Stephen Colbert. Credit: Flickr/BagoGames. Some rights reserved.
Things have quieted down since the last string of shocking incidents, but we can’t afford to be complacent. Another one could happen by the time you read this, and you’ll want to be ready.
Bill Maher took his medicine. Kathy Griffin is lying low. And more online petitions are ready in case Stephen Colbert tries anything else. But before the next comedic assault on decency leaves us shaken and sputtering with outrage, let me offer a few observations from decades of interviewing and studying comedians from George Carlin to Lewis Black, and even former comedians such as Dennis Miller (ahem).
Let’s quit being snowflakes with my Progressive’s Guide to Responding to Offensive Comedy.
1. You don't have to respond.
I’ve always viewed taking offense at entertainment as the avocation of the dim-witted (of any political type) who are unaware that they can change the channel or stop reading. But that was before the Instant Internet Outrage Machine made us all feel like we’re white-knuckle-driving nitroglycerine trucks in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer movie.
Most people don’t call radio talk shows, write letters to the editor, or demand that comedians lose their careers for a crack that rubs them the wrong way or misfires. We have something better to do. What, exactly? Anything.
2. We should apologize less.
On the May 1 Late Show, Stephen Colbert said of President Trump, “the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
#FireColbert immediately trended on Twitter and petitions gathered the names of both right and left apoplectic at such filth aimed at the Russophile-in-Chief and who found the joke homophobic.
My take: the joke wasn’t anti-gay but mocked a pair of macho narcissists who’d rather be caught dead than queer. Not all jokes about touchy or marginalized subjects are phobic. Colbert hardly has a history of gay-bashing. And “cock holster” is hilarious. Attention T-shirt makers.
Colbert’s response: “I don’t regret that.” The studio cheered. “He, I believe, can take care of himself. I have jokes. He has the launch codes. So it’s a fair fight. So while I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be. I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else, but that.”
Nervy and perfect. Oh, and conservatives almost never apologize for things they say.
3. Don't lose your head.
On May 30, a photograph of notoriously outrageous comic Kathy Griffin holding a fake, bloody Trump head caused Ikea to sell out of fainting couches. Conservatives lost their minds, progressives got squeamish, and Griffin lost her nerve—as well as work.
My take: the photo just seemed like a French Revolution gag. That had been in the air to the degree that even I tweeted “Let them eat Trump steaks!” on March 20, with an article about Trump’s Mar-A-Lago trips costing more than Meals on Wheels.
Griffin’s response: a video apology as excruciating as her tearful press conference—and they made no difference. Conservative mouth-breathers from cable news to Twitter were putting Griffin atop their scapegoat lists for the Virginia GOP shooting. Entertainment news bottom-feeders speculated about her long road to redemption.
Did Griffin go too far? Not one swirled hair. There’s a long tradition of bloody satire, and it harms no one, as opposed to, say, taking away health care. Nor does it make anyone violent, because humans have free will and choose their actions, and if they don’t, life has no meaning. Blaming comedy (or any entertainment) for real-life violence is the shameless tactic of political opportunists and talk show hosts looking for easy material. Politicians inciting violence is another thing. (See below.)
The Internet Outrage Machine is like a dog. You can’t show it fear. The one thing Griffin got right in her apology was that Trump and his people are bullies.
4. Take note of who's leading the outrage before you follow.
Like all bullies, Trump’s too thin-skinned to take a fraction of what he dishes out. From mocking a disabled reporter to birtherism to encouraging violence at his rallies—and plenty more—Trump, his family and his supporters have permanently lost the right to claim they’re offended by anything, ever. Other than reported facts and science.
The people who not only failed to repudiate but embraced Ted Nugent and others, and who looked the other way or took part in eight years of abhorrent remarks about President Obama? Their umbrage is the real joke.
5. Avoid circular firing squads.
Conservatives get no greater pleasure than when progressives turn on each other. Unless it’s the pleasure of stepping on the poor.
Even better for them if it’s over inconsequential media dustups. Better still if those are distractions from Actual Issues, such as becoming the world’s outlier on fighting climate change. They’re longtime experts at getting people to vote against their own interests over cultural matters that don’t affect them. (See, for instance: gay.)
Right-wingers are known to have authoritarian personalities and fall into lockstep much more easily than progressives. We don’t have to be like them to avoid giving them the satisfaction of seeing us at each other’s throats.
6. Yes, each other's.
Comedians tend to be liberal, so cut some slack.
Although there are notable exceptions, such as the Jeff Foxworthy Axis of Trailers and Dennis Miller, who apparently snapped after 9/11 and took a hard—and unfunny—right turn. (Unless you find riffing on Nancy Pelosi’s face to be the stuff of the Algonquin Round Table.) One side punches up, and the other punches down.
Don’t believe me? Look up the short-lived and excruciating Fox News version of The Daily Show from 2007 called The ½ Hour News Hour.
7. Comedians are in their own category.
Comedians get to say things that an Uber board member or Ann Coulter or a senator—even the newly relaxed Al Franken—don’t. They get to say things that would cost you your job. They’re not statesmen. When John McCain makes an awkward “Bomb, bomb Iran” crack, it’s unsettling. If a comedian does that, it’s likely satirical, as they don’t set foreign policy.
Comedians are our court jesters, and the better ones are also part philosophers. They speak uncomfortable truths, mock the powerful and provoke.
Our taste, sensibilities, approval, and especially our boundaries, are irrelevant to comedy, if not its natural targets. As Carlin told me, “Nothing’s off-limits if it’s properly couched and properly contextualized.” He then proceeded to use a “baby-rape” example I won’t detail here.
A careful comic is either an oxymoron or a bore. It’s no accident that our news media has grown more useless in direct proportion to growing more careful, while late-night comics have become more and more reliable sources of truth, or even just saying the obvious when no one else will.
8. Focus on the big picture.
Now watch while I rise to Bill Maher’s defense for saying That One Word.
On his June 2 episode of HBO’s Real Time, Maher responded to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s invitation to come and do field work thusly: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”
Does Maher deserve the benefit of the doubt? Am I even allowed to have an opinion on this subject? (Spoiler: I’m whiter than a mayonnaise sandwich.) Depends who you ask, and you could fill books with the answers.
My take: Maher seemed to be attempting a satirical, edgy ad lib on live TV about racism, that didn’t come close to meeting the above Carlin rule. And he reaped the fucking whirlwind.
Maher’s response: he apologized and then had Black guests Ice Cube, Symone Sanders and his friend Michael Eric Dyson on the next show for chastisement. If that’s the 2017 version of white people apologizing to Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson when they screw up, it was an odd mixture of sincerity and impatience from Maher. He pointed out that “Comedians are a special kind of monkey.” Lousy word choice, valid point, still a shitty joke.
Big picture: Maher has been a gutsy liberal satirist and gadfly for decades, calling out conservatives and racists, week in and week out, before Stewart, Colbert, Noah, Oliver and Bee. He hasn’t behaved like a racist. In fact, he’s notably said that not all conservatives are racists, but if you’re a racist you’re probably a conservative.
9. There are no perfect progressives.
Not that Maher doesn’t have his flaws or rub some people the wrong way. In addition to the basic odds of a comedian self-destructing on live TV over time, his harping on Islam comes off as obsessive even when he’s making sound observations. (See also: Sam Harris.) But if progressives dogpile on flawed members of their own team, the herd’s going to thin fast.
We lose elections because we hold out for perfect liberal candidates. Anyone happy with the result of that? Expecting a comic not to transgress or bomb now and then makes even less sense.
Call them out when they’re in the wrong, move on when they acknowledge it, and reserve serious outrage for the people whose intentions are genuinely, dangerously offensive.
10. It all blows over fast.
Colbert’s ratings got better. Griffin was never on the radar of people pissed about her, and she’s dropped back off it. Maher’s show is back to normal.
And yet we keep taking the bait. It’s almost as if we’re the ones who don’t learn from their mistakes.
Well-meaning progressives can disagree about all of this. And debate. And troll each other. And unfriend each-other. But we could do it with thicker skin.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.