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Trevor Noah Is A Quarter Jewish. Does That Make His Anti-Semitic Jokes OK?

Trevor Noah at a Comedy Central event in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012.
Dominic Barnardt/Gallo Images
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Trevor Noah at a Comedy Central event in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012.

Editor's note: This post contains words and sentiments you might find deeply offensive.

The glow had barely dimmed on Comedy Central's unveiling of comedian Trevor Noah as the new host of The Daily Show when Noah's Twitter past came under fire. His critics have called some of his old tweets offensive, racist, misogynistic, homophobic and — the charge that seems to be getting the most attention — anti-Semitic.

Noah is a globally successfully comedian whose repertoire includes riffs on race and ethnicity. He's known for regularly pushing the envelope in his routines. What some people may not know is that Noah is multiracial: his father is Swiss, and his South African mother is biracial — Xhosa and Jewish.

So if Noah is a quarter Jewish, does that mean his anti-Semitic jokes are excusable, because he's part of the demographic he's talking about? Does he get a 25 percent pass?

I'm being quasi-facetious, but there is a long history of comedians taking on subjects that many feel can only be done by someone of the same "tribe." Take Chris Rock 's infamous 1997 routine on "different kinds" of black people, captured here by Rolling Stone:

"Niggas vs. Black People," Rock's voice sandpapering away, yawps across nearly 13 minutes of Roll With the New. "There's, like, a civil war goin' on with black people," he tells the Washington, D.C., crowd, which is richer in African-Americans than his usual 50-50 mix. "There's two sides: There's black people, and there's niggas . . . Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant-ass niggas fuck it up . . . Can't go to a movie the first week it come out – why? 'Cause niggas are shootin' at the screen . . . You know what's the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want credit for some shit they supposed to do . . . A nigga will say some shit like, 'I take care of my kids.' Ya supposed to, ya dumb muthafucka! . . . 'I ain't never been to jail.' Whatchoo want, a cookie? You not supposed to go to jail!"

Clearly, Rock sees it as an intra-group humor thing, and his audience does too. If Lewis Black or Kathy Griffin came out and said exactly the same thing, the audience reaction would be vastly different.

Meanwhile, Sara Silverman, Larry David, Mel Brooks, and Joan Rivers, all Jewish, have joked about the Holocaust. Here's Silverman:

"My niece...called me up and she's like, 'Aunt Sarah, did you know that Hitler killed 60 million Jews?' I corrected her, and I said, 'You know I think he's responsible for killing six million Jews.' And she says, 'Oh, yeah. Six million. I knew that. But seriously, auntie, what's the difference?' 'The difference is that 60 million is unforgivable, young lady.

Of course some people will find these routines offensive — most good comedy offends someone —but rarely have they come under fire the way Noah's tweets have. There have been calls for Noah to be fired even before he begins, and promises to skip watching him if he makes it to the desk. (Comedy Central is standing by him.)

One major difference between Noah's tweets and the routines above is, as many have pointed out, that Noah's jokes simply aren't funny. Nor were they scripted, thought-out, practiced routines that delve deeply into thorny issues of race and culture. You can definitely be both thoughtful and funny in 140 characters, but these jokes are just...lame. Like a dad dropping into the middle-school sleepover his kid is having, and trying to bond with jokes he thinks seventh-grade boys will find funny. With these jokes, Trevor Noah is that dad.

But it's an interesting question: in terms of content, what are we to make of humor that's targeted at oppressed or marginalized communities, when it's delivered by someone who, on some level, can claim membership in those communities?

We'd love to hear your thoughts. Post them below.

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Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.