‘Daily Show’ Twitter Controversy: Comedy Central Should Defend Host’s Right to Offend

Comedy Central was probably expecting some public debate Tuesday about the boundaries of irreverent humor. The surprise was which of the network’s properties was the subject of that debate.

Instead of the usual discussion about whether the “Comedy Central Roast” franchise crossed the line in the wake of Monday night’s special with Justin Bieber, which featured several off-color jokes, the focus was squarely on someone who didn’t appear on the program at all: Trevor Noah, newly announced host of “The Daily Show.”

With the ink probably still drying on his freshly signed contract, some of the more controversial tweets from the South African comedian’s account were being labeled anti-Semitic, racist and sexist.

Both the network and the comedian have yet to respond (though he did tweet Monday evening what seemed like a defense–“Twitter does not have enough characters to respond to all the characters on Twitter”–only to delete it shortly after).

But either Noah or Comedy Central is going to need break their silence, and the sooner the better lest this criticism overshadow him before he even takes over “The Daily Show” anchor chair (Update: Comedy Central issued a statement about an hour after this commentary was published; see below).

Simply put, they must defend his right to offend. Anything less would be a mistake, including saying nothing at all.

That’s not a sentiment that’s going to sit well with Noah’s growing chorus of critics, who must fear Comedy Central is rewarding some kind of hatemonger who could abuse his new high-profile perch to drop bombs like the following:

“A hot white woman with ass is like a unicorn,” he mused on Twitter in 2011. “Even if you do see one, you’ll probably never get to ride it.”

“South African knows how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful,” he tweeted back in 2010.

This episode will draw comparison to last week’s dust-up involving The New Yorker column penned by Lena Dunham that has been accused of anti-Semitism. But whereas Dunham at least could claim that she, like many comedians who traditionally get more leeway when addressing their own people, has some artistic license, Noah certainly went out further on a limb by taking sharp digs at groups he doesn’t represent, like women and Jews.

The flip side of excusing anything and everything comedians say is that giving carte blanche will invariably provide cover to one rogue or another to do serious damage. Comedic immunity shouldn’t be claimed with impunity.

But if his tweets prove anything, Noah seems–like all good comedians–to be an equal-opportunity offender. What would be much more problematic if he contained his jabs to one particular ethnicity or group, but he doesn’t.

Political correctness seems to be running amok again here; it’s actually somewhat surprising we’re not seeing comedians be more vocal about the issue.

It’s quite possible the network and/or comedian will attempt to distance Noah from the tweets in question, most of which were made years ago, and make some reference to his evolving sensibilities. But that would be a mistake because they would effectively box in Noah, painting bright lines around the anchor desk regarding what is or isn’t out of bounds.

As Jon Stewart amply demonstrated, the “Daily” anchor needs to be provocative without restraint. The time for Comedy Central to set the tone for its new hire is now.

Update: Comedy Central issued a statement in support of Noah about an hour after this commentary was published:  “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”

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