The Daily Show on Thursday finished out the week in Chicago in far better form than the hapless Cubs. For four days at the Athanaeum Theatre, Trevor Noah hosted an “undesked” version of his Comedy Central show that played for the most part as a stand-up showcase interlaced with news clips. Performing amid scenic design that suggested an alley beneath a stretch of elevated train tracks, Noah and Daily Show senior correspondent Hasan Minhaj rarely passed up an opportunity to indulge the hometown crowd, which obediently laughed and applauded on command.
In his opening segment on Thursday, Noah compared video of Cubs bullpen pitchers dancing after a home run during the NLCS to a clip of the Peanuts gang busting a move during a Christmas shindig. Minhaj, the star of last April’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, didn’t lay off the local sports references. An anchor in a news clip noted a frightening breakthrough in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear capability: a missile that can reportedly reach Chicago. But the comedian assured the crowd that Chicagoans had nothing to fear; after all, the city’s safety is practically guaranteed due to the North Korean leader’s boyhood obsession with the 1990s Chicago Bulls, and particularly Kim’s odd-couple friendship with Dennis Rodman. Following that line of thinking to its logical limit, Minhaj then wondered what progress could be achieved if the U.S. government dispatched the reunited 1995-1996 Bulls roster to North Korea.
We’ve seen this before, right? Michael Jordan plays basketball against evil foreigners to save the world? That’s not a peace summit. That’s Space Jam 2. M.J. could solve this whole thing in a day! Listen, Mike, if you’re watching, all you gotta do is go to North Korea, befriend Kim Jong-un, and let that little Make-A-Wish dictator dunk on you.
The show got some needed heft from Noah’s sit-down interview with Vic Mensa. Initially the South African host and the Hyde Park-raised MC bonded over the peculiarities of growing up biracial. Mensa, whose father is from Ghana and mother is a white American, told Noah:
When I was younger, I didn’t feel very racial. I felt more like a kid. Around the time I was 11 or 12 years old is around the time when the world decides for you, decides that you are black and society has deemed you this. . . . I started to realize as police were singling me out and treating me different than my white counterparts in our little, you know, transgressions, I started to realize that the world had decided for me, and that I was branded.
While acknowledging that “there are so many ideas of what the south side is” and noting that Mensa grew up in a relatively supportive family, Noah still managed to fall into the trap of painting the south side as “this world where everyone expects the worst of everyone for everyone.”
Mensa deftly steered the host back on course:
The south side is a hotbed of culture. When you talk about hip-hop and dance—a lot of things that black people have revolutionized—you’re talking about art that comes from struggle. And the south side is clearly struggling. . . . I was just navigating my way through that, and I experienced a lot of eye-opening inequalities that really influenced me musically and as a man. To see how economic disparity could be so transparent, and to live five blocks from a project building and five blocks from Obama’s house. When I was 12 years old, before I knew who Obama was, I’m pretty sure I ran through his backyard from the police. I think so. It might’ve been his neighbor. You can’t even get close now. There are snipers for, like, a mile.
Mensa’s remarkable candor about issues afflicting Chicago’s low-income communities of color was of a quality and depth alien to most cable news pundits and uncommon even in the venerated Jon Stewart era of The Daily Show. Not even Chance the Rapper, who’s been extraordinarily outspoken about social and political issues in Chicago, has held forth as lucidly as his old friend and sometime collaborator. Said Mensa:
I want someone to be forced to understand the position of the people in Chicago. Our situation is very often trivialized and sensationalized and turned into a headline and all you see is the number of deaths in Chicago this weekend or you hear Donald Trump talking about, ‘Well, look at Chicago,’ every time he’s got his hand in someone’s pocket. What we’re missing is that this is engineered. The situation in Chicago is not just ‘black rage.’ This is an engineered situation where you have a city that was constructed through racism and to be as segregated as it is today. Everything was redlined. You couldn’t get into a white neighborhood if you were black. They built the projects in all-black neighborhoods. They sold us bogus loans, and took [homeownership] out from underneath us, and left us impoverished. . . . They tore down the projects after they created these hotbeds of poverty . . . . Everything has been taken. Redlining removed the possibility for investment in the black community. Even today when I look into the possibility of buying property in the black community on the south side and invest in the south side—you’re not getting a return because there’s no investment opportunity on the south side. It’s been built this way. And when you take everything out of a community, what do you expect? What do you expect to see when you create a toxic situation and people grow up like that?
Listening to Mensa articulate Chicago’s deep-seated problems was impressive. He fluently linked the sins of the city’s past to the plague of our present. And he managed to do it on a Comedy Central show, which made it all the more a coup.