Trevor Noah Says He’s Not a Political Progressive. He’d Be Funnier If He Were.

The new Daily Show host doesn’t have much to say, which leaves him making jokes about tramp stamps and body weight.

(The Daily Show with Trevor Noah / Brad Barket)
Originally posted October 9 on the Nation

Unlike Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah doesn’t ground his comedy in a political ideology. This is of course politically disappointing to people who saw Jon Stewart as someone who not only raised awareness but influenced politics and sometimes even policy. But what’s less obvious is that the lack of political perspective makes the show less funny.

Like millions of viewers in the United States and across the globe, I depended upon Jon Stewart, night after night, to excoriate people in high places who had messed with ordinary people during the day. When Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah would replace Stewart, I knew that the odds of someone doing as good a job were slim. But I defended Noah when he came under attack for a handful of tweets that ranged from offensive to not at all offensive (just critical of Israeli policy), and from unfunny to really, really unfunny. It seemed an unfair point of focus. I was hopeful that his background, so different from Stewart’s, would bring a fresh perspective. And I thought it went without saying that Noah would continue the show’s political focus and insight.

But then a week before the new Daily Show launched, Trevor Noah told a group of reporters whom Comedy Central had invited to the Daily Show studio that he was “not a political progressive,” but “a progressive person.” Noah said,

What makes me a progressive, in my opinion, is the fact that I try to improve myself and by and large improve the world that I’m in—in the smallest way possible. I know that I cannot change the entire world, but I’ve always believed I can at least affect change in my world. So I try and do that. Progression, in my opinion, is often identifying shortcomings—whether it’s views or the things you’re doing in your life, your relationships—and trying to find the places where you improve on those.

The personal is, of course, political, but Noah wasn’t referring to identity politics or advocating an intersectional analysis. He seemed to equate progress with self-improvement. And he sounded like a self-help guru, or a student-government candidate just starting out.

The first weeks of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show have revealed a host whose perspective is unclear. This isn’t just a political problem but a comedic one. Despite being consistently affable and charming, Noah rarely puts forward a personal perspective about politics, or anything. And this lack of perspective makes the humor of his monologues and interviews feel haphazard. The sooner he figures out who he is, what he’s going for as a person and a host, the sooner he will be able to find a voice for conveying his vast comedic gifts.

We had a preview of his bro-ish humor during the backlash to Noah’s tweets last spring. Noah was accused of being a misogynist and, again, not funny, for his tweet from 2011: “ ‘Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!’—fat chicks everywhere.” While he didn’t do or say anything nearly as overtly offensive on the show, there were echoes of bro-ish sexism and body shaming. Noah set up a segment on Lena Dunham’s interview with Hillary Clinton by saying, “Hillary knows how to win the nation. First you have to win the butt-smotherers.” With as much nuance as displayed in the joke, the screen behind Noah showed a partially blurred image of Allison Williams’s character receiving analingus on an episode of Girls.

The joke was pretty sophomoric and slightly slut shaming, in a vague and thoughtless way. Then he showed a clip in which Dunham asked Clinton if she was a feminist, to which Clinton responded, “Yes, absolutely.” When Dunham laughed in glee, Noah paused the footage and said, “I haven’t seen Lena Dunham that excited since HBO made its office clothing-optional.” Really? Lena Dunham’s highly political, feminist, and ground-breaking decision to show a character with a “normal body” naked on TV is reduced to a punchline about how much she likes to be naked.

Noah went for an easy punch line and some body-shaming when he interviewed Chris Christie, too: Recalling the first time he met the governor, Noah says, “You were wearing shorts. I will never…forget it. You look good in shorts.” Christie responds to the implicit fat joke by rolling with it and making fun of his own appearance: “There’s no requirement to lie in your first week on the job.”

Noah did cover John Boehner’s retirement and made a statement about how right-wing Washington has become: “Even John Boehner, the man once ranked the eighth-most-conservative man in Congress, wasn’t right-wing enough.… It’s like crack telling meth that it’s not addictive enough. ‘Yo, man, you got to step your game up, crystal, you make teeth fall out, big deal. I put down Whitney Houston.’” But the joke was timid, at least politically, and the only risky part was the Whitney Houston reference, which got a groan.

The retirement of John Boehner and Jon Stewart, which should have been a short joke, or perhaps a few jokes, was stretched into a meta and self-referential report from correspondent Jordan Klepper, who told Noah, “I get how you feel. Taking over for John—Boehner—is hard.” Noah replied, “Pretty soon everyone will be saying, John please come back.” The Boehner/Boner jokes didn’t have a real perspective, political or otherwise. There was no personality. And so it fell pretty flat.

In contrast, correspondents Roy Wood and Jordan Keppler brought an angle and some character to the show, which made them funnier. It wasn’t earth-shattering (no pun intended), but Roy Wood Jr.’s report on NASA’s discovery of liquid on Mars was the first time I laughed during the debut episode. It was also the first time racism (and not just race) was addressed on the show. When Noah asks Wood what he can tell us about the story, Wood responds, “I can tell you I don’t give a shit.” When an optimistic Noah says, “Doesn’t this raise the possibility that one day people can live on Mars?” Wood responds, “People like who? Me and you? How am I going to get there? Brother can’t catch a cab, you think we can catch a spaceship?… Black people ain’t going to Mars! And that includes you, Trevor.”

The other funniest segment of the show was a joint investigation by white Jordan Keppler and black Roy Wood into police bias. Again, they had strong perspectives, which drove the comedy and the political message. During an interview with former NYPD detective and Fox News contributor Bo Dietl, Keppler says, “This is a tough question to ask Bo, but I gotta ask: Are cops racist?” When Bo responds, “No,” Klepper gets up to leave, saying, “That’s good enough for me.”

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Laugh Lines – Katie Halper interviews Margaret Cho

The comedian on her radical education, the importance of safe spaces in the “hostile and dangerous world of comedy,” and when bad taste makes for good jokes.
Photograph by Mary Taylor.
Originally published on Guernica

Many comedians claim to challenge the status quo, question norms, push the limits, and speak (funny) truth to power. But few do it as consistently, as powerfully, and as hilariously as Margaret Cho. Whether describing her first colonic, singing about her love of receiving oral sex, or taking the ALS ice water challenge in a different direction (in enema form, to be precise), Cho makes it her business to offend, and often enrage, polite society.

Though her comedy rejects judgmental moralism, it does contain an undeniably moral and ethical code sewn from Cho’s personal experience and her sense of empathy and justice. As mainstream comedy continues to promote fat-shaming, rape jokes, and homophobia, Cho uses her work to create a safe space ­for the very people who find themselves the butts of other comedians’ humor. She punches up, not down, taking aim at the powerful rather than the disenfranchised.

Cho was born into a time of rebellion and transgression in 1968, to parents who had emigrated from Seoul to San Francisco four years earlier. She was bullied and unhappy at school, but found refuge and friendship among the men who frequented the gay bookstore her parents owned. Her other refuge was comedy, which she began writing at fourteen and performing at sixteen.

Cho’s very identity challenges the status quo—she is a queer, Asian-American, female comedian—but she also actively confronts injustice. After Robin Williams died, Cho decided to turn her grief into action: she began to busk on her days off to raise money for the homeless, and started a #BeRobin campaign calling on others to take up the cause of homelessness around which Williams had organized.

But while Cho is often political, she is not PC. At the Golden Globes this past January, she caused controversy by appearing as Cho Yung Ja, a North Korean army general, new member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and contributor to the fictional Movies Wow! Magazine. People accused Cho of coonery and minstrelsy. Instead of rolling over, she took to Twitter, writing: “I’m not playing the race card. I’m playing the rice card.”

Cho spoke to me over the phone from her house in LA, in the midst of preparing for her psyCHO stand-up tour, elucidating the crucial difference between comedy that offends without challenging, and comedy like hers, which offends to disrupt.

Katie Halper for Guernica Continue reading “Laugh Lines – Katie Halper interviews Margaret Cho”

7 Golden Globes moments that made conservative heads explode

image via youtube
image via youtube

Sunday night’s Golden Globes awards were truly epic. Hosting the awards ceremony for the third and last time, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were amazeballs, went out with a bang, will be missed and should basically host every event ever. There were, of course, examples of douche-baggery (you know who I’m talking to… Jeremy Renner and Bill Bob). But the night was also marked by ground breaking nominations and wins, which honored people, ideas and populations who are all to often ignored, marginalized, invisible. In other words, nominations and wins which would make especially self-pitying straight, white, male conservatives who freak out about their alleged loss of power, extremely uncomfortable, angry, sad, and even more self-pitying. So, here, without any further ado, I present the moments from the 2015 Golden Globes that made conservative heads explode. (OK. A little bit more ado…  Because I don’t actually have the footage of exploding heads, to illustrate the reactions as I imagine them, I turn to GIFs of some of the characters from The Office.)

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Morning Jew Ep. 50: Joan Rivers, Jack the Jewish Ripper & Gwyneth Paltrow

Comics Heather Gold (@heathr) and Katie Halper (@kthalps) look at the headlines and ask: Is it good for the Jews? This week we look at the Air Force’s intolerance of atheism; get kind of excited about Jack the Ripper being a Jew; get offended by Gwyneth Paltrow; and discuss what Joan Rivers’ funeral would look like if she had been a Muslim comedian whose statements were about Jews.
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7 Best Jon Stewart Clips on Israel

With his brand of cutting insight, the ‘Daily Show’ host offers his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 Last week, Jon Stewart addressed how hard it is to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a sketch called “we need to talk about Israel.” Though he mocked both sides, to a certain extent, the bulk of the sketch went after those who see themselves as “pro-Israel” and see Jon Stewart as a self-loathing Jew.

Now, from what I can tell, having been called a self-loathing Jew myself, the term applies to people who make any criticism whatsoever of the Israeli government. One can easily make the case that more diplomatic solutions, dovish approaches if you will, are more helpful for the state of Israel and Israelis than more military or hawkish ones. That makes some of the self-loathers more “pro-Israel” than the ones who blindly support the government.

Stewart is one of the few public mainstream Jews with the chutzpah to say anything critical of Israel’s policies. And as a Jew, I appreciate the way he’s been doing this ever since he took over the Daily Show. So, without further ado, I present 7 great Daily Show skits on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Why there will never be a right wing Robin Williams


David Weigel described the liberal politics of Robin Williams as “forgettable,” arguing that the comedian’s most politically informed routines were among his worst, not his best. Though it may be true that Williams’s most literal and directly political sets weren’t his best, his progressive, liberal point of view was part of his comedic genius. And though Rush Limbaugh was (spoiler alert!) incorrect and disrespectful to attribute the actor’s suicide to his “leftist world view,” Williams’s politics did shape his life and his comedy. There could never be a right wing Robin Williams.

You may have noticed that conservatives dominate talk radio. That’s because talk radio, in large part, works by oversimplifying, stretching, distorting and/or ignoring the truth, eschewing nuance and boiling things down into easily digestible sound bites. (If the generalizations I just made reads a little bit talk radioish, it’s because… I’m not just telling, I’m showing, of course.) The left, however, have comedy. And that’s because, though it’s not often brought up, comedy, or good comedy, at least, is based on empathy, something the right, in general, lacks (see: immigration, affirmative action, rights of any disenfranchised groups). And that is why the right will never produce their own version of Robin Williams.

All good comedy requires empathy. Because a good comedian cares enough about people to observe them and their behavior and get into their heads. And in no area of comedy is empathy more needed than in impersonations, which requires a comedian to literally become someone else. A bad comedian impersonates someone in a way that merely makes fun of them. A good comedian can do it in a way that humanizes the person. That’s also why you don’t see too many conservatives performing one-man-shows. (Thank goodness! Though a one-man-show about a right wing one-man-show could be great.) Also, right wing comedy bullies the underdogs, while progressive comedians use comedy to speak truth to, or make fun of, power.

Robin Williams was a genius mimic. And in his performance in The Birdcage, for instance, we don’t see an over the top homophobic rendering of a gay character. We see an impeccable rendering of an over the top gay man. It’s a character someone truly homophobic could never play.

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