Ellen, Kevin and Comedy

Kevin Hart is rethinking his decision to quit his gig hosting the Oscars after old, homophobic jokes of his were highlighted on social media, and Ellen DeGeneres is suddenly seeming a lot less Relatable to many for defending Hart on her show.  In an interview airing on Ellen today, the talk show host both gives Kevin Hart a chance to apologize and discuss his old comments, and Ellen goes on to very forcefully urge Hart and the Academy to reconsider Hart hosting the Oscars.

Comedians have been getting in trouble for their words recently, as off color, offensive and potentially hateful jokes that were once accepted without blinking are being viewed in different lights. Louis C.K., attempting to reemerge from the disgrace of finally being forced to confront years of sexual harassment of female comedians (I miss Gawker sometimes), has been roundly condemned again for new material that mocks transgendered teens and the Parkland shooting survivors.  Meanwhile, on ABC, The Connors continues to air as a retooled “Roseanne without Roseanne” as the eponymous jokester was fired from her own show after mocking former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett in a racially offensive way (after a history of right wing and off-putting comments over social media).

Now there’s a big difference between telling offensive jokes and sexually harassing coworkers over whom you have power or influence (and a difference between doing either of those things and defending the careers of people who do).  Nevertheless, these incidents help highlight three things about the comedy and social media communities.

First, it’s sometimes hard (but maybe not too hard) to draw the lines between satire, edgy humor and offensiveness, prejudice or just plain jerkiness, and as culture changes surrounding things like LGBTQ acceptance, sexual violence and harassment, and race, that line is often shifting.

Jerry Seinfeld, who has complained about what he considers the stifling atmospheres in places like college campuses, attempted to draw a pretty permissive but clear line in whether or not a comedian’s joke was a good joke or an unacceptable one: was it funny? For Seinfeld, Roseanne failed because her comment was not funny, and absent humor, it was just an offensive remark: “if it’s offensive and not funny, then it’s not a joke.” (this is also why Seinfeld’s former co-star Michael Richards pretty much ended his stand-up career by repeatedly yelling the N-word at a black heckler (NSFW); turns out a white guy angrily shouting racial slurs at a black man and alluding to lynching him is not funny, which I so could have told him had he bothered to run it by me first).

Second, while I’m not someone who thinks that taking offense or being “politically correct” are bad things (a hateful remark or crappy comment doesn’t become any less so because you Tweet it or say it on stage), it’s also clear that at least some of the critics of these comedians are behaving disingenuously.  Whether or not you consider Hart’s jokes inherently offensive regardless of context or distance – and Hart himself is now saying he was wrong for saying those things – they were homophobic in the literal sense of the word: he was afraid of his children being gay. Yet, as Nick Cannon pointed out, other (white female) comedians have regularly gotten away with making homophobic and otherwise offensive jokes for years (as a teenager, I actually learned a racial slur I had never heard before from a Sarah Silverman routine on late night television), while Hart was singled out after he got the high-profile Oscar job. This is not to give Hart a pass – he said the stuff, regardless of whether others did too – but it’s also useful to think about the motives and larger agendas of individuals operating through social media.

Guardians of the Galaxy Director James Gunn suffered from such an “attack” when right-wing social media figures (including one who is an actual rape apologist because that’s a thing that exists somehow) unearthed old offensive tweets in which Gunn joked about things such as pedophilia (other liberal Hollywood figures were similarly targeted for old comments); Gunn was promptly fired from his Marvel gig by Disney, despite the strong support of all the Guardians cast and Gunn’s seemingly genuine apologies and self-reflections that he had presented years before the controversy rose.  Gunn’s case is particularly problematic; while he had of course made many offensive jokes, he also demonstrated growth as a person (and not the type of PR friendly growth that comes conveniently after a scandal has emerged), and for him to be punished now seems to disincentivize personal reflection and growth.

Third, and partially as a consequence of the first two points, comedians take their identities as comics seriously, and are often very quick to defend their fellow comedians, even in ways that may offend people with whom they share other identities – Ellen risks angering the LGBTQ community to defend Hart; Mo’Nique stood up for her “sister in comedy” Roseanne against accusations that her Jarrett Tweet was sign of racism against black people, and even Louis C.K. still has his defenders in the comedy community.  For fellow comedians, joking is serious business, and while there may need to be some soul-searching about the power and responsibility of telling jokes, the tight-knit comedy community (and their various fandoms) will have to do it collectively.


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