Last night, I had the pleasure of watching South African comedian Trevor Noah perform in Gaborone. My friend Elena and I were giddy with excitement in the week leading up to the event, as we are both huge fans. When the day of the show finally came, we met up in the afternoon, chatting and watching one of his old DVDs before heading out for dinner and then over to the show. Noah himself was hilarious and I’m very grateful I was able to watch him perform live before he starts working with Jon Stewart and becomes even more famous in the international comedy scene.
While Noah’s act was great, the acts that preceded him – including the host and the opening comedian Eugene Khoza – left much to be desired. Neither were very funny at all but what was more of an issue was the problematic bullshit spewing from their mouths. Their comedy was infused with the kind of sexism we have come to expect from uncreative comedians. Last night, we were subjected to so many jokes focusing on women and, more specifically, focusing on women’s bodies. For example, there were extensive comments policing what overweight women ‘should be’ wearing. (Newsflash: Anyone can wear whatever they want anytime, friends.)
The most offensive joke of the night by far though was a piece on the young women kidnapped by the Boko Haram in Nigeria, an act of violence that spurred the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The joke was focused on the girls’ looks, Khoza saying that they should “#KeepOurGirls” because they are ugly. Khoza even suggested that men of the world were better off because these ugly girls had been kidnapped and were now out of the dating pool. He said he wasn’t surprised that there were no boyfriends or husbands campaigning to get the girls back.
Not only is this joke inappropriate because it trivializes a horrible tragedy that has caused a lot of pain but this joke is also unacceptable because it furthers disgusting sexist stereotypes about women. These stereotypes oppress women, keeping them at a lower status in society in comparison to men. These jokes suggest that women are only worthwhile in their roles in relation to men as wives, mothers, and sisters. And these jokes tell women their worth is measured only on their looks. They tell women that they are only around to be objectified for the pleasure of men. Moreover, this joke condones gender-based violence, acts that are rampant around the world and not to be made a laughing matter.
I was so angry after this joke that I basically stopped listening to Khoza… Unfortunately, I tuned in long enough to hear some of his other jokes, including one that perpetuated the stigma against HIV/ AIDS and another that belittled street youth. If Trevor Noah hadn’t been coming out on stage after this comedian, I would have left the venue in protest against this man’s unacceptable brand of humour.
This experience has me thinking about the role humour has in perpetuating stereotypes. Too often are comedians hiding behind the ”it’s a joke; lighten up” defense. I’d like to think it’s possible to create an entire comedy act free from sexism, racism, and other problematic stereotyping. In fact, I think it’s possible to create acts that positively impact the world by disrupting these stereotypes.
Humour has the potential to bring people into conversations about privilege, power, and problematic narratives. I think we should be using comedy to overturn stereotypes in funny and unexpected ways instead of lazily relying on -isms for a cheap laugh. So let’s support the comedians who use their platform to talk about important issues instead of lending an ear to the boring comedians whose jokes contribute to world suck.