daily Show. But why were you interested in doing The Daily Show, which is a very specific type of American comedy?

trevor noah

I don’t know that I was interested in doing a specific type of American comedy. I was interested in doing a comedy. I was always inspired by John Oliver when he first started. You know, I remember telling him, you know, it was nice to see that somebody can live in a different country, and bring different perspectives to what’s happening in that place. And so I really loved that idea and that space.

And I think what I appreciated with Jon Stewart was when I came to The Daily Show, he didn’t make it a — you have to do our thing. He was, like, no, I want to hear your thing. What is your vibe? What is your opinion? How do you see the world? I think it was one of those things where I went, oh yeah, I would like to be able to try to do something here, and see if I can or cannot do it.

jane coaston

Comedy is in many ways culturally specific. And I think especially, political comedy is culturally specific. I’m married to a New Zealander. I have attempted to watch comedians who talk about New Zealand politics, and I don’t get it. I’m sure it’s very funny. How has that been something that you have confronted, or working through how American politics can be funny in a very specific way?

trevor noah

Well, I think — to your example — the thing that a lot of Americans don’t realize is the whole world is always aware of American politics, because American politics always involves the world. So in the rest of the world —

jane coaston

I am very sorry. I’m very sorry, just on behalf of America. I remember right after the 2016 election, I went to New Zealand, and a bunch of people are like, so what happened? And I was like, if I knew —

trevor noah

It’s good and it’s bad. I mean, there’s many countries around the world who go, oh, America helped us with this. And then there’s countries around the world where they go, oh, America invaded us, or interfered in our country. So either way, though, good or bad, American politics will affect you, regardless of where you are in the world.

So I think in doing comedy about American politics, you come to the space with a general awareness. Most people around the world know who America’s president is. They have a general sense of what the conflicts are. I don’t think I’d be able to go to like a random country and do comedy there, necessarily, because I wouldn’t have any familiarity with the history of their comedy, nor their politics.

jane coaston

Was there an adjustment period, though, for doing — especially comedy for The Daily Show, where —

trevor noah

Oh definitely.

jane coaston

I grew up watching it with Jon Stewart, and this is comedy for people who know what the filibuster is, and who care —

trevor noah

Definitely.

jane coaston

— about what the filibuster is. What was that adjustment process like?

trevor noah

Well, you see, that’s the misconception that I had when I started. I thought I had to do comedy and create a satirical news show for people who know what the filibuster is. And I was just like, well, I mean, I just learned what the filibuster is. I only got here a few years ago. Then I realized that, no, that’s not what I was actually here to do, and that’s not what I’m trying to do.

I remember starting on the show, going, Jon Stewart didn’t start with the filibuster. He started a journey and a conversation with his audience. And so I realized that my job was not to continue a conversation that had been ongoing, but rather, start a new one. And so that started to become the change for me. I make every episode as if you don’t know anything about what a filibuster is or isn’t. I would rather tell you a brand new story each day.

jane coaston

We’ve already had — before we started recording — the very critical hair conversation that all biracial people must have by law. And so you and I are both biracial, but we grew up in very different contexts. And you’ve talked before about how America was a weirdly familiar place for you, because it sort of felt like home with relation to blackness, but not. Was that similar or different for being biracial, where — obviously, the biracial experience in South Africa is very different from the biracial experience of Cincinnati, Ohio.

trevor noah

Right, right. I can only imagine. You know what really makes it different is this. In America, I think one of the worst things that ever happened in conjunction with just slavery itself is that slavery wasn’t just robbing people of their autonomy. It wasn’t just robbing people of their freedom and their rights. It also robbed people of their stories. It robbed people of their families. It robbed people of their histories.

It robbed people of their culture. And I never really appreciated culture until I came to America, and met so many people who would be enamored by culture, you know? Culture is weird. It’s like an operating system that you have, and you didn’t even realize you had it.

I grew up in South Africa as a mixed race person, fine. And then some people would think I’m colored when they would meet me. And in our country, that means people who are descendents of people who generally have my skin tone. And so people would think I’m colored, and then I would speak, and they’d be like, but where are you from? And I grew up in a Xhosa culture, you know? So my family is Xhosa, and as Xhosa people, we have ideas of what the world is. And we grew up a certain way, and we live a certain way, and we have a shared identity and an operating system.

But what culture does is it doesn’t make you rely solely on your appearance. You have an attachment to something else, as opposed to just what people tell you you are or aren’t, especially a government. Whereas in America — I mean, you come to this place where it’s like, all right, we got the one-drop rule, and this is you, and that is you, and you can’t be more than one thing. We want you in a specific box. This is what you are.

And so that’s really interesting. It’s helped me realize how much we’re sold on the ideas of what makes people who they are, as opposed to who they are. And then we come to realize that, unfortunately a lot of the time, our experiences are — negatively a lot of the time — the things that actually creates another type of culture.

And so in America especially, being Black, a lot of the time, many of the commonalities come with a certain struggle and a certain pain. And there are new joys that have been created, especially in African-American culture. But it is unfortunate to see how many of the things that connect us as a people are a shared oppression.

jane coaston

Right, exactly. And it’s been interesting to see. I always make this joke about when people talk about the Black community that it makes it sound like we all get on one Zoom meeting, and it’s just like LeBron yelling at Maxine Waters about something. But it’s that shared oppression, which causes, I think, a sense of similarity of experience that may have been true, but is less true.

I grew up as — my sister and I were the only mixed race people we knew. My mom is white, and people would always ask — oh, like, it’s so lovely that you’re taking care of these children. And she’d be like, yes, they’re mine. But what extent do you think, in your experience, that there is still such thing as Pan-Africanism — as a united experience of people of African descent?

trevor noah

I think it will always exist, for a few reasons. You know, I think, one, people are looking to connect to an identity and a story. I also think there is a large attachment that comes with being oppressed in a similar way. When a whole continent is colonized, when a whole continent experiences the effects of that, when a whole continent is oppressed, that’s a shared story. And so everyone is going like, hey, do you have this, do you have this?

It’s like when all your neighbors are flooded, or when your apartment building goes through the blackout, you will come outside, and you look. You have a shared experience. And then you start to, in a strange way, become more neighborly. You go like, oh, you also don’t have power. You don’t have power? And all of a sudden, there’s this community of not having power. And so when I think of Pan-Africanism, I think that will be something that exists for as long as there is a shared commonality that goes beyond just the continent itself, but a certain challenge that people are going through, a certain ideal that people are aspiring to, and then maybe, on a deeper level, a certain cultural weave that people are all a part of.

jane coaston

As you’ve become a public figure, something that I’ve experienced, or started to experience, is that the statements you made at one time that may have been reflective of what you thought, or even just something you said 10, 15 years ago — those exist in amber, and people will always bring those up forever and ever. How have you reckoned with — oh, you’ve said this in 2012, or you said this in 2008. And even if you did say that, you’re like, yeah, that was different. But that moment hasn’t changed.

trevor noah

So number one, in America, people will get more angry about a thing a comedian says in a joke about a topic then about the topic itself. So people will get angry about a joke a comedian made about the police or police brutality — more angry than they would be about the issue of police brutality itself. And I think sometimes, it’s because people feel like they don’t have control over the issues, so they can control what people say about the issues. There, they get to assert themselves. How dare you think this is a joke, or how dare you say this thing? I get it, to a certain extent. I genuinely do.

And then on top of that, there’s also the element of what comedy is trying to do. Comedy is oftentimes trying to subvert. That’s all comedy is doing. It’s taking a pattern, and breaking the pattern. A story you think is going to go like this, and then it flips to something else. An idea that shouldn’t be said is said.

That’s what comedy is always doing. As comedians, we’re always trying to break our own minds, because we see the world — even though it’s logical, we’re like, this doesn’t seem to make sense. That’s how a comedian’s brain is working most of the time.

And so comedians exist in a society, and that society is always evolving. And then what people have now started doing is they’ll try and go back to a time when society was different, but then try and isolate the comedian, and be like, look what the comedian was saying. You’re like, yeah, but who was the comedian saying it to?

People love to do that. I see them do that with comedians now — older comedians. They’ll be like, look what this comedian said 20, 30 years ago. And then I go like, yeah, but the people who were in that audience, they laughed 20, 30 years ago. They were with the person. Why? Because that person was part of their society. And then they go like, well, what does that comedians say to that now? It’s like, well, what do you say about your views and opinions now? We should evolve as society. The jokes that I told when I was seven years old are not the jokes that I told when I was 15 years old are not the jokes I told when I was 22, 32, and so on and so forth. And I would always hope to look back and go like, ah, man, what a stupid way to tell the joke. I see what I was trying to do, but that’s not the technique that I should have used.

jane coaston

How do you think about bringing on guests who disagree with you on certain issues? Because I think one of the concerns I have is that so much of the disagreement we see right now is posturing. It’s like, I’m against you, because I want to be seen being against you. How do you get past that, and how do you think about bringing on different people and different views to the show?

trevor noah

I invite everybody on the show. People don’t want to come. We live in a world where now having a conversation is punished, and I get it, people are afraid. I remember Lindsey Graham came on the show, proudly professed everything he believed in, slammed Donald Trump, basically told the truth. Ben Carson came on. We had everyone come on the show.

And then Trump came into power, and that’s when I saw an immediate shift, in where people were no longer interested. And also, they saw no value in having a conversation with somebody else. They realized that, no, if you just dug your heels in and entrenched, you didn’t have to justify your points of view. You just have to shout them really loud, and that was that.

And I go to people all the time — anyone — come on the show, let’s chat. Oh, no, you just want me to come on so that you can — I’m like, hey, man, I’ve never done that to anybody. I don’t try and sandbag people. I’m like, I want to hear your ideas, and then I would like to have a conversation where ideas are going head to head.

But we don’t live in a world where people want to do that or want to risk that. Because now we live in a space where people go, you went where? You’re a traitor. You went there? You’re a traitor. How could you even? How could you even acknowledge the existence of a human being who does not share the same points of view as you? How dare you?

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jane coaston

So thinking about Trump — as people tend to do — both The Daily Show and The New York Times did really well while Trump was in office. Because whether you really, really hated him or really, really liked him, which appeared to be the two emotions, people wanted to pay attention. And there’s no better time to be writing about politics or doing political satire when everyone’s paying attention. And every joke kills, because everyone knows what you’re talking about.

Has that changed under Biden? Is there a sense of the element of satire is harder when you don’t hate the person doing it? Has that changed how you think about the show, or what the show’s role is?

trevor noah

Well first of all, I never hated Donald Trump, you know? I felt sorry for him as a person. I also felt sorry for the people who believed in his lies, you know? But I realized that a lot of them didn’t even see them as lies. They were attached to the idea of what he was saying, not what he was actually saying.

And that gave me a deeper understanding of Donald Trump and these people, where they were like, oh, Trevor, we don’t actually care about whether he does build a wall or not build a wall. We like that he said he’s going to build a wall, and we like how you’re reacting to it. And I was like, oh, this is interesting, you know? It’s almost like it’s just a backlash. It’s just like a — yeah! It’s just like a rebellion, that’s what it is.

So in terms of satire — the thing that people take for granted is it’s really hard to satirize somebody like Donald Trump, because they exist in a constant state of satirizing themselves. Donald Trump would be the kind of person who would say something in a speech, and then because he made a mistake, make that a real thing, instead of just going back a few words and correcting himself. Like I remember once — I think it was a State of the Union, or one of those — he was talking about someone in the stands, and he’s like, (AS TRUMP) and you got CJ, or DJ. Some people call him DJ. I call him CJ. So many people — some people call him CG. He said I can call him anything.

And you’re like, yo, you, messed up a person’s name, and instead of just being like CJ — sorry, I mean DJ — he’s like, no, I am now going to create a narrative where you have multiple names, and I’m allowed to use one. That’s the level that he was on. Where do you begin to satirize that?

Trump made a lot of comedy not fun. Because you see, a lot of comedy is pushing boundaries. A lot of comedy is saying things that are not true. A lot of comedy is saying things that make people uncomfortable. But when everybody is constantly uncomfortable, they don’t want to now feel uncomfortable in a moment, you know?

And so to your point with Biden — I go, man, I miss not having to talk about one person every single day. I miss people in Ohio in a diner not only talking about Trump. I used to go out to like lunch or dinner, and that’s all you’d hear at every table. Oh, Trump? What’s he going? Trump? Did you hear what Trump? Oh, Donald Trump [BABBLING].

That’s all you’d hear. People don’t realize that that’s not a healthy way to live. You should always be engaged in politics. But you shouldn’t be engaged in the fanfare of the thing all the time, because then you’re missing out on what’s actually happening. And so I’m glad that people can now go back to a world where, hopefully, we can focus more on issues without attaching it to one person. Because when a police shooting happens during Trump, it’s about Trump. Ah, Trump, Trump! And it’s like, no, let’s talk about a systemic problem that America has with policing.

jane coaston

I think my last question for you — you were talking about that black and white thinking. And I think we’ve both experienced the idea of cancel culture, in which people are like, you can’t talk to this person, you can’t talk to this person, because of that posturing. How do you see us getting past that, and how do you work to get past that?

trevor noah

OK. Oh, here we go. How much time do we have? All right. So I think the first thing we have to do in any conversation is figure out what the words mean in the conversation that we’re having. So first things first. I think we have to ask, what does cancel actually mean in the context that we’re using it as people. Because everyone says that, oh, canceled, canceled. I even say it. And I say it in a funny way, you know?

jane coaston

Yeah.

trevor noah

I remember talking to Tarana Burke once, where she was like, Trevor, don’t say somebody got MeToo’d, because you’re implying that the man is now the victim of a system that is now coming after men. And her and I had a great discussion about this. It was like, oh, I was like, I’m not trying to do that. I was implying that the guy was busted for doing something, so he got MeToo’d, as in he got arrested, he got caught. And she was like, but the word MeToo — and then we were having this discussion about how sometimes, a phrase started with an original intention, and then now it has warped, and society sees it as something else. And it was a really fascinating discussion that we had.

I think the same thing about cancel culture. A lot of the time, when people say canceled — someone got canceled — we can break that down into a few things. Sometimes what they mean is someone got held accountable. What they sometimes mean is somebody was criticized. Sometimes what they mean is, well, somebody was just roasted.

Actually, there’s a fourth one, and that fourth one doesn’t have to do with words. It maybe touches on accountability, but someone got punished for doing something, got caught for doing something. People have been held accountable long before we had social media. People have been held accountable long before this cancel culture started.

Politicians used to lose their jobs because they were having affairs with mistresses, or they were doing whatever — stealing money. Were they being canceled? Athletes would lose their endorsements because they were caught either doping, or doing drugs, or getting up to no good in their personal lives. Actors and actresses would get fired from their job because of something that the public found to be like — they’re like, oh, this is unscrupulous.

People get fired from their company jobs because they said something in the office, or they did something. They get three warnings, and then they get fired. What is that? Is that canceling? My company canceled me. What did you do, Dave? Oh, I xeroxed my balls three times. Well, Dave, I don’t know if you got canceled. I think you got fired.

And so when I look at all these things, I go, yes, there are people out there who will get angry at you because you had a conversation with somebody who’s a conservative, or a Republican, or whatever, and there’ll be a group of them. And unfortunately, the algorithm on Twitter is going to amplify those people, because the algorithm is always looking for new things to create engagement. So 400 tweets or 2,000 tweets can sometimes have more weighting than all the tweets about Justin Bieber.

And that’s a thing I don’t like as well. Companies will use the outrage as an excuse to do something they always wanted to do. Ah, sorry, Jane, we’re going to let you go. Yeah. Oh yeah, no — the people. But it’s like, no, we wanted to fire you. And the reason you know that the companies are just doing this is because there are people who’ve been canceled who still have their jobs. Why? Because the company is like, no, we don’t want to lose this person, we’re keeping them.

Yeah, so for me, I think for as long as we don’t have the parameters of what we’re actually talking about laid out, we will never get to a place where we’re actually finding a solution or having an honest conversation. People just want to shout. I don’t participate in that. I don’t participate in outrage.

I’m like, yeah, no. You’ll find me poking holes, telling jokes, using satire to get my points across. I think there are many important issues that we can address. But getting swept up in the outrage? Yeah, you can miss me on that one.

jane coaston

I’m glad that neither of us got swept up in outrage, though it looks fun.

trevor noah

Oh, people love it.

jane coaston

Like all the yelling really looks fun.

trevor noah

People love it.

jane coaston

If you just scream at people — it looks like a great time.

trevor noah

People love it.

jane coaston

Oh, it’s very lucrative. But Trevor Noah, thank you so much for your time. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

trevor noah

Thank you so much for having me. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in.

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jane coaston

The Argument is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Guiterrez, and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Allison Bruzek, and Paula Schuman. With original music and sound design by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair, and audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks this week to Elaine Chen, Kelsey Fowler, Maria de Fabio, Beth Weinstein, and Nina Weissman.

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