Eva Woods doesn’t like Seth MacFarlane’s dullwitted, offensive schtick. But she is glad that it exists.
Before we get too deeply into this, I just want to make one thing very clear—I do not like Seth MacFarlane. Never have, never will. (It really matters to me that you all know this.)
This is about something bigger than yesterday’s Oscar shenanigans, but so you understand what compelled me to write it, here are the relevant details: Last night and this morning Twitter exploded after The Onion tweeted a joke about a 9 year old girl being the c-word. This post is not meant to defend the merits of that joke, or of any joke in particular.
The reason I wrote this is because after reading Pia Glenn’s article about it on xojane.com (go read it, it is excellent and funny and smart) I looked around for a serious defense of offensive comedy and I couldn’t find one.
So I decided to give it a shot.
When we talk about objections to jokes, there are two common arguments: The first is that a joke went too far over the line, that it was more offensive than funny, and that social mores don’t disappear just because we’re in Comedyland.
The second is that comedians have a responsibility to if not work against social problems, then at least not to give the jerks who honestly believe racist/misogynist/fuckwittist things the ammo they need to take down their favorite targets.
I want to talk about the problems with both of these arguments. Before that, though, I want to point out that NONE of this matters if you don’t value comedy.
If you see comedy as inherently unimportant, then none of this will matter to you. If you think that it’s more important not to offend, and that it is always more important to right social ills than it is to make jokes, this won’t apply to you. I understand that perspective, even if I don’t share it, and it’s a different article than this one. This is for people who truly appreciate the art of comedy, but who might sometimes feel conflicted about the effect it can have on the world around them.
“He crossed the line.”
This is the sentiment I’m encountering most frequently on Twitter. That, and it’s corollary: It wasn’t funny/wasn’t even a joke.
Let’s knock these out one at a time.
The problem with crossing “the line” is that the line isn’t in one place. Maybe kids are off limits, because they’re across the line. Maybe only making rough jokes about those in positions of power is okay, because the weak are across the line. Maybe you’ll get really mad at a joke about killing cats, but not killing Rush Limbaugh. Cats are across your line.
My father is funny. He’s witty and smart and a huge Dave Chappelle fan, and can work blue when he needs to. But he’s also a Christian. To him, God is across the line.
I have a Dashboard Jesus. My dad does NOT think it’s funny. He thinks it’s disrespectful and blasphemous.
I think it’s hilarious.
And here’s the thing: We’re both right. It’s funny, disrespectful and blasphemous.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Christians are the dominant religion—picking on them is okay in America. I’m right, Dad’s wrong.
But what if Dad was Jewish? Would I still be right? What if he was a Scientologist? I mean, they’re hilarious, but they’re definitely not the dominant religion, and MOST of them aren’t powerful.
What if I had a Dashboard Muhammed?
Now, Dad is allowed not to like my Jesus. He’s allowed to not ride in my car because of it. He’s allowed to tell me why he doesn’t like it, that I’m fucking up by having it, and that it’s not funny. But he can’t tell me not to have it, cause he’s not the boss of me and because that Dashboard Jesus is hilarious.
My point—that I’m making overly obvious as befits the not-writer I am—is that our lines aren’t in the same place. And while Dad (or you) can tell me I’m wrong, well, I’m ALLOWED to be wrong.
Now let’s talk about the other side, the “That wasn’t a joke, it was an insult/ threat/ display of rampant racism” or “It was wrong because it wasn’t funny.” side.
How are we defining comedy? Is it “something said with the intention of getting a laugh”? Or is it “something I think is funny and appropriate”?
Because for every person mad at a shithead joke, there’s another person laughing. I might agree with one of them or the other, but that’s still just my opinion. I will never tell someone to get offended at something they’re not offended by, just like I will never tell someone NOT to be offended by something they ARE offended by.
Oh, but “Threats Are Never Funny!”, “Racism Is Never Funny!”, “Abortion Is Never Funny!”, “Murder Is Never Funny!”
Now we’re back to where to place that line.
Moving on! (“Finally!” you scream.)
Let’s jump over to the social responsibility of comedians, with their voices in all those ears.
Should Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK, with their huge influence on America’s young people use their platforms for social good, or—at least—not for social harm?
Yeah, I think so. I also think they already do. But there are tons of people who disagree with me.
Lots of people think Jon Stewart gets on the air 5 days a week and poisons the mind of our youth with a biased, liberal agenda of lies. I think those people are wrong, but I don’t think they are less valuable than me. Or that their beliefs are less strongly held than mine. I think they’re wrong, end of sentence. Luckily, bunches of people agree with me, and with our viewership, we keep The Daily Show on the air. We vote for those beliefs with our time and our eyeballs. The same way an epic asshole such as Sean Hannity gets kept on the air with other people’s time and eyeballs.
But say I’m wrong, and the first amendment shouldn’t apply to hateful people and that public voices can only work to do good. Let’s pretend that for a minute.
Colbert and CK wouldn’t be the only ones affected by such a change. What about the comic performing to crowds of 50 on the best night of his career? Can he be hateful? What about me, on my Twitter? I have 300 followers. What if I had 1?
What if the rule were: You don’t have to do good, you just can’t do harm? You don’t have to champion social change from the mic stand, you just can’t say anything offensive (to the greater good we are pretending isn’t arbitrary)
If we all agree on this greater good, the inherent absurdity of the human condition *goes away*. And with it, go a lot of jokes. You might be glad they’re gone, but I’m not. I will miss them as much as I would miss my Dashboard Jesus if he suddenly raptured his way out of my car.
So, send Daniel Tosh an email, and for heaven’s sake don’t go to his shows. Unfollow the Onion. Vote with your eyeballs. But don’t let criticism of comedy turn into prescription of comedy. Because when you do that, you’re telling me that my values are wrong, and what’s more, my wrongness means I don’t get a vote anymore.
And that vote matters to me. If every comic who ever made a terrible, indefensible joke was gone, I couldn’t use that vote to determine what they do next, and I want that freedom. A world in which no one is ever in danger of being offended is a world where Family Circus and Jay Leno are as good as comedy gets and that’s not a world I want to live in.