This weekend, Saturday Night Live writer Leslie Jones came under fire for her racially charged monologue on Weekend Update. Her inspired monologue about the ways her life as a black woman would be better under slavery was edgy, honest, and in my opinion, very funny. You might disagree with the last part, which is totally fair. But the outrage over the matter brought to mind a few recent incidents where comedy has been held to some real world standard. Think of Stephen Colbert’s recent run-in with the professionally offended in response to his sketch lampooning the Washington Redskins, or last year’s debate about whether or not comics should consider certain topics off limit.
I’m not opposed to a conversation about limits in comedy. I personally don’t think that any comedian should be forced to censor themselves – the brutal honesty of a comedian, be it the relatively clean material of Bill Cosby or the poetic foul language that is George Carlin is why comedy is so good. My mother despises crudity and foul language but is ecstatic that Stephen Colbert will take over the Late Show. Why? Because he’s funny, his forays into crudity and foul language aside.
But as much as I’m not opposed to that conversation, it boggles my mind that jokes can provoke such outrage. Ms. Jones’ expertly defended herself on Twitter, noting that nothing she said was all that different from the comedy of Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, universally considered geniuses of their craft. And how shocked can one really be that this kind of idea would come up on Saturday Night Live, a show that, in it’s first season, produced the famous Richard Pryor/Chevy Chase Word Association sketch.
Moreover, why is comedy held to a standard that our newsmedia is arguably not? This past weekend at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Joel McHale received some boos for his joke, “Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, is here. So if any of you congressmen want to cut out the middleman, just show him your penis.”
Imagine that – boos from a room full of those responsible for that very allusion! The room was full of either of congressmen (guilty of these perverse actions) or cable news reporters (guilty of shoving these stories down our throats).
I guess that’s what gets me – it’s all about context. The fact that the context of Ms. Jones words is “it’s a joke” should be enough but I know for some it’s not. So how about this context – it was a joke told around midnight on a Saturday, not 3 PM on CNN when Donald Sterling’s offensive words are thrust on an unsuspecting audience (possibly with children at home), and not at 6 PM, the prime time family hour, when folks on FoxNews call our president a racist, and certainly not at 8 PM when most people switch to MSNBC for I’m just kidding, nobody watches MSNBC.
That context matters. You want to be outraged at someone talking about penises on Twitter? Fine, but don’t be pissed at a comedian making a joke. Be outraged at the tabloid newspapers that plaster the stories on their headlines for your children to look at as they walk to school. Want to be angry about racism and slavery? Don’t be mad at a comedian performing her material on late night, be mad at FoxNews for having all white panels discuss whether or not racism is “over.”
Comedy’s a matter of taste. Something isn’t your taste? Cool, totally fair. Turn it off. The Daily Show isn’t to my mom’s taste, so she turns it off (and then turns on Colbert) If a restaurant’s not my taste, I don’t protest the restaurant, I stop going to that restaurant.
Although protesting a restaurant because I didn’t like it would be pretty funny…