Between the Scenes of Satire

In the first years of the Trump Presidency, late-night comedians and TV shows often make headlines for mocking the president and his ragtag administration of wannabe autocrats. In one corner you have Alec Baldwin’s cruddy impression of Trump lamenting the Mueller investigation with the rest of the Saturday Night Live cast. Change the channel and you can tune into Jimmy Kimmel delivering mildly chuckle-worthy jokes about how Ted Cruz is weird. If you’re so inclined, you might even see Stephen Colbert in the shadow of his former satirical glory delivering average stand up about the latest bizarre Trump tweet.

All over mainstream entertainment, slightly left-of-center Democrats and bourgeois progressives seem to have an oligopoly on political satire. The elite bastions of both Hollywood and New York, while often critical for creating representation and innovating art, are often hit-or-miss with speaking truth to power. 

All sarcasm aside, I’d be lying if I said the jokes and skits were never funny or well-acted. My main problem with all these comedians, however, is how little they actually have to say about politics. They will always say that Trump is a gross, stupid sexist, but they never ask why; as in, why would millions of Americans continue to support this gross, stupid sexist man and his administration. They won’t go so far as to say that the institutions of capitalism and white supremacy in this country have fundamentally damaged our political system. They’ll make fun of Trump’s bad toupee and call it a night. One can’t help but think that, with SNL in particular, there’s no real political conviction beneath the surface. It’s all muzzled barks and no bite. People will often just lament that Donald Trump is too hard to make fun of because he’s already so absurd. In many ways, this is true, but it is followed by a pretty simple solution: why not make your satire actually about the guts of politics and not just surface-level observations? 

And that is why the “Between the Scenes” clips from “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” are some of the only consistently good political humor that currently exists in popular media. These are the short segments posted online during which Noah interacts with the audience and answers their questions while the “Daily Show” cuts to commercial. “The Daily Show” itself, given the herculean task of coming up with hot-takes every night, often falls into the exact same tired, barely funny pattern of “ORANGE PRESIDENT BAD” that plagues other comedians. But when off-script (“Between the Scenes” is entirely ad-libbed), Trevor Noah not only shines in his outstanding stand-up skills, but also his political insight.

Noah, while delivering quips about news stories and answering audience questions, does what few other comedians even think of: counterintuitively, he’s unafraid to not make people laugh. When making his political positions clear and explaining his arguments, Trevor Noah doesn’t try to put a joke at the end of every sentence. He understands that for satire, your political stance must always come first. The comedy is the main tool, not the end goal. The best satire will make you laugh but does not hesitate to take itself seriously.

While covering the shooting of Emantic Bradford Jr., a black man who was shot in cold blood by Alabama police while trying to prevent a mall shooting, Noah’s grievances are nuanced but blunt. At one point he minces no words and says “the Second Amendment is not intended for black people.” In discussing the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, Trevor Noah mocks Trump’s chauvinism and voice but concisely explains how he has weaponized victimhood in the name of misogyny. When Colin Kaepernick’s Nike Ad debuted, Noah praised Kaepernick and the message while also clearly warning that we shouldn’t be convinced that “woke” corporations will ever put politics over their goal of making profits. 

To be sure, Noah is by no means especially further to the left than other late-night comedians. I, myself, am often critical of the lax ways he discusses the police state and mainstream Democrats. But in all these commercial extras, Noah perfectly balances humor with insight. He knows that his platform as the host of a satirical news show is to preach politics while being funny, not to be funny with a political twist.