Let me begin, as I must, with an apology. I am deeply, profoundly sorry to anyone who is—or could possibly be now or in some distant era—offended by this piece. I apologize for my insensitivity and for my inelegant and inconsiderate attitudes.
I feel much better now.
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“Louis C.K.’s monologue on SNL about pedophiles and being a “mild racist” drew sniffs of outrage and plenty of pearl-clutching.”[/mks_pullquote]Years ago, Steve Martin claimed “comedy isn’t pretty,” but these days, you’d think comedy was downright grotesque. Louis C.K.’s monologue on SNL about pedophiles and being a “mild racist” drew sniffs of outrage and plenty of pearl-clutching. Amy Schumer’s joke about Latino men gave the Internet acid reflux from the outrage and compelled some to point out how very Trump-like she is. Bill Maher’s jokes about the world’s favorite trans-woman were described as “violent, denying Caitlyn Jenner the right to define her body on her own terms,” by The Daily Beast.
Jerry Seinfeld has now famously declared, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’” He added that younger people “just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist,’ ‘That’s sexist,’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what the [bleep] they’re talking about.” Predictably, Salon called him a “reactionary” and a “bad joke” and compared him to a FOX News pundit, simply for expressing this view. College student and guest columnist on CNN.com, Anthony Berteaux, who wants to make sure we all know how much he enjoys naughty humor like any good college kid, nonetheless took Seinfeld to task, writing:
“Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past. Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues.” (italics mine)
Berteaux asserts that certain types of comedy are now verboten and that while comedians are free to deal with certain topics, they must only do so in the now-prescribed proper way. With those two sentences, he proves Seinfeld’s point. He doesn’t get it. Who died and made these Think-Piecers the new kings of comedy?
Originally, Amy Schumer shot back at her critics, saying, “I am not going to start joking about safe material. And don’t ask that of me,” but the Internet was angry that day, my friends, so she eventually apologized, as all of us must if we are to rejoin the community, saying, “I am taking responsibility and I hope I haven’t hurt anyone. I apologize (if) I did.” In most ways, I wish she had never given in, that she had held her ground, much in the same way the late great Joan Rivers did when she refused to apologize for her horrible joke about the Cleveland kidnapping victims.
Rivers’ joke—and subsequent refusal to capitulate to the Twitter pitchforks—is illustrative of the reason why the PC culture is wrong-headed and potentially harmful. There’s no good reason to defend the joke, but there is plenty of reason to dissect the essence of what, in fact, made it a joke. First, let’s all agree that there aren’t many people in the world who have been more horribly victimized than the Cleveland kidnapping victims, who were held captive for a decade. It’s a gut-wrenching and deeply sad story. Second, let’s also agree that the joke (“They got to live rent-free for more than a decade.”) is offensive to most people. Finally, let’s also agree that the joke does nothing to promote greater conversation or dialogue. We don’t need it to be instructive about the ways in which kidnapping women and abusing them is bad and horrific.
But here’s the vital point: the joke existed to be disquieting and unsettling and upsetting. [mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“The humor came from the fact that it was the wrong thing to say, that it was offensive to decent sensibilities.”[/mks_pullquote]The humor came from the fact that it was the wrong thing to say, that it was offensive to decent sensibilities. Some will laugh, others will cringe, and still others will take umbrage, but to claim such humor is off-limits is a dangerous, borderline-Orwellian thing to say. In PC culture, being offended is a type of currency, a form of power. In its best manifestation, it is intended to help level the playing field and ensure that minorities and other less powerful people have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. In its worst, most run-amok incarnation, it dictates that there must be no offense of any kind.
Simply put, comedy—at least good non-road-crossing-chicken-related comedy—requires offense. As Peter McGraw and Joel Warner persuasively argue in their book The Humor Code, things are funny because of “benign violations.” You slip on the ice and get up? Funny. You slip on the ice and die? Not funny. For it to be funny there must be some kind of violation, whether mild or extreme. Comedians play with this line all the time. How far is too far? When does it cease being benign? And comedians cross the line all the time, as Rivers did with that tasteless joke. In the fairly recent Justin Bieber roast, the line was any Paul Walker joke. All of those got cut. Literally “too soon.”
Twenty years ago, Howard Stern appeared on Letterman wearing a “Free O.J.” t-shirt within weeks of the gruesome slaying of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Letterman responded by saying, “I guess I just don’t find double homicide as amusing as I used to,” to loud approval by the audience. It was “too soon” for the jokes, yet Letterman began making regular O.J. jokes within a few months himself (“The television ratings are down for the Simpson trial, so next week they are bringing in Ted Danson to play the bartender from Mezzaluna.”) Soon after, the Baltimore Sun’s sports-entertainment columnist, Milton Kent, blasted “comedians…who have taken the gruesome murders of two people and turned them into a depraved form of entertainment.” Howard Stern’s t-shirt was too soon and too much for David Letterman. Letterman’s jokes were way out of line for Milton Kent. Finding the line and judging the timing is an exquisite mystery and the lifeblood of comedians.
The boundaries of comedy are constantly shifting from one era to the next and from one situation to the next. One study following perception of Hurricane Sandy-related humor showed that the peak moment of funniness was 36 days after the tragedy. Much earlier than that, it was too soon to be funny; much later, it was too late and stopped being funny. It’s curious that Paul Walker’s death was still considered off-limits a full year and a half later. So who knows when it is okay to make the joke, when it’s too soon, too raw, too offensive?The line is not always clear. The comedian’s job is to search out the line and bump his or her head against it. [mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“Simply put, comedy—at least good non-road-crossing-chicken-related comedy—requires offense.”[/mks_pullquote]
To say that no zinger should be offensive, that no minority group of any kind can be the object of a joke, that no humor can run afoul of someone’s sensitivities is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of comedy. In PC culture, comedy must never be sexist, never be “mildly racist” (as Louis put it), and must always lead to meaningful dialogue.
Seinfeld called b.s. on this and he’s been joined by comics like Chris Rock, Jeff Ross, Bill Maher, and others. Not exactly a Who’s Who of arch-conservatives. These liberally-minded comedians understand better than Salon what makes comedy tick and the culture that works against it.
Nobody understands the inner-workings of comedy better than Seinfeld or Rock or Louis C.K. You could almost see the wheels turning in Louis C.K.’s head as he riffed on child molesters, called himself a “mild racist,” and took jabs at Israel. You have to imagine he thought, What are three topics that will get people the most upset? Predictably, it worked. Consider these tweets as just a small sample of the outrage: “That was the unfunniest, most offensive #SNL monologue I’ve ever seen. Racism and child molestation? Really, Louis.” “Those defending the #LOUISCK monologue on #nbcsnl are either predators themselves, or victims of sexual abuse. My heart aches for humanity.”
The messages here are clear: You may not joke about these things and if you defend those who do, you are sick. We have lost all humanity.
Again, here’s where we’ve missed the point. Louis is not saying that child molesting is okay or good or right. He’s not saying that racism is okay. In fact, the message is the opposite. He’s saying, essentially, “These things I’m talking about are funny (at least to some) because they are horrible things that decent people recognize as bad. When I joke about them, it makes people squirm, which is the engine of the joke.” That’s the embedded—and perfectly clear—message of the comedy.
The underlying intent of any communication is essential. That’s why comparing Amy Schumer to Donald Trump reflects how off the mark the PC warriors are. Amy Schumer’s joke is a joke, it’s an attempt (whether successful or not) to find the line of offense by saying, “You’re laughing because you are uncomfortable with my wrong-headed attitude.” Donald Trump, on the other hand, was simply punching down when he referred to many Mexicans as criminals and rapists, picking on a group of powerless people and attempting to demonize them for political gain (and, to some extent, it worked, at least for awhile). These are two different things.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“It’s simply not a good idea to say that humor must now cease to offend.”[/mks_pullquote]It’s simply not a good idea to say that humor must now cease to offend. This even includes humor at the expense of minority groups. Humor that truly bullies will not survive in the marketplace of ideas any longer, which is a good thing, but if it’s dialogue you want, joking about individual and group differences ultimately can strengthen our ability to dialogue and get to a better place. Bill Maher can joke about Caitlyn Jenner and opine that “She’s not Rosa Parks” and it can be a much better jumping off place for discussion than if he is told he isn’t allowed to make those kinds of jokes or that his humor is a form of violence against trans-gender people. Comedians have always gone too far in every era, depending on the sensibilities of the times, but the difference now is that the humor is branded as a form of “hate” or “violence.” It’s no longer just in bad taste; it’s oppressive, bordering on criminal. Framing it like this does nothing to “spur social dialogue.”
And even if humor doesn’t promote dialogue, as was the case with the tacky Joan Rivers joke, we still need to look under the hood a little better and see the wheels and pulleys that are at work. We need to become aware that her jokes (and others like it) work simply because it is an offense—in this case, treating the most horrible thing in the world like it was a good deal. We laugh (or squirm or both) because it is an attitude that is so insane that it offends our good sensibilities. To deal with offensive humor by shutting it down or saying it is not allowed might spare us some moments of offense, but it promotes a culture where all communication must be so sterilized and untroubling that we ultimately remain at a distance from each other, afraid to express any attitude or view that may cause any form of offense or distress. The view that all humor that offends must be scrubbed from the cultural conversation doesn’t make us better people. We are all the worse for it—and much less funny.
It’s important to me to work for the civil rights of all people. I’m a staunch advocate for LGBTQ equality. I have three daughters who should have every opportunity that any man has. Two of my children are black and one is Hispanic, so I abhor racism in its most overt or subtle forms. These things are monumentally important to me. But the path to equality is not to treat comedy like it’s the same as other forms of speech. It’s not. It operates with different assumptions and different mechanisms. To shut it down or require everyone to apologize when there is any joking about race or gender or sexual preference or any other difference only serves to quell dialogue and true progress. It moves us backward and not forward. I love Jeet Heer’s comment at the end of his terrific piece on Richard Pryor, “The problem with recent attempts to police the borders of comedy is that they risk foreclosing the possibility of comedic liberation.”
I agree, but, again, I apologize. I am taking responsibility and I hope I haven’t hurt anyone. I apologize if I did. And we’ll never speak of any of this again.