Noah is a comic export to the American global television market as successor to the famous satiric host, Jon Stewart, on the highly rated Daily Show. The show draws its comedy and satirical content from trending political news, cutting-edge debates and interviews with top politicians and influencers. Noah’s acclaimed hosting debut had 3.471 million viewers. In rising through the comedy ranks he has drawn on material from his turbulent childhood and ethnic experiences.
Noah has cracked the nod with his peers, a cosmopolitan audience and influential media critics. This is no mean feat for a homegrown 31-year-old of mixed race. The Noah phenomenon speaks to an influential comedic revolution that is happening in South Africa.
Like their peers worldwide, they are pushing the boundaries on controversial issues. They search for material drawing from the messy business of “real” life, wrestling with topics relating to racism, sexism, prejudice, abuse and religiosity. Public and even iconic figures are considered fair game and there are no sacred cows. Comedians are not idealists.
But in the single-minded pursuit of their agenda – laughter – they inadvertently provide the sociopolitical critique that has the potential to activate transformation in society. Satirical humour may be provocative, shocking and even offensive but it is considered fundamental in a free society. Charlie Chaplin observed that:
… the function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivity to the perversions of justice within the society in which we live.Comedic culture is deeply rooted in human history. Travelling minstrels and the court jester – forerunners of the stand-up comic – held up a satirical mirror to the ills of their medieval societies. Satire, a specific genre of humour that goes deeper than ordinary humour, often brutally exposes the absurdity of the human condition, society’s hypocrisies and abuses of the polity. By stimulating critical awareness the satirist-comic comes to play the unintended role of activist and change agent in society.
The country’s stand-up comedians and satirical artists offer the opportunity to laugh, providing a Freudian catharsis – a release of emotional stress and tension – with therapeutic benefits. This comic release is beneficial in activating coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety and insecurity of deeply divided societies. Research has shown that humour can be used as a form of resistance and protest in times of intense conflict.
Researcher Don Nilsen describes how Jews in Nazi concentration camps used humour to take some control of their own lives. Humorous strategies are also powerful in exposing social injustice, subverting stereotypes and challenging assumptions. And the constructive role of humour to facilitate dialogue, nonviolent resistance and reconciliation is increasingly being documented.
They perceive this as a threat to their power and position as well as inviting unwanted public scrutiny. Developing economies often struggle with freedom of expression, especially when regime abuses and dominant discourses are challenged. The current South African government is no exception. President Jacob Zuma has provided a wealth of material for comedians, artists and cartoonists such as Zapiro. More recently, however, the governing African National Congress appears to be taking an adversarial stance against artistic expression.
This is especially true among 30-35-year-olds. In 2007, the Pew Research Centre listed Stewart as the fourth-most-trusted journalist in America. Satirists can certainly help South Africa deal with building a vibrant democracy. Satirical comedy provides an alternative learning platform by offering competing narratives, subverting stereotypes and deconstructing dominant discourses.
As with the #FeesMustFall movement it is fitting that the “comic revolution” is driven by young South Africans who are debunking myths and challenging political correctness with a sense of humour.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.