TV Shows, Pop Culture

Here’s why Trevor Noah’s India-Pakistan joke was offensive

Trevor Noah said a war between India and Pakistan war would be "entertaining". More than a billion people live here.

Late-night comedy shows and political comedy have become a staple of popular culture these days. Nanette started so many conversations and John Mulaney has inspired more Twitter threads than I can count. Meanwhile, Last Week TonightThe Patriot Act and The Daily Show all have liberal hosts that poke fun at mainstream political discourse in the hopes of leading to genuine and progressive change.

Which is why Trevor Noah’s recent India-Pakistan segment was so groan-worthy.

You may not know this, but Pakistan and India were at each other’s throats during the last part of February 2019. The crisis revolved around the disputed territory of Kashmir which both countries claim as theirs and where India is accused of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and sexual assault while Pakistan is accused of aiding terror organizations. India and Pakistan were the two nascent states formed when the subcontinent gained independence from British rule in 1947. They’ve always had a pretty tense relationship. In this article you can find the details of this recent crisis which drove them to the brink of nuclear war.

Trevor Noah didn’t tell you any of that. During an episode of the Daily Show, Noah rushed through the crisis in two minutes, haphazardly comparing India and Pakistan to Cardi B and Nicki Minaj and then saying that war between these two nations would be “the most entertaining war ever”. He ended the topic with a mocking impersonation of Bollywood songs.

As a Pakistani, I can tell you this: it wasn’t funny. I was terrified of the consequences of an armed conflict and you should be too. Collectively, Pakistan and India have a population of more than 1.5 billion people and nuclear war here would have devastating and irreparable effects on the entire world.

I wondered at Trevor Noah and his Western studio audience as they all chuckled glibly at his jokes. When the whole world should have been stepping in to calm South-Asian tensions, coverage of the conflict was scarce in American newspapers. This is not surprising: as many know, in the world today, some lives matter more than ever.

White, western, first world lives get more media attention and sympathy than brown or black lives in third world countries. Noah knows this: in 2015, when Jon Stewart hosted the Daily Show, he made this very point about the lack of coverage Boko Haram’s massacres in Nigeria got when compared to the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. In that segment, he provided useful context to the Nigerian situation and called out this hierarchy of news. It’s a pity he didn’t apply that to this situation.

Trevor Noah’s segment on India and Pakistan was offensive. He said that he uses comedy to process pain by way of explanation and apology when he was called out on it, but that is a personal decision about things that affect his life or community and not a choice he can make for anyone else.

As a Pakistani Muslim, I’m tired of my life being viewed as disposable. Trevor Noah once said that he loved the phrase “comedy is tragedy plus time” but he did not extend that courtesy to us, deciding to joke about a war that could start at any moment.

The western world is already so used to seeing ‘the East’ through the Orientalist lens of simultaneously entertaining and barbaric that Noah simply doubled-down on those stereotypes for easy laughs, reducing my people to a “dance break” and a fist fight between female rappers. All this did was dehumanize us in acceptable ways and disconnect his audience from any sympathy and familiarity they might feel at a time when we desperately needed support and well-wishes.

He presented the news with no context or history and it seemed like we were simply just innately barbaric countries in a constant state of warfare. This seems fairly similar to the way the Middle East (where many Americans think Pakistan is) is presented in mainstream American news. When Noah said that war here would be “entertaining”, I thought of how brown bodies on television screens were no big deal and how video games literally asked Americans to shoot down Arabs and Pakistanis for entertainment. War in the non-white world is viewed as inevitable and amusing.

Should I be grateful that Trevor Noah gave the conflict any coverage at all? Not really – representation comes with responsibility. As a biracial South African born during apartheid, Noah understands that political comedy comes with the burden of making sure that no harm is being done to amuse an audience. I’m disappointed that he didn’t keep this in mind.

Next time, Daily Show: punch up, not down.