Trevor Noah tackles prejudice and Trump during politically charged set at Cornell

Review: Trevor Noah was unafraid of controversy during his stand-up set at Cornell University Sunday night.

Trevor Noah took the stage at Cornell University’s Barton Hall Sunday evening to perform an hour of stand-up comedy. Noah, who is cursed to be forever known as Jon Stewart’s replacement on "The Daily Show," drew a crowd of 4,800 people, most of whom were students. Playing to the cavernous field house, Noah explored current events, race relations and cultural differences through the lens of a South African immigrant.

His opening salvo of jokes compared the recent spat of extreme weather to the rise of extremist politics both at home and abroad, drawing broad parallels between hurricanes, ISIS and the so-called "alt-right" marchers in Charlottesville. He commented on the latter’s dress code (a collared shirt and slacks that makes them look like a “Nazi area manager”) and their use of tiki torches: “Really, you’re the superior race and you can’t even make your own torch?”

Noah continued to poke holes in the logic behind Americans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric, often putting on a Southern accent when portraying racists. He has a talent for impressions, whether he is voicing his stoned friend from Malibu or a taco truck vendor, but when these voices are divorced from specific celebrities they can come across as caricatures. Despite getting a raucous reaction from the crowd of students, doing a nasty impression of a Southerner while pillorying that same person for being prejudiced against Mexicans did somewhat undercut his message.

The crowd’s reactions to the various subjects he tackled were telling. The first time a joke died was when he used the phrase “Build a wall” as a punchline, and he quickly recovered by making a joke about Americans demanding that immigrants speak the language of America: “You mean Cherokee?” Other lines, like a bromide about how America is a nation of immigrants, got massive applause breaks.

The strongest reactions of the night were reserved for Noah’s material about President Donald Trump, which took up the second half of his set. Using the refrain that Trump is “living his best life,” Noah riffed on the idea that Trump “wants to be president, but doesn’t want to do president.” The crowd ate up every joke at Trump’s expense, including the funniest bit of the night, in which Noah analyzed Donald and Melania’s relationship through their public speeches against cyberbullying and immigration. The bit concluded with an argument between the two of them, with Noah doing biting impressions of each, Donald as a grinning collection of catchphrases, Melania as an Eastern European speaking English by way of Google Translate.

Noah played with the audience’s comfort level during his final bit, in which he relayed the story of being called a racial slur in Chicago. Leading up to saying the word, he used the euphemism, and only first said it fully in the character of the truck-driving racist who hurled it at him, causing the room to go immediately silent. Noah leaned into this for the bit, pointing out that “nika” meant “to give” in his mother’s African dialect before repeating that word over a dozen times outside of a racist (or even English-language) context. Doing an impression of a white audience member, he asked, “what is that like nine times? That’s my quota for the year.”

Chris Rock famously stopped performing on campuses in 2014 because he felt that college students were becoming increasingly hostile to the type of speech necessary for comedy. In an interview with Vulture, Rock called students conservative “not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” The calls for professors to resign at numerous universities bears this out: students on college campuses want to create an inoffensive, “safe” environment and the best comedy functions by making its audience uncomfortable with the truth.

Noah walked a fine line Sunday night, and was mostly successful, but you could feel him losing the audience when his jokes strayed too far from the gooey center of liberal political correctness. It is a brave thing to do politically-charged standup comedy in front of a college audience in 2017, when an off-color joke uploaded to Twitter can ruin a career. Noah deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of comfort as far as he did.

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