August 5th, 2018 – Fox News recently did a segment on Democratic Socialism where one anchor shared her experience of being in a crowd while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was speaking. She found out that many people started engaging with her campaign for US House of Representatives because they were tired of just being angry and wanted to take action. Her next sentence was “It seems like so much effort to be angry about everything.”
Over the past few weeks, far-right conservatives have put in a lot of effort into being angry about lots of things – primarily old jokes from comedians on Twitter. After Mike Cernovich set his target on James Gunn for loudly rebuking Donald Trump, he went digging and found some old, disgusting tweets from the Guardians of the Galaxy director during 2008 and 2011. They were pedophilia jokes from a time when Gunn says he viewed himself as a provocateur, making jokes simply to get a reaction for shock value.
Disney quickly fired Gunn from the Marvel franchise, and that decision prompted the new arbiters of morality to scan through comedians’ Twitter accounts to find old, offensive jokes that could be used to damage their careers. Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Michael Ian Black, Anthony Jeselnik and many others have found jokes that they made years ago suddenly become relevant in 2018.
I know it can be tiring, but I really don’t have a problem with deep dives into the accounts of public figures. If Andrew Kaczynski’s KFile can be a thing, I suppose we have to put up with Cernovich. The thing is, and I can’t believe how difficult it’s been for people to make this distinction, we have to recognize what’s been done in sincerity and what is being done in terribly bad faith to push an agenda. On Twitter, Cernovich literally refers to himself as a journalist “when I’m in the mood.”
If we’re going to live in a world where we hold people in the public eye to a higher standard, then we should, for the love of God, be honest about why we’re doing that. Let’s truly have a conversation about decency if conservatives are going to continue to selectively excuse certain past indiscretions. Let’s actually understand the nuance, intent, and context around the jokes being told. And let’s know that this battle will likely result in changes we may not like down the road for the comedy world.
Gunn’s jokes were gross. I didn’t find them funny, and honestly the tiredness of the whole idea behind trolling offends me just as much as the content of the joke. I will forever be baffled, though, that we live in a world that fired Gunn from making a movie where a tree-like creature repeatedly says “I am Groot” over some inappropriate jokes, but Donald Trump gets to become President of the United States after admitting that he sexually assaults women.
The debate over decency after Michelle Wolf made jokes about press secretary Sarah Sanders was so eye-roll inducing that I was still barely able to look up what Groot is for the previous paragraph. (This is me admitting that I haven’t seen the Guardians movies.) I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s easier to fight with faux outrage over jokes from a comedian than it is to turn inward and realize that Wolf was trying to highlight the fact that Sanders lies on a daily basis. Let’s truly have a debate over what’s indecent: some crude jokes or policies that lock children away from their parents.
For the record, I’m not saying that comedians should never be fired from jobs because of certain things they’ve said, but false equivalency between being directly racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, etc. to someone or something and crafting a joke about racism, sexuality, religion, etc. doesn’t help in having an honest discussion about decency.
“Some very odd people R saying I’m a pedo, re: a joke from a time not that long ago when hard absurd jokes by comedians were acknowledged for what they were — jokes — not a disengenuous national threat to people fake-clutching their pearls (whilst ranting the country’s too PC).”
Sure, let’s talk about whether or not it was funny, whether that’s a topic that can be joked about, and whether Silverman would make that same joke today. But let’s not try to throw her into the same basket as Roseanne Barr and try to ruin her career.
In 2009, Twitter capped you off at 140 characters, you couldn’t thread tweets, and often times comedians tested out jokes on the platform. My guess is that if Silverman made that joke at a venue during her act, there would have been a lot of follow-up and you would understand why she chose to use such an uncomfortable topic. And, yes, you could still not find it funny, but I would love to swap out the mandatory two-drink minimum at comedy shows with a mandatory two-hour focus on nuance, context and intent after any joke.
All this to say, if we keep spending so much energy on being angry, in bad faith, at every old, bad joke a comedian ever wrote, my guess is that we’re going to have less comedy. Comedians are already touring college campuses less frequently. It may sound overly dramatic to think that your life will be negatively affected by comedians taking a few steps back – I admit that. But I also know that comedians pushing the line have made me think about things in ways I had never done before. I know that even if a joke is bordering on inappropriate and I feel guilty for laughing, it may have been the one thing that turned a day around for me.
Some comedians may keep going full steam ahead. Anthony Jeselnik tweeted “Scrolling through my timeline for offensive tweets is like looking for a needle in a needle store on customer appreciation day.”
But my guess is is that many will pull back. You won’t get to see as much content from them online. You won’t get to engage with them as often on Twitter. You won’t get to see big names try out risky jokes in small venues. You may not get to see up-and-comers you were excited about go further in the industry, and I think these things are worth considering when you act like someone has molested a kid instead of having written an offensive joke.
Comedians misfire, reflect, and evolve – just like you and I do. Patton Oswalt recently discussed his regret about using certain words and targeting groups of people in his past work.
I’d much rather give a comedian a Netflix special after realizing their mistakes than give another four years to a president who excuses sexual assault as “locker room talk.” If we want to keep digging up old jokes, let’s be willing to sift through all of the indecency. Until then, we kinda look like the joke.
Melissa Jordan is a writer in Los Angeles. She loves Murder, She Wrote. She’s bad at Twitter, but you can follow her there if you’d like.