September 13, 2007

Deconstructing A Failed Joke

Kathy Griffin is a comedian who I usually enjoy because she is willing to make cutting jokes about celebrities that I find amusing. Like me, she is an atheist who was raised Catholic. A few days ago, she won an Emmy award for her reality show "My Life On The D List." Her acceptance speech has set off alarm bells:

"A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. If it were up to Jesus, it would be Cesar Milan and that damn dog up here. Can you believe this shit? Hell has frozen over. So suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!"

The Catholic League was quick to condemn her remarks, saying they were the equivalent of Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" comment that made him lose his job. (One of the women who was the target of that joke recently dropped her lawsuit against Imus, by the way.)

A lot of people say Imus got a raw deal and should not have lost his job, by the way, because he, too, was making a joke that fell very, very flat. (I wonder, if Imus' joke had been funnier, would that have helped his case?)

I certainly disapproved of Imus' joke; I thought it was in bad taste and not very funny on top of that. I did not think he deserved to lose his job. I think he deserved to lose some public standing and deserved public ridicule for it. And I think I need to apply the same standard of judgment to somebody who I identify with who does the same sort of thing (or whose joke I think had the benefit of being actually funny).

No one can fire Kathy Griffin; unlike Imus, she's self-employed. Bravo might or might not renew her show; comedy clubs might or might not book her. But then, they might or might not have done those things anyway; she does not and never has commanded the kind of media attention that Imus did. "D List" might be a bit of self-deprecation, but she's hardly a brilliant star in the firmament of Hollywood.

I can think of three ways we might distinguish Griffin from Imus:

Question 1: Does a higher humor content mitigate the offensive nature of a joke? I think not, although there is far, far more vicious humor than this out there that seems to be accepted with barely a ripple. Ever watch South Park?

Question 2: Does it matter that Griffin made fun of a religion rather than a specific individual? If you're a member of that religion, you probably don't think so; you would, reasonably, feel as though the remarks were aimed at you and everyone like you. (Nor does the fact that she is lampooning the dominant religion of our culture of much help -- if she had made fun of Judaism or Islam, it would be easier to see the problem but the problem would still be the same.)

Question 3: Does it matter that Griffin was, once upon a time, an adherent of that religion? Black comedians make fun of black people and individuals and as a group, generally with social impunity (think Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle). But I don't think that this helps Griffin much, since she is no longer a Christian and has been public about her atheism.

It's just a fact of life -- or at least a fact of show business -- that you've got to set things up carefully if you're going to make fun of people who aren't like yourself so that any reasonable person watching would be certain that you are really making a joke and intend no offense. For some kinds of people, it's just plain easier to do that than others -- it's easy for Dave Chappelle to set up a joke at the expense of "Black Power" activists because Chappelle is black himself. That doesn't mean that a white or Latino comedian could not necessarily do the same thing, but it would take more work to make clear that the white comedian was not making fun of all black people.

Which is what really got Imus in trouble at the end of the day -- he didn't set up the "nappy-headed hos" joke enough that it was immediately obvious that he didn't take what he was saying seriously. So someone did take what he said seriously, and if you do that, it was pretty offensive. So the real issue is, did Griffin set up her joke enough so that no reasonable person would think she was being serious? Someone took her seriously, and I may not be the best person to judge whether they were reasonable to do so or not.

Either way, Griffin is going to have to accept the fact that she put herself at the center of a controversy, whether it is deserved or not. She took a risk with her joke and this is the downside of that risk. I'm glad to see that she's only getting public disdain for the remark, which is all that Imus should have got for doing pretty much the same thing.

And this is also a good object lesson as to why most celebrity remarks are bland and uninteresting.

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