Trevor Noah’s tweets rise up from the grave

The furore over what the new host of The Daily Show tweeted in the past is like a moment from low-rent horror movies, writes Rob Long

South African comedian Trevor Noah is photographed during an interview. Noah, 31, will become Jon Stewart's replacement as host (AP Photo/Bongiwe Mchunu-The Star)
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There are three kinds of famous people: the hugely famous, the somewhat famous, and the internet famous.

The first category is easy to understand. These are the internationally famous people who swan around the world’s most glamorous hotspots. These are the kinds of people who you do not see in airport security lines, or trying to get a taxi after work. These are people who do not need to make restaurant reservations.

The second category is pretty clear, too. These are the celebrities who aren’t quite as famous as the upper tier, and who do, occasionally, fly on commercial aircraft and go shopping for groceries.

The last category are those irritating people – and there seems to be an unending supply of them – who have thousands of Twitter followers for no discernible reason, or who blog or vlog on internet platforms like YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Vimeo, Vine, and probably a dozen others I’ve never heard of. These are people who aren’t really famous – they can walk down any street anywhere unmolested – but who nevertheless have an audience.

“I’m probably the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” one of these internet-famous people told me once, without a trace of irony. “But my goal,” she said, “is to become someone famous who is also well-known.”

It’s only at first that her sentence makes no sense. If you really think about it, she’s describing what fame really means in this hyper-inflated era, when with a tiny bit of effort – and no talent required – everyone can have an audience of ten thousand strangers.

The trouble is, the kinds of things people do to get attention on online platforms – deliver rude monologues, make tasteless tweets, broadcast their every half-brained notion and off-the-cuff prejudice – are precisely the things that can come back to haunt them later, should they succeed in leaping from internet-famous to actual-famous.

One of the most coveted jobs in American television is to be the host of Comedy Central network’s humorous news programme, The Daily Show. Its longtime host, Jon Stewart, announced his retirement a few weeks ago, and since then the press have been obsessed with his replacement. When the new guy was unveiled earlier this week – it’s South African comedian Trevor Noah, who has appeared regularly on the show – the press did what it does now whenever someone relatively unknown pops up in the news: it searched Twitter and everywhere else for his online footprint.

Alas for Trevor Noah, he actually has an online footprint, and not a very auspicious one. Barely hours after the big announcement, his past tweets had been unearthed and passed around, Tweeted and re-tweeted across the web for everyone to see and judge.

It turns out that back before Trevor Noah’s first appearance on television, back when he could barely be considered even “internet famous”, he liked to tweet jokes about fat girls, Jewish people, white men, and women in general. And the moment he made the transition to actual fame all of that past nasty material came roaring back to life. Within a day, there were people calling for his immediate termination, groups threatening to boycott the programme, demands for an abject apology, shouts about “hate speech” and “exclusion” and every other currently fashionable phrase.

It’s sort of like what happens in those low-rent horror movies, when everyone is convinced that the murderer or monster is safely dead. The heroes will be celebrating in the foreground, smiling and laughing, while in the background the killer rises silently.

That’s what Trevor Noah’s tweets did earlier this week: they rose from his pre-famous past to attack his now-famous present, and it’s still up in the air if he’s going to survive it.

It’s a cautionary tale, I think, for all of us – because all of us, any of us, can suddenly lurch quickly from pleasant obscurity to internet fame to actual, real-life renown, and when we do, every utterance and online thought is going to be rebooted and retweeted. You’d think that the smart play would be to simply avoid any kind of online activity – don’t play with fire and you won’t get burnt – but for people who want to become famous in real life (which is pretty much everybody these days) being internet famous is a prerequisite.

See the dilemma? The best way to catapult yourself into the top tiers of fame is to scramble up the internet ladder: start with wild and crazy Tweets, some truly unforgettable Instagrams, maybe a raucous podcast or two. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself getting more and more attention. But eventually all of that material is going to be a serious liability.

So, just when you’re about to break into a new and higher level of fame, be smart: erase everything. Disconnect your Facebook. Trash your Twitter. Eliminate your Instagrams. Cover as many traces of your past internet-famous life as you can and saunter onto your private jet happy and secure, knowing that the really dangerous stuff is well and truly dead. Just like in those horror movies.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl